h1

“Full Fibre” Broadband – first impressions

November 11, 2021

Updated 19th November following a visit from a Swish engineer.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Swish Fibre has been digging up the pavements and verges in my neighbourhood recently, with the promise of “full fibre” broadband with speeds of up to 1Gb/s. “Full fibre” is marketing speak for fibre to the premises (FTTP), meaning high speed fibre-optic cable all the way to your house.

Note: What most ISP’s call “Fibre” is actually fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) which is then carried as ADSL over copper – your normal telephone wire – to your house. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because what you have is called “Fibre” that you actually have a fibre connection to your home.

The Swish offering is simple, either 400Mb/s broadband for £45/month or 900Mb/s for £75/month on a rolling one-month contract. If you subscribe for 12 consecutive months Swish will increase your speed to either 500Mb/s or 1Gb/s. This is a symmetric service: upload speeds are the same (similar anyway) as download speeds. This is not usually the case with domestic broadband, indeed the “A” in ADSL stands for “Asymmetric” meaning faster download than upload.

I registered my interest as soon as I was aware of the project, and was recently offered free installation and six months’ free subscription which I thought I’d take up. I was told that many people are trying the 900Mb/s service free, dropping back to 400Mb/s at the end of the free period. I didn’t see the point in this, as I didn’t want to get used to the fastest service and then be disappointed when it dropped back. I also can’t imagine what you’d need 900Mb/s broadband for; so for my free trial I’ve opted for the 400Mb/s service.

What am I comparing it with?

I currently have Sky Superfast Fibre Broadband, which is fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) at the end of my street and then carried over my telephone line. I can usually get 70-80Mb/s down and 18-20Mb/s up. Over my home network, which is a combination of Powerline adapters (yes, I did upgrade them) and Wi-Fi access points, I can achieve around 60Mb/s download, wired or wireless. This, including telephone line rental – necessary for ADSL, costs £32/month, but that’s a special deal, the full cost when that offer expires will be £37/month, so not a lot less than Swish, but Swish doesn’t require, or include a phone line. We hardly use our landline any more, it simply carries the broadband, so I’d probably get rid of the landline if I were to switch to Swish permanently.

First impressions

Installation

This was relatively straightforward, but took about four weeks from placing my order to having working broadband. I recently had an underground cable duct installed to carry my phone line as part of a bigger relandscaping of my front garden, so getting the fibre connection from the Toby box in the pavement (sorry, can’t work out why they’re called that) to my house was trivial.

Toby Box

The way fibre is installed is that the engineers have to connect a small duct from the Omnipoint (where the external fibre connects to the internal fibre) on the outside of your premises, all the way to the fibre distribution point somewhere up the street. Once this duct is connected they blow the fibre filament along the duct. Yes, blow it, with air from a large fan/blower device, the vortex in the pipe carries the fibre filament along. In my case the fibre distribution point was something approaching 200 metres away. However about 75 metres from the distribution point it all stopped. Apparently the infrastructure team which had been tasked with connecting all the intermediate ducts together had missed one, and the fibre could get no further.

A week later the infrastructure team returned to remedy their omission, and about 90 minutes after that another installation team arrived to finish my installation. This went smoothly and within an hour of their arrival I had live full-fibre broadband.

Communication

Could be better. Swish is good at selling but the installation/scheduling team isn’t so good at customer communications. I was told I’d be contacted about a site survey. I wasn’t. Now under the impression nothing had happened I threatened to cancel the whole contract within the period I’m legally allowed to change my mind. Within minutes of this threat a scheduler called me to say they’d done the survey, that mine was a completely standard installation, so installation would be free, and could they install it the following week?

Note: most people don’t have a cable duct, and Swish has been positioning the Toby Box in a location where they expect to dig a trench to the house – unlike conventional copper cable, fibre isn’t self-supporting so it is rarely run overhead unless it has a supporting cable. Digging trenches or running overhead cables will probably be chargeable in addition to the standard installation charge.

After the first installation team hit the “break in the duct” problem they said I’d hear from the scheduler about finishing the installation. I heard nothing, despite emailing her. About a week later a Swish van appeared at the end of my drive to resolve the issue. Only once that had been resolved did anyone contact me regarding reattempting my installation.

Once I’d initially posted this blog I got a lot of communication. Swish certainly monitor social media. I had a call from a senior technician regarding my speed issues and offering to lend me some other equipment. Then I got a call the following day from a scheduler asking if an engineer could call later that day! Well done Swish.

Equipment

The installation requires three bits of kit:

  • An “Omnipoint” on the outside of my house which is where the external fibre meets the internal fibre cable. This is black and about 12cm x 5cm. This is connected by a fine black fibre-optic cable through a hole in the wall of my house to the…
  • Optical Network Termination point (ONT), a white box on the internal wall. This is about 15cm x 10cm x 3cm and is the point where fibre is converted to ethernet.
  • And finally a router (or RG – residential gateway) which has a 4-port switch and a built-in dual-band wireless access point.
ONT box

The ONT and the router each require a power supply, so you need two mains sockets nearby.

The installation team was very happy to install the ONT wherever I wanted it, which in my case was my study, from where I run all the tech in the house. The router can be placed anywhere provided it’s directly connected to the ONT with a Cat6 ethernet cable.

Swish Smart/RG router/ Residential Gateway

Performance

Initially disappointing, but that’s largely been resolved. See the update below.

Running a broadband speed checker, even with only a single device connected by cable to the router, I achieve barely 100Mb/s most of the time. I have managed to get it up to 400Mb/s but only very briefly while downloading a large video file from BBC iPlayer. If the broadband had been running at 400Mb/s continuously then this file should have taken around a minute to download; it took several minutes.

I tried again with a video file from Channel 4. The maximum speed achieved during this download was 80Mb/s, which is exactly what I get with Sky Fibre broadband.

Most of the time, obviously, the broadband is running at a low speed, which is all it needs to deliver the content I normally demand, but I did expect it to leap up to use the maximum available bandwidth when required. But it doesn’t. Maybe BBC and Channel 4 can’t deliver content at that speed?

