webpageApparently the fear of leaving hair-straighteners turned on is a widespread phenomenon. My wife certainly suffers from it to a ludicrous degree: pretty much every time she uses them there will be a phone-call or a return home to ensure that the things are indeed off. To limit my frustration, and to mitigate the risk that she ever does leave them turned on I’ve created didmicheleleavethestraighteneron.com. Not only does it let her monitor the state of her straightener, but if she should ever leave it on, she can turn it off remotely. Thank you Z-Wave

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

Finest American Wingnuttery

This morning I received some spam via a comments form on my website. Here it is with identifying information removed so as not to accidentally generate traffic for them:

The 2016 President of the United States is . . . Hillary Clinton!

Did I scare you?

We’re [A Bunch of Delusional Simpletons] and we’re committed to keeping Hillary Clinton out of office in 2016. Unfortunately, if voters do nothing this election cycle, Hillary stands poised to take the presidency.

But you can help! Join us in the fight against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Sign up and be entered to win FREE CCI Mini Mags 22 lr.

Paid for by [A Bunch of Delusional Simpletons] Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. Contributions from foreign nationals or entities are prohibited. Contributions are not tax deductible for federal income tax purposes.

In case you don’t know what “CCI Mini Mags 22 lr.” refers to, allow me to save you the effort of Googling: it’s ammunition for rifles.

So help us defeat Hillary, and we’ll send you some ammunition. Could there possibly be a more perfect example of deranged Tea-Party insanity?
So here’s a challenge: if you can formulate an offer of equal or greater batshit-craziness then please let me know. The best one will win a picture of an Eagle holding an M16 on a Harley Davidson, signed by Donald Trump’s hair.

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

Bottles (1936)

Early Halloween fun – I’ve been trying to find this classic cartoon for years but I didn’t know what it was called. Turns out it’s called “Bottles” and from 1936 – set in a pharmacy after hours, the bottles come alive.

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

How the US Reverse Engineered Soviet Typewriter Bugs

This is a fascinating and in-depth description of how the US uncovered and reverse engineered sophisticated bugs placed in the electric typewriters of embassy staff in Moscow in the late 70s/early 80s.
Bruce Schneier suggests these devices may the worlds first keyloggers and it’s easy to see why. These astounding devices buffered characters typed by the golf-ball and sent them to the soviets using RF burst transmitters. It took 8 years to discover they were there!


Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

Doing your business

Ever since I first encountered the world of business, even from schoolboy dealings with coins and chocolate bars, it made me feel extremely uneasy. Through the passing years my discomfort has slowly transformed itself into a solid loathing for everything even vaguely associated with the term “business”.
To me, business is the art of squeezing money out of something by crushing it until any creativity, humanity and beauty within has been turned to dust. Frequently there is no money to be had in the first place and so the destruction is pointless, except to help power the unrelenting business machine. Despite being created by humans, businesses are inhuman creations that behave like sociopathic monsters. This simile is explored in detail by the film The Corporation. Actually, rather than read my pathetic attempts at spelling something out that to me seems self evident, spare six minutes and watch George Carlin’s masterful description of the ruthless nature of business which not only sums it up but somehow manages to make it funny.

So there’s that. But then there’s the problem that the only way to be taken seriously in this society is to play the business game. At my age, being a techie isn’t really on unless you can bring something really special to the table. I can’t, but I’m persistent and have enough experience to blag my way through technical quagmires by fixing things that can only be fixed by obscure tricks picked up through the years. As a result, I’m still bottom of the ladder but in demand and pretty happy about it. The only fear is that it can’t last: why would someone want an elderly developer, who requires a great deal of sleep and AFK time, rather than a fresh-faced college gobshite who will happily work themselves to death for the tech-glory?

By now I should be managing a team and spending my life in the bizarre rituals and ceremonies of business protocol whilst communicating exclusively with phrases taken from the latest edition of the newspeak business dictionary. But I can’t. Physically, I can’t do it. Every time I attempt to get involved I just feel an overwhelming nausea that disgusts me. Every minute spent talking about the work we should be doing, but aren’t, because we’re talking about it, hurts. I’m not talking about planning, or practical discussions about how to attack the work – it’s the stuff that goes on in the rest of the business side that I can’t abide.

From the outside, the business side of any company looks like a continuous round of closed doors, behind which are endless people-hours of worthless discussions that result in nothing but the occasional egress of weary-looking people who claim to have been put under pressure “from above”. Infrequently, but frequently enough to be a perpetual nuisance, a decision is made during one of these meetings that involves we outsiders performing a task that is apparently the most urgent, high-priority thing in our to-do lists, and we are asked to ignore everything else until this task is completed. Obviously, our to-do lists are comprised of the previous outputs from previous meetings which were, at the time, the most urgent, highest priority things. Additionally, the new tasks are invariably born from terrible ideas, that totally invalidate other tasks on which we have been working. This goes on forever until someone dies, or the company goes bankrupt or gets sold.