Network activity while writing this blog post. Peaks at 0.55Mb/s

This means my Powerline and WiFi adapters are not stretched at all. Even with a speed checker I can’t get either of them much over 60Mb/s, and they did that with Sky broadband too.

Yes, they are capable of more. The Powerline adapters are rated at 2000Mb/s, which generally means they’ll achieve around 400Mb/s in the real world, and one of the WiFi adapters is capable of 1300Mb/s.

Even the WiFi access point built into the Swish Smart/RG router can’t deliver more than 120Mb/s on a speed test when I’m sitting next to it. And its range is poor compared to either the Sky router or my Apple Airport Express. It must be noted that the Airport Express has a 100Mb/s ethernet port, so it couldn’t handle the full speed of this connection even if Swish were able to deliver it.

Update 19th November – a visit from a Swish engineer

After initially posting this blog, I was contacted by Swish who said they would like to help resolve the issues I encountered. An engineer arrived to look at my installation today. He swapped the Smart RG router out for a “Plume Pod“, which they tell me is their default choice of router for customers who don’t have their own wireless network/mesh/access points. This is a massive improvement. My wired network is currently getting 400Mb/s everywhere – here’s the test I just ran on my Mac:

The engineer installed two further Plume Pods to replace my WiFi access points with a mesh. In initial use (I’ve been using the new system for a couple of hours) this works well, although the Pods have to be quite close together to build a viable wireless mesh. We tried ethernet cabling to a distant second pod, but it simply wouldn’t connect over the cables I’d installed in the house. The Plume Pods appear incredibly sensitive to the category of ethernet cable and refuse to connect over anything other than full Cat6 cables over any more than a few metres. Cat5E works for short cable runs (in our tests 10 metres or less) but Cat5 is just a no-no. The Plume Pods won’t drop back to a lower speed, it’s gigabit ethernet or nothing. This is only to connect them together. If I connect a Plume Pod to a gigabit switch and then run a Cat 5E cable from that to any devices other than another Pod, it works fine – indeed the speed test I’ve posted above was conducted with my MacBook Pro connected over just such a cable, and I managed to achieve 400Mb/s to my Mac over a long Cat 5 cable. We connected the Plume Pods wirelessly in the end, but because of the separation this required a third, intermediate, Pod. I will be re-cabling with Cat6 very shortly.

I can also now get 400Mb/s wireless speeds! Close to a Pod both my Mac and my iPhone achieve very close to 400Mb/s. My PC is a different issue but we suspect that’s a WiFi drivers or a hardware problem which I’m investigating, however I can wire it and get 400Mb/s. Even my wireless NOW TV Smart sticks are getting between 42 and 68 Mb/s – and they’re hiding behind TVs which doesn’t do anything to improve a wireless connection.

If you subscribe to Swish and get a Plume Pod as a router then that first one is provided free of charge. Any further Plume Pods are chargeable at £90 each (I’ve been lent these for now). To cover my house properly would require a fourth Pod, but for the moment I’m sticking with Powerline adapters to get to the furthest corner. Rated at 2Gb/s the Powerline adapters are currently delivering around 160Mb/s – a bit disappointing but I think this due to the electrical wiring in my house.

After letting the network settle down – apparently it takes a few days to configure itself to the normal network usage – I’ll try some more speed tests. Following that I might try reverting to a single Plume Pod and my original WiFi access points and see what speeds I get with those.

Further updates to follow.

Observations

Things I’ve noticed during this exercise which may help you if you’re looking to install broadband that’s faster than 100Mb/s.

  • Ethernet cables make a huge difference. Replace all your Cat5 cables with either Cat5e or Cat6. For long runs use Cat6.
  • Even if an ethernet cable says Cat5e on it, it may not work at more than 100Mb/s. Test it. Connect it to a gigabit device and to your computer. Both Macs and PCs will show you the speed of connection of a network cable. If it doesn’t show it’s connected at 1000Mb/s then replace it.
  • Speed testing software varies hugely. Don’t believe the first speed you get. Most speed checkers are browser based. To get a more reliable indication, find one that allows you to download an app to run locally. To give you an idea, I ran two speed tests one after the other. The first was the Ookla Mac app, this gave a download speed of 396Mb/s and an upload of 401Mb/s. I then ran the Which? Broadband Speed test app which is browser-based. Same Mac, same cable, moments later, this gives download of 104.5Mb/s and an upload of 359.9Mb/s. Which is right?
  • Make sure all your network infrastructure – computers, WiFi access points, switches, Powerline adapters, ethernet cables, smart TVs and set top boxes, are capable of gigabit speeds.
h1

Some musings on Powerline adapters

July 12, 2021

I’ve been using a set of Powerline adapters in my home for several years. I’ve also recommended Powerline to several of my friends and family to solve networking problems in their homes. But they’re not a panacea for all ills. There are some idiosyncrasies which I discuss here. I hope this proves useful to someone.

Note: I’m writing from a UK perspective. While not a qualified electrician, I’m familiar with UK domestic power wiring (240V). I also have a passing acquaintance with European (Portuguese and Danish, 220V) and US (110V) domestic wiring.

What is Powerline?

Powerline (also known as Homeplug) is a technology that uses the mains power cables in your home to carry computer network signals to deliver a network – usually your broadband connection – to places in your home that are otherwise hard to reach. The signals are carried by a high-frequency radio signal over the copper electrical cables in the wall. It’s a technology designed only for domestic networks. It’s not intended for commercial use.

You plug an Ethernet cable from your router, or a point on your existing network, into one Powerline adapter which is plugged into an electric wall power socket. Then you plug a second adapter into a power socket somewhere else in your home and run an Ethernet cable from it to your remote device, which could be a computer, a wireless access point, a TV or a switch to which you connect other computing devices.

Example of the use of Powerline in a home

What types of Powerline adapters are there?

There are different versions for different power systems including US power plugs, UK power plugs, European (Schuko) power plugs and Australian power plugs.

There are versions that occupy a power socket, and there are versions which present a power socket when they’re plugged in; these are known as “pass through” adapters.

A pair of Powerline pass through adapters (UK version)

And there are different speed adapters. The lowest speed, the original versions, were labelled 200 Megabits per second (Mbps). There are 400Mbps, 500Mbps, 600Mbps, 1000Mbps, 1200Mbps and 2000Mbps versions. But in real life I’ve been unable to achieve anything near the claimed maximum speed, so I’d suggest you use a higher speed version than the network you’re trying to connect. I’m using 2000Mbps adapters to carry a 74Mbps network; my neighbour is using much less expensive 600Mbps adapters to carry a 12Mbps network.

Update: I’ve (possibly temporarily) upgraded my broadband to 400Mbps. This has allowed me to do some further testing of my 2000Mbps Powerline adapters. When they’re plugged into adjoining sockets I can get a full 400Mbps through them, unsurprising perhaps. As I move the second adapter to more and more distant sockets the speed drops. Downstairs it drops to around 200Mbps, and at the farthest point (on this ring main) it drops to 160Mbps. Then I wondered why the PC in that room was getting only 96Mbps… I swapped the ethernet cable for another, also marked Cat5e, and magically the speed increased to 160Mbps. So the rated speed of the Powerline adapter, the quality of the electrical wiring, the distance and the quality of the ethernet cable used for connections all make a difference to the actual speed you can achieve.

There are many Powerline manufacturers. In principle, adapters should all inter-operate, but the whole network may drop back to the speed of the slowest adapter, and each manufacturer has slightly different ways of setting up and configuring devices, so it’s generally easiest to use a set of adapters of the same speed all from the same manufacturer if you can. I’ve deployed TP-Link devices and I’m very happy with the build quality, reliability, operation, configuration and performance.

Some adapters offer more than one Ethernet port, so you can use them as a mini switch, connecting more than one device. Some adapters have a WiFi access point built in, so you can instantly set up a new WiFi network without any other devices, or you can use Powerline adapters to extend an existing WiFi network.

This pair of adapters shows one that combines both multiple Ethernet ports and a wireless access point

Decide how you want to use Powerline in your home and then select appropriate devices.

Will Powerline work on any home electric circuit?

To get the best performance you should plug the Powerline adapters directly into a wall socket – extension cables and particularly surge protection devices will attenuate the signal or even filter it out altogether.

Furthermore, it’s recommended that adapters are plugged into the same electrical circuit. Some houses have a separate circuit (ring main in the UK) upstairs from the one downstairs, and some houses which have been extended may have a separate circuit in the new build from the original building. Almost all houses have a separate circuit for sockets in the kitchen.

This doesn’t mean they won’t work across circuits, but they may not. Much seems to depend on how the circuits are protected. Older fused circuits appear to allow Powerline adapters to work across circuits; mini circuit breakers (MCBs) also seem to work, but residual current devices (RCDs) are more problematic. You may need to borrow a pair of adapters from a friend and try them, or make sure you can return the Powerline adapters to your supplier if they don’t work in your home.

Will Powerline work across phases?

In the UK, almost all domestic properties are supplied with single-phase power, but in other countries three-phase is more usual. Powerline adapters aren’t designed to work across phases, so if you’re trying to use them in a three-phase installation you may need to try and rearrange the circuits so the sockets you are trying to connect are both on the same phase. Consult an electrician.

You may be able to use an additional pair of Powerline adapters to bridge phases – I discuss this in more detail later. If you’re in the USA you may be more likely to get them to work across phases – that’s because you are very likely to have a 3-phase 110V installation and a high-power device that bridges two or even three phases. This may allow the Powerline signals to pass. There’s no hard and fast rule about whether they’ll work or not. You’ll just have to try it.

Are there any problems using Powerline?

Because the signal is carried on domestic wiring by high-frequency radio it may interfere with other devices – radio hams have reported Powerline causing interference with their radio equipment Also Powerline itself can be affected by interference from other devices plugged into the power network – I’ve seen reports that microwave ovens cause interference to the Powerline network when they’re operating.

Is my Powerline network secure?

All Powerline adapters are secured with a private key. They are configured by default with a standard key, so out of the box all adapters should work together, even those from different manufacturers.

It’s unlikely that your signal will pass your electric meter. It is also unlikely to pass onto another electrical phase, so it’s very unlikely that your neighbour will be able to connect to your network. But if you live in an apartment block, or in a shared house, then it may be advisable to change the encryption on your network to avoid possible eavesdropping.

All Powerline adapters support this. You can force one of your adapters to generate a new, random, private key and then pair the others with it. Consult your user’s manual on how to do this as each manufacturer, and even different models, may do it differently.

Can I use more than two adapters?

Yes, you can. If you’re using the default configuration you can simply plug in another adapter. If you’ve changed the encryption you will need to pair the new adapter with one of the existing adapters. Again, consult your user manual(s) on how to do that.

My experience is that adding a third and a fourth adapter worked fine, but more than that degraded performance significantly. I currently use three on my home network. They are all on the same electrical circuit, and with broadband speed at the router of 74Mbps I can achieve a 70Mbps connection at each of the remote adapters.

If I can’t get them to work well across electrical circuits, can I bridge them?

You can, but I’ve tried it in my home and my experience suggests that the performance may still be significantly reduced.

You will need to find a socket on one circuit that’s physically close to a socket on the other circuit, plug a Powerline adapter into each of these, and connect them together with an Ethernet cable.

However, to avoid creating a network loop, which will cause problems, you must arrange that the adapters on one circuit are unable to communicate with those on the other circuit via the electric cabling. To do this pair one set of adapters with a new private key (see above and refer to your user manual). You’ll end up with two adapters on one circuit using default encryption, and two adapters on the other circuit, paired together using a new random private key. Then you connect an adapter on one circuit by Ethernet cable to an adapter on the other circuit, creating a bridge.