How any of this makes money is the biggest mystery of all, but somehow it does. It seems that as long as you perform these rituals, the money just appears. How does talking bollocks produce money? There’s nothing about that in Marx or Keynes is there? I just don’t understand any of it.

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

Gypsy’s kiss

One of the wonderful things about traveling on public transport, that car drivers will never experience, is the joy of discovering you’re sitting in a pool of the previous occupant’s urine. For the whole journey home.
I convinced myself it was simply some spilled Dr Pepper but once I had reached home it became clear, on closer inspection, that it was actually 100% pure tramp’s piss.

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

An open letter to SEPTA


Our relationship has been going on for over seven years now, ever since I moved to Philadelphia, and I‘m sure you’ll agree it’s as strong as ever. As a someone that doesn’t, and never has driven, I’ve been a user of public transport all my life and so I’ve got a lot to thank you for; without you I couldn’t possibly live in Philadelphia. You’ve looked after me and helped me live a comfortable and productive life here, and obviously I’m grateful. You know how strong my feelings are for you and I’m always ready to jump to your defence when people unjustly criticize you or make wrongful allegations. A transportation system is far more complex than most people realise and keeping it working is tough, yet you really do an awesome job and in many ways I’ve found you to be even better than my ex, London Transport. But as with all relationships it’s not perfect, and there are still a couple of things that we need to sort out.

Firstly, your fare and ticketing system. It’s ok for the most part – and I’m not even worried about the prices – must make a change eh? For everyday inner-city travel it works adequately. And if it was 1970, it could even be regarded as quite advanced. You have these tokens that are each valid for a single ride, no matter where you’re going, on the bus or the various types of subway-type systems and that’s great. I can pay cash exact-fare but you want to discourage that because it’s a whole load of aggravation you don’t need, so that will cost more. Yeah I understand that too and so the tokens work, even though I have to make an extra trip on a bus to find somewhere that actually sell the bloody things, since there is nowhere in my neighborhood.

Except for the times when they’re not valid and except on your “Regional Rail”, which is apparently different to the other types of rail, like the trollies.

I’ll overlook that these distinctions are far from obvious from your maps and literature and deal with the everyday experience of living in the Philly area which implies a knowledge of these distinctions.

So, I need to take a couple of buses to work. Easy right? I just need to make sure I buy a metric shed-load of tokens and it’ll cost me two tokens per journey. But what’s that you say? I can save money by getting a “transfer”? Cool! Is that another type of token? No. Cash only and exact fare. Hmm, ok well that’s irritating but you’re doing me a favour price-wise, so fine.
Oh yes, did I mention that one of the buses I need is the 124?

Oh dear. Suddenly, with that simple revelation, all of the harmonious simplicity goes out of the window. The 124 and 125 buses are “special” for some reason. They call them “express” buses but it’s not because they’re turbo-charged or anything – it’s because they go a long distance west on the expressway. Other buses that use the expressway (eg the 9 and the 27) are not “express” and so work normally. Hmm.

For the luxury of travelling to work on an “express” bus, a token must be accompanied by some more cash – there’s no way to do it with tokens. For me, the extra amount is currently around $1.25, which again must be in exact change. So pre-buying a load of tokens is no longer the only thing I have to do – I also have to ensure I have pockets of singles and quarters every day. The good news is I can use a Transfer so my total journey costs a token and $2.25 which is pretty reasonable, it’s just a pain in the arse.

Another bizarre thing about the 124 and the 125 is that the extra cash is required even if you travel within the city limits! From 30th street station to Wissahickon there are several buses available. They all cost a token per ride except the 124 and 125 which require the extra cash! Even though that part of the journey is identical and travels on the same roads and in the same types of buses, if you do it on the 124 and 125 you have to pay extra for the privilege. On being told this by a driver I was incredulous and checked it with several different SEPTA sources who all confirmed that this bizarre charge was correct. Not one could explain why, and not one disagreed when I asked them if they thought it was stupid and unfair.

The reason I need the 124 by the way is that at some point in one of my previous lives I must have done something terrible, and have been punished by the gods into repeatedly having to work in miserable King of Prussia, and the 124 and 125 are the only reasonable methods of getting to work. There’s no train. Yet. I know one is planned and because I’m in my early 40’s I may live long enough to see that line opened if, god forbid, I’m still working in King of bloody Prussia then.