I believe it is possible to use a specialist connector to bridge circuits at the fuse box/consumer unit, but I’ve only seen devices that do this for 110V US circuits. I’ve not found a UK 240V or a European 220V version.

Is Powerline better than wireless networking?

This depends on the situation, but in many situations, in my opinion, yes. My networking mantra is, “If you can wire it, wire it”. Connecting networks with physical cables is more reliable, more secure, and usually more performant than wireless.

But if you have multiple electrical circuits and have problems getting Powerline to work effectively then short of running an Ethernet cable round your house – which can be messy and expensive – wireless may be the better solution.

I use both. I prefer Powerline, but I have a room which is on an electrical circuit which won’t work reliably with Powerline from my router no matter how it’s connected. So I’ve installed a wireless repeater to get a decent bandwidth signal to the smart TV in that room.

h1

Why low-cost long-haul airlines will always fail

July 6, 2021

I read an article in the Guardian today about a couple who had booked a transatlantic flight with Norwegian Air. Due to Covid they were unable to go. Ultimately Norwegian cancelled the flight, but this couple unwisely accepted vouchers before this happened. Now Norwegian has withdrawn from transatlantic flghts the couple have a lot of vouchers valid only for European travel.

As the article explains, they were unwise to choose vouchers rather than wait for Norwegian to cancel the flight in which case they’d have been entitled to a full refund. But that’s not the point of my post. The point of my post is that low-cost long-haul carriers will always fail, eventually.

There are lots of previous examples. Laker’s AirTrain was the first of many. Braniff, Wow and others followed. Norwegian is just the latest.

Now Defunct WOW Airlines

You see the low-cost airline model can work for short haul. Most short-haul flights are two hours or less. And short-haul flights usually (for a full-cost carrier) take between 45 minutes and an hour to turn around for the return leg. Low-cost airlines reduce this to about 20 minutes. It can’t be any less because the aircraft brakes have to cool from the landing in order to work effectively in an emergency on take off.

But the advantage is that if your aircraft is flying, on average, 90 minute legs, and turning around in less than 30 minutes, then it can operate up to 12 legs in 24 hours. A full-service carrier flying the same route can fly only 9 legs in the same 24 hours, so the low-cost carrier can get another three plane-loads of people to pay for seats. Of course most aircraft aren’t scheduled fully for 24 hours, but the principle is clear: a low-cost carrier generally can get two extra legs a day from each aircraft it operates.

This, combined with the “no-frills” approach of minimal luggage allowances, all extras to be paid for, having the cabin crew clean the ‘plane and trying to flog lottery tickets and tickets for onward travel on board (on all of which the airline makes a margin) enables them to make the upfront advertised cost of each seat much lower than a full-service airline.

That’s how it works.

But it can’t work in long-haul. In long-haul most aircraft fly one or two legs in 24 hours. So shaving 30 minutes off each turnaround gains an hour a day – not enough to fly another long-haul leg. If airlines operate the latest generation of fuel-efficient aircraft then the no-frills savings and add-on revenues might just make a low-cost airline viable provided all flights operate close to 100% full. But this is tricky at the best of times, often requiring overbooking and then bouncing some passengers off the flight. This doesn’t endear you to your customers, so most full-service airlines aim to achieve an average of better than 80% loading. Low-cost carriers can’t afford loading this low, there just isn’t enough margin on the revenue they generate. Also full-service airlines have premium cabins (Premium Economy, Business and First Class) – this isn’t common on low-cost services, so the additional revenue from premium cabins is denied to them.

Then there’s another problem; having enough aircraft, and crews. If you’re flying short-haul around Europe and one of your ‘planes breaks, then it’s generally not a problem to find another one to rescue the passengers. It’s easier for a full-service airline as their higher revenues means they may well have a spare aircraft available and can call crews up quickly. Low-cost airlines can do it although it may take a bit longer and it may be more effective to rebook your passengers on another airline – or just abandon them, as some low-cost carriers have done in the past .

If you’re flying long-haul then it’s much harder. The larger, full-service airlines can usually find another aircraft although it may take up to 24 hours to get it where it’s needed, as I’ve experienced on a couple of occasions. But when this happened to some friends of mine who were booked to fly on Norwegian to Los Angeles for a wedding, there was no replacement aircraft. They were three days late, ended up flying on a plane chartered by Norwegian as the airline didn’t have a replacement, and they missed the wedding!

Image of a Norwegian Air Boeing Dreamliner
A Norwegian long-haul Boeing Dreamliner

Norwegian has managed to keep operating its long-haul services for longer than most of its predecessors, but that’s mainly because it had a profitable European short-haul business to subsidise the losses. but the Covid pandemic put paid to that. So it’s pulled out of transatlantic flying.

I could have told you it would. In fact I told several people right at the start when Norwegian announced it would be offering low-cost transatlantic travel that this would happen. I couldn’t predict when, but it was going to happen.

I’m reminded of Sir Richard Branson’s famous quote, “The way to make a small fortune with an airline is to start with a large fortune.” He should know. He ended up running a full-service transatlantic airline – very good it is too – but it’s not low-cost.

h1

To fibre, or not to fibre, that is the question

March 19, 2021

OK, I’ll come clean. I already have fibre broadband. That’s FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet). Then the connection from the cabinet on the corner of my street to my house is copper wire multiplexed over my phone landline.

My ISP (Sky) offers a maximum speed of 80Mbps (mega BITS per second), and when I test it with a computer hard-wired to the router I get all of that.

But there’s a chap with a digger making a hole in the pavement outside my house.

He’s a contractor working for Swish Fibre, which is installing an entirely different sort of fibre broadband. This is FTTP (Fibre to the Premises). This means fibre all the way to my house with a potential maximum speed of 1Gbps. I could get the basic 400Mbps version, 5x faster than my current broadband, for not much more a month than I’m currently paying Sky.

Fibre to the premises…



There are, however, some questions which I’m pondering.

Do I still need a landline?

My existing Sky broadband includes an analogue phone line. Of course it does, because it’s the copper wire that connects me to the phone network which also carries the broadband signal from the cabinet to my home. Do I still need a landline? Probably not. I was getting approximately 20 times more scam calls than genuine ones, although Sky Talk Shield has done a brilliant job of stopping those. I think we currently get no more than three landline phone calls a week.

Could I get those people to call our mobiles instead? Yes, I could, and that would solve the problem of the scam calls.

Can I use the extra bandwidth?

At the moment I’m using PowerLine adapters, rated at 500Mbps – which IRL actually means 50-65Mbps. This is OK, it’s almost the full broadband bandwidth. But what’s the point of increasing my broadband connection to 400Mbps if I’m throttling it to 50Mbps internally?

So I’m now debating, do I lash out £200 on some 2000Mbps Powerline adapters which might get much closer to 400Mbps, but I won’t know until I install them? Or do I embark on chasing plaster and drilling walls and installing an internal Cat6 Ethernet network to actually make use of the higher bandwidth?

Do I need this at all?

Or do I admit that, now I’m largely retired, 50Mbps is plenty, and I just stick with FTTC from Sky? In which case I might lash out on some new PowerLine adapters just to get the full 80Mbps over my existing network. Now that seems like an easy way to improve my broadband speed without getting building dust everywhere…

h1

Lack of vision in Apple design

March 3, 2021

Prompted by a question on Quora, I went into a rant about the connectivity, or lack of it, on new MacBooks and the incompatibility of different Apple devices. This is an edited version of my answer.

Today I forgot my Macbook charger, and was only able to charge it with my friend’s Android charger, not my iPhone charger. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t people find that Apple lacks coherence?

I agree with you. Apple probably makes money from this situation by selling its own connectors and adapters, and it maintains control over its “walled garden”. 

I find the incompatibility of USB C with Lightning connectors infuriating. It suggests to me a lack of vision from the company, and hints at silo thinking from the design and product management teams. But it does explain why you get a Lightning to USB C cable with a new iPhone – it’s so you can connect the phone to your Mac. Apple’s assuming you already own a charger from your previous phone, so you can carry on using your old chargers with their old USB A to Lightning connectors to charge the phone.

I currently use a Late 2013 MacBook Pro. It has two USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt/miniDisplayPort ports, a 3.5mm audio socket (which also outputs optical digital audio) an HDMI port and an SD card socket. It also has a MagSafe 2 power connector. It still works perfectly, and I love it, but it’ll be out of support later this year.

2013 MacBook Pro 13″ Retina showing HDMI and SD card sockets

One of the major things that has stopped me upgrading to a new MacBook Pro is the poor connectivity on the new models. With only two USB C ports, one of which you have to use for power, buying the equivalent new model would force me to buy an expensive dock connector, just to replicate some of what I’ve already got.

I understand Apple’s trying to make the new MacBooks as light, and thin, as possible, but in my view this is a triumph of design over utility. I would happily sacrifice a few grams and a couple of millimetres of thickness to avoid having to carry around an expensive bag of adapters that collectively weigh more than the power supply!

I mourn the demise of the MagSafe power connection and the SD card socket. I realise not many people were using the optical digital output – but I do, and I will miss it. I also resent being forced to buy yet another expensive adapter – USB C to 3.5mm – to use my headset. I already own a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter so I can use it on my iPhone!

And, as you suggest, the incompatibility of the ports on a MacBook with the port on an iPhone really rankles. 

Come on Apple, let’s see either a coherent and rational explanation for your choice of ports and connectors, or alternatively some signs of joined-up thinking in product design.

h1

Living with high blood pressure

July 7, 2020

Diagnosis

Back before COVID 19 rendered most GP’s appointments video or email, I went to visit my doctor about a pain in my thumb (it turns out I’d broken it, but that’s not the subject of this story). My doctor said, “Since we haven’t seen you for four years, let’s check you over.”

So she took my blood pressure:     215/125.

That’s high. That’s really really high. It should be no more than 140/90 and ideally 120/80. So mine was approaching double normal. Anyway she smiled, made an appointment for me to see her the following week, and suggested that if, over the weekend, I had the chance to take my blood pressure I should do so.

As it happens it was that weekend that my Danish niece was moving to the UK to attend Canterbury Christchurch University, and we spent some of Saturday trying to find a bank that would open an account for her. We finally succeeded at Barclays (thank you Barclays).

Anyway, the Stroke Association had a stall in the branch and were taking blood pressure measurements. So I got mine taken. Eventually.

They’d been using their blood pressure machines all day so the batteries weren’t fully charged; trying to inflate the cuff to stop my blood flow exhausted the batteries on three of their machines. The fourth worked. On the form they give you, there are four boxes, and they tick one of them:

  • Blood Pressure’s fine
  • Blood Pressure’s slightly raised, make an appointment with your GP to follow up
  • Blood Pressure’s significantly raised, consult your GP urgently
  • Go to A&E IMMEDIATELY!

As you might guess, my form had the bottom one ticked. I declined the visit to A&E as I had the appointment for the following week.

Medication

My GP took blood samples and performed lots of tests. My weight (BMI slightly over 25, but she was happy with that), diet, blood samples, cholesterol, electrolytes, lung capacity and lots of other measures were all perfectly fine. I simply had exceptionally high blood pressure.

So we began “titration” otherwise known as adjusting the dose.

To maintain my blood pressure at a normal level I take three different drugs:

  • Amlodipine – a calcium channel blocker – vasodilator
  • Candesartan – an angiotensin II receptor blocker
  • Bendroflumethiazide – a diuretic (water tablet – makes me pee a lot)

I will probably have to take these for the rest of my life. Luckily I live in the UK, and under our health system, since I’m over 60 years old, I get all of this medication free of charge. My GP explained these work well in combination, are effective, inexpensive and have few side effects (apart from the peeing).

I also check my blood pressure regularly.

She explained the best way to do that is to use a machine with an arm cuff and sit at rest, on an upright chair, such as a dining chair, with my feet on the floor and my legs uncrossed. I shouldn’t take the measurement if I need to pee as this may give a raised reading. I should then take three readings, discard the first one and average the other two.

bp

Arm cuff blood pressure meter

She suggested that wrist blood pressure meters can be inaccurate.

Side effects

I was taking all my medication each morning, then sometimes finding myself light-headed in the evening when I stood up. I mentioned this to my GP who suggested that I split the medication, so I now take Candesartan and the diuretic in the morning, and Amlodipine at night. That solved the problem.

Adherence

Adherence is the medical term for how well I stick to taking my prescribed medication each day. I’m pretty good. I rarely fail to take the medication.

However on days when I’ll be travelling for much of the day (not that often any more), I deliberately skip the diuretic. My pharmacist went apoplectic when I told him this, but I reckon that since my body was used to my blood pressure at 215/125, if it’s now normal but slightly raised for 24 hours I’m not going to come to any harm. And it avoids either my spending the whole journey looking for a loo, or having to carry extra clothes in case of an embarrassing accident.

Also, on the advice of a retired GP friend, I don’t take my morning medication before going for a morning cycle ride – his view was you want as high blood pressure as you can get when you’re vigorously exercising – I take it when I finish. Also I’ve discovered that my blood pressure can drop significantly when I finish exercise, particularly if the weather is very warm, and I don’t want it so low that I pass out.

Other medication

It’s a good idea to be aware how your medication works. The effect of the calcium channel blocker is to expand the blood vessels (vasodilation), this increases the volume of your blood vessels and, assuming the volume of blood they contain remains the same, reduce blood pressure.

There are some common anti-inflammatory medications, including Ibuprofen and Naproxen, which work by constricting the blood vessels. This reverses the effect of the vasodilator and so can increase blood pressure. I take them only very occasionally, and only when absolutely necessary. Again my pharmacist gets very agitated about this, but I think I know what I’m doing – it’s my body after all.

h1

I don’t pay road tax

June 18, 2020

…but then nor do you.

I continue to see claims that cyclists should not be on the road because they don’t pay “road tax” such as this one yesterday which seems to have been subsequently removed:

So let’s get some things straight:

There’s no such thing as “road tax”

There used to be. But it was abolished by Winston Churchill in 1937 and replaced by Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) – a tax that goes straight into the exchequer – it doesn’t directly pay for roads – it wouldn’t be anywhere near enough anyway. The excellent, and ironically named, website I Pay Road Tax, run by transport journalist Carlton Reid, is campaigning for it to be referred to as “car tax” which is effectively what it is.

Roads are funded from general taxation

Anyone who pays VED, income tax, VAT, inheritance tax or a myriad of other taxes is helping to pay for the roads. Roads are a resource legally available to everyone – motorists, delivery drivers, emergency services, the military, motor cyclists, cyclists, pedestrians and soon, probably, e-scooterists (although at the time of writing e-scooters are defined as vehicles and are not legal to use in the UK either on the road or on the pavement – this may soon change).

Update: As of 4th July 2020 it’s legal for hired e-scooters to be used in the UK on roads, cycle lanes and cycle tracks (NOT pavements). Privately owned scooters are still not legal in a public place. You have to be at least 16, hold at least a provisional driving license and are limited to 15.5mph. Helmets are advised but not mandatory.

Bicycles are not liable for VED

VED is a tax based on a vehicle’s emissions. A bike isn’t a vehicle (according to the Road Traffic Act) and it has no emissions. So it’s exempt.

Other exemptions include disabled drivers, electric vehicles, military vehicles and police cars. And pedestrians. Next time Ryan is stopped by the police I suggest he tries telling them they have no right to use the road because they don’t pay “road tax” and see how far he gets.

Also many cyclists also own a motor vehicle, on which they pay VED. And if they’re cycling then their vehicle isn’t clogging up the road, so when you’re driving and you next see a cyclist, don’t think “they don’t pay road tax” think “they’ve left their car at home which leaves more space for me”.

Many cyclists do have insurance

Members of Cycling UK (about 68,400 members) and the London Cycling Campaign (about 11,000) are covered by third-party insurance as a benefit of  their membership. I’m a member of the LCC, so I am covered by third-party insurance when I ride my bike. Many home insurance contents policies also include third-party liability and will therefore cover claims against the policy-holder or members of their household while cycling.

There are some badly-behaved cyclists

I stop at red traffic lights and at pedestrian crossings, but not all cyclists do. Then again not all motorists do. When I cycle commuted across London the vehicles I saw jump red lights most often were buses, taxis and white vans. The police, quite rightly, enforce the law for everyone, however, as Superintendent Andy Cox of the Metropolitan police explains, the police target their resource to maximise road safety:

If you consider countries where cycling is ubiquitous such as Denmark or the Netherlands, there are many fewer instances of badly-behaved cyclists. This is generally because the infrastructure is better suited to cycling. When you’re cycling, stopping and restarting requires a lot of effort, so cyclists will try to avoid this. Some do this by cycling through pedestrians on a crossing or failing to stop at traffic lights. Not a good idea. But better infrastructure which separates bikes from other traffic, and from pedestrians, enables cyclists to keep going. Cycle lanes are good, but those which require the cyclist to give way at every side road (there’s one like that near me between Marlow and Bourne End) and which mixes cyclists and pedestrians are simply not going to get used.

There are other reasons. In Denmark there’s a law of “presumed liability” which means, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, the more vulnerable road user is considered the victim in an accident. So in a cyclist vs pedestrian collision the cyclist is at fault, and in a cyclist vs car, the motorist is at fault. This encourages more considerate behaviour. Also in Denmark if a cyclist is convicted of an offence they can get points on their car driving license, or even lose it. Maybe we should consider some changes to the law like that in the UK?

And finally, some reading…

The previously-mentioned Carlton Reid has written a fascinating book: Roads Were Not Built For Cars – How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring available at your local bookshop, Hive or, if you must, Amazon.

h1

Protect your email with a strong, unique password

April 24, 2020

Some of my friends have asked me recently about computer security, passwords, scams and malware. One thought he had a virus infection on his computer, another had been reposting hoaxes about WhatsApp messages while yet another had received one of these “we’ve got all your details, we’ve videoed you with your own webcam doing embarrassing things; if you don’t pay us money we’ll send the footage to all your contacts” emails. The reason he was particularly concerned was the email included one of his own passwords.

Of course it was a scam; it turned out the scammers had probably got his email and password from the LinkedIn security breach. So I confirmed with him that this wasn’t his email password and then reassured him it was a scam. He changed his email password just to be on the safe side.

Keep your email secure

Before anything like this happens to you, the most important piece of advice I would offer is: make sure your email password is UNIQUE (i.e. you’ve not used it for any other account, anywhere else, ever) and strong (8 or more characters and a mix of at least uppercase letters, lowercase letters and numbers). If it’s not, then I suggest you change it as soon as you can.

Computer with chains and a lock

It’s unwise to use your children’s names and dates of birth. Don’t use “password” “qwerty” or “1234567890” (which are some of the most commonly used passwords).

Why your email?

Because email is the way you reset every other password. If someone hacks into your email account they can change that password, then access every other account you have by going to the website and clicking the “I’ve forgotten my password” link. The site then emails them a reset link. Worse, they could log into your email and automatically forward your emails to themselves, so you don’t know anything’s wrong, but they receive a copy of any email sent to you.

So your email password is, perhaps after your bank, the most important password you use. And it doesn’t require your email provider to be hacked. If a major website is compromised (recent security breaches in the UK include Tesco.com and Carphone Warehouse) the first thing the hackers will do is try each password on the email account associated with it… and if you’ve used the same password for both, then the hackers have access to your email.

How to make a password strong but memorable

My preferred technique is to pick the title of a favourite book, album or song and use that as the key. Let’s consider, for example:

All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey.

(I don’t use this, nor should you, it’s just an example)

Take the initial letters capitalised as in a normal sentence:

AIwfCiy

Substitute some of the letters. For example you could change the “C” of Christmas to X for Xmas, “for” to 4 and “you” to u:

AIw4Xiu

It’s still too short, so add the initials of the artist – MC:

AIw4XiuMC

There you have a pretty strong, apparently random, 9-character password, but because you know the passphrase, you can remember it every time. No one will guess it, nor will it fall to a brute-force “dictionary” attack where hackers try every word in the dictionary.

Some sites require your password to include a special character, if that’s the case you can insert a %, & or @ between the song and the artist:

AIw4Xiu%MC

There you go, the almost perfect password.

Could I make it even more secure?

Yes, you could use what’s known as “Two Factor Authentication” or 2FA. Your online bank already uses this so you’re probably familiar with the concept. When you login you need to provide a second password, or a code texted to your phone. Maybe your bank’s sent you a special authentication device such as the Barclays PINsentry below, or you use an “Authenticator” app which generates a one-time random code. There are several authentication apps. Microsoft includes one in Office 365 (now Microsoft 365)Google has one, and Authy is one of the independent ones.

Sites including PayPal, Twitter and Amazon support the use of Authentication apps for 2FA. Many sites offer a 2FA capability and it’s a good idea to enable it if it’s available.

Barclays PINsentry security device

Barclays PINsentry for two-factor authentication

How to remember all those passwords

Ideally every password you use should be strong and unique, but that’s hard, especially as our memories fade with age. Writing them down, while not a great idea, is better than using the same password everywhere. Use a little notebook and keep it somewhere safe at home – that’s far more secure than re-using passwords. Someone would have to break into your house to get it, and if they do that they’re much more likely to steal the telly! Whatever you do don’t write your passwords on a sticky note on your computer!

Better still, use a Password Manager such as LastPass (there’s a free version for web, PC, Mac, iPhone and Android†) or 1Password (small annual fee) which can securely store all your passwords, generate new unique random ones and fill them in on your phone or computer as you need them. They have extensions for your favourite browser, and you can also access them securely from anywhere when you’re away from home (unlike the notebook under your bed). With a Password Manager you don’t need to remember, or even know, any password other than the master password for the app. Whatever you do, make that strong, unique and don’t forget it!

Should I change my passwords regularly?

It’s fair to say that the IT security industry is divided on this. Provided your password remains strong and unique then there’s benefit in doing so, and some systems require you to do so periodically. The problem is that many of us have lots of accounts, and trying to think of multiple memorable, unique, strong passwords regularly is hard. So many people, when forced to change their password, just use the same set over and over again, or they use the same password but include a number in it and increment the number each time. So being forced to change your password regularly may actually reduce rather than improve your security. Use a Password Manager and you can change your password regularly – in fact some of them will do it for you automatically!

What happens if the Password Manager site is breached?

Yeah, it has happened. Password Managers are, like antivirus software, a prime target for hackers. But it wasn’t a problem because the way Password Managers work is your passwords are securely encrypted with your master password as a key before being stored in the (yet further encrypted) Password Manager database, and are only ever decrypted, as you need them, on the device you’re using. Even the Password Manager doesn’t know your Master Password. So if the Password Manager site is compromised, all the hackers are likely to get is a list of encrypted records, none of which are any use to them.

They must know my password, how else do I log in?

When you first set up your password, the site does something called salting and hashing. Salting adds a string of characters (which may be very long and is usually unique to your user account) to your password before it’s hashed – a type of strong one-way encryption*. The resulting string can’t be reversed, so it’s impossible to work out your password from the salted & hashed string.

All this processing is done on your computer before the result is stored, so your password is never transmitted over the Internet. When you log in, your computer repeats the process and transmits the result which is compared with the stored version. If they match, you’ve entered the correct password and you’re allowed in. If they don’t, you’ve got it wrong. But at no point is your password known to, or stored by the system.

Even if a hacker managed to get hold of your unique salt and the hashing algorithms (as some are reported to have done in the LastPass breach) they’d still wouldn’t have your Master Password, so they’d have to guess it and try salting & hashing it to gain access to your passwords – which is why its still important to make sure your Master Password is strong and unique.

Clever eh? This salting and hashing system is used by many major Internet sites, not just Password Managers. It’s preferred because it doesn’t require the storage of any passwords in clear and it avoids transmitting passwords in clear over the internet. I suspect Tesco and Carphone Warehouse are using it now. If they’re not, they should be.

So keep your passwords, especially your email password, unique and strong, and use a Password Manager, then you can just ignore those scammers!

* For the purists, yes I know it’s not the same as encryption, but this isn’t the place to go into the details of the difference between encryption and hashing.

Update: As of March 17th 2021, LastPass Free is available only on EITHER computer (PC, Mac and Laptop) OR on mobile (phone, tablet and watch) but not both. In order to get it on both you have to upgrade to one of the paid plans such as Premium, Families or Teams. Still good value IMHO.

h1

Is Britain really panic buying and hoarding?

March 22, 2020

Undoubtedly, as the Coronavirus pandemic bites, some people are panic buying and hoarding. And some are bulk buying with the intention of selling goods on at a profit.

But I suspect the shortages in supermarkets are mostly down to something else.

Over the past 15 years, with the increase in the numbers of supermarkets, the growth in cooked-chilled and convenience foods, and the rise of Just Eat and Deliveroo, most people in the UK have been buying tonight’s meal that day, or ordering in. There’s evidence for this. In 2015 Waitrose published a study, reported in the Guardian, that identified exactly this trend.

Over time the supermarkets have adjusted their supply chains to replenish this little-and-often shopping style. Then suddenly we’re all faced with the possibility of being stuck at home for first seven, then 14 days and today, according to the Sunday Times (£) some of us will be told to stay at home for 12 weeks for our own good. Just imagine what happens when we all start to buy seven or fourteen times what we normally buy each day. Plus while take aways are still available, all those people who would eat in pubs and restaurants now can’t. So they’ve also gone food shopping.

I’m old enough to remember the “weekly shop” when we used to go to the supermarket on the way home on a Friday night and buy enough to make meals and have other products for the entire week. But for most families this is a thing of the past.

As a result the demand on the supermarkets’ supply chains has suddenly and massively increased.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said there was “plenty of food” in the supply chain and that the industry was experiencing “a peak in demand “like Christmas . . . without the four-month build-up period”.

Sunday Times, March 22nd 2020

Then the mass media, and social media, haven’t been shy about publishing photos of empty shelves, encouraging those of us sanguine enough to buy what we need for a few days, to rush out and buy more, just in case it’s not available when we need it. They need to publish more of these:

bargain_1894744b-1

A well stocked aisle in a UK supermarket

I’m sure it’ll return to normal, eventually. When either we’ve run out of room at home to store food, or we run out of spare cash or hit the limit on our credit cards. Helen Dickinson (quoted above) estimates there’s £1Bn more food in our homes than there was three weeks ago. Surely we can’t store much more without it going off and being thrown away?

And the cost of food will rise, not only because wholesalers sense an opportunity, and because of shortage, but because the BOGOF* and multi-buy offers normally offered by the supermarkets will be stopped for the time being.

I also suspect (but I have no evidence) that given the logistical constraints on distribution, priority is being given to food products in preference to non-food items such as washing powder. So those items will run short too due to both stocking up and reduced distribution. I’ll leave the last word to former Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King:

“Britain’s food supply chain is under short-term stress, not structural stress,” he said, “Probably 50% of customers are buying twice their usual shop and supermarkets can’t cope with that.”

I hope it all settles down soon, but in the meantime I’ve bought some vegetable seeds which I’ll be planting out over the next few days – well I have lots of time and I’m not supposed to go out unless it’s vital…

*Buy One Get One Free

h1

Football on UK TV at 3pm? Never!

February 15, 2020

It seems perverse to me that in today’s technology and media landscape, with multi-billion pound fees paid for the rights to broadcast live football (soccer, for my transatlantic readers), it’s impossible to watch a live football match on a Saturday at 3pm in the UK unless you’re actually there in the ground, or have privileged access to a TV studio.

Why is there no live football on TV on Saturday afternoons?

The reason is that in the 1960s then Burnley FC chairman Bob Lord convinced other Football League clubs that if live football were available on TV at 3pm on a Saturday – the kick-off time of most football matches at that time – then their fans would stay at home and watch a higher league team on the telly rather than go to the live game. So a law was enacted that prevented the broadcast of any live match between 2:45 and 5:15 on a Saturday. This law is still in place and still observed, even for games being played outside the UK. Pubs in the UK are also unable to stream live matches between those times.

What’s the impact?

This is the reason so many matches are played on Sunday, Monday nights, Tuesday nights, Friday nights and why one Premier League match each Saturday kicks off at 12:30 (currently broadcast live on BT Sport) and another after the blackout at 5:30 (live on Sky Sports).

It’s also the reason that both the BBC and Sky have prime-time TV slots on a Saturday afternoon broadcasting a studio of football pundits all actually watching the live streams of the matches and then recounting to us mortals, who aren’t allowed to see the live action, what’s going on.

BBC football pundits on Final Score

I believe the one thing it does achieve is a substantial audience for the BBC’s Premier League highlights show, Match of the Day, and to a lesser extent the English Football League (EFL) highlights show currently on Quest.

Could it be fixed?

Of course it could. A simple change of the law to repeal this ludicrous rule would enable broadcasters to carry live football on a Saturday afternoon. Would it do what Bob Lord originally suggested and massively reduce attendance at lower league clubs? I don’t believe so, after all when lower league clubs get their matches broadcast live as part of FA Cup coverage, people still go to the games.

Perhaps we could try it as an experiment and revert if Bob Lord’s apocalyptic prediction comes true? But we’ll never know if we don’t try, because this has never been allowed in the UK – the home of football.

Perverse or what?