Like all of my fellow passengers I completely rely on these services and therefore so do my employers. A huge number of tech companies are based in that area for some sodding reason and so a big chunk of the economy relies on these buses for those who don’t drive.

Up until now I haven’t mentioned the other method of paying for rides: passes. Obviously, I don’t faff about with tokens and change any more, I use a pass. But unlike just about every other public transportation system in the world, it’s actually more expensive for me to use a pass! Yes I pay for the privilege!

And it’s here where the bizarre fare structure starts to reveal itself.

The regular bus-pass is known as a “Transpass” and if you live and work in the city it does exactly what you’d expect. You can move around on any big bus-like thing with wheels without needing any cash. Except regional rail. You can’t use regional rail. Except on the weekends. I know.

Oh, and it doesn’t work on the 124 or the 125 either! You have to pay the bizarre extra cash like you would with a token. And as the passes are even harder to come by than the tokens it really doesn’t help me much. Again, even if you want to hop on a 124 for a few stops in Center city with a Transpass, you still need to pay the extra cash. That is mental.

King of Prussia is outside of the city limits and into the “zones”, which makes it sounds like some terrible post-apocalyptic nightmare. Which it is. After a great deal of consultation with a number of Septa representatives I’m of the opinion my workplace is in Zone 2. I can’t be sure because I’ve never seen an accurate map of the zones, and even though I believe such a thing exists there’s never been one to hand at any ticket office I’ve ever been present at. I have my faith though.

So I need to up my game if I want a pass, and the best option I have is known as the “Trail Pass”. It is the platinum card of passes and even allows you onto regional rail! But this works out way more than paying for my fares piecemeal. Arrrrgh.

There is, however another option that would appear to be a closely guarded secret: the Cross-County pass. So secret is this card that I’ve had staff at Suburban station swear blind to me that it doesn’t exist.

This pass is specifically designed for people who travel out into the hinterlands and I’ve used it in the past. Despite being much cheaper than the Trailpass, its magic is strong and it too allows travel on Regional Rail and buses, but like all magic it has dangers. The biggest danger being that you can use it with a 124 and 125 without paying an extra fare only if you don’t travel into the city! Which entirely buggers up my reasons for wanting to use it. As soon as the bus hits the expressway I owe an extra $1.25.

There is another method method of getting to work. It would involve getting a train to Norristown, then a bus to King of Prussia Mall, from where I can pick up the 124 for the rest of the journey to my office. All of this without costing me any extra money! But of course it does carry the hidden cost of my will to live.

What’s strange about this journey being valid is that if I paid for it in cash, it would be way more expensive than getting the bus all of the way there! It also allows me to travel right down to the end of my road…because the pass is valid further into Center City on the train than it is on the bus! Again, this sounds absolutely insane, but I have validated that it is indeed the case.

So I can travel from King of Prussia to my house on this pass only if I use the, normally far more expensive, train option. If I want to use the cheaper and more direct bus, I have to pay extra!

So clearly I need to buy a zone 2 Trail pass. This works properly and despite being out of pocket I settle for this option because it removes a massive amount of mental stress caused by my brain trying to work out why the fare system is so arcane. Despite the awesome power of the Trail pass I can no longer use the backup option afforded to me by the Cross-County pass: getting the train via Norristown. Why not? It’s valid on the regional rail after all! Well, it’s because somehow, Norristown is in zone 3. What shape are these bloody zones? But as that’s a last resort route anyway, I’m not too upset.

So SEPTA, that’s the fare structure dealt with. Thanks for listening, and I hope you’re not offended when I refer to your fare system as being “insane” and “mental”. It’s for your own good. But there is another source of concern I feel it’s only fair to address: your parochial attitude! Sometimes it feels as if you’re less of a 21st century transport system in a 1st world city, and more of a peak hours mini-bus service in the backwaters of the Northern Territories of Australia!
It’s 2015 and your phantom “key” service still hasn’t launched and so we’re still having to deal with all this stupid cash and paper nonsense. Tokens in the 21st century? What’s wrong with you? I have to physically travel to a place to buy a pass – have you not heard of the Internet?

And I hate to keep banging on about the 124 and 125 but there is another seriously backwards problem with them: on the journey from King of Prussia to Center City, the bus doesn’t always stop at Wissahickon, a major transfer center. According to your documentation, we have to ask the driver to stop there if that’s where we want to go. “G’day mate, can you drop me off at Dingo Creek as you’re going near there?”
Now, most of your excellent drivers realise that this is ridiculous requirement and always go via Wissahickon because a huge number of people rely on it as an interchange point. Now and again a driver will yell out to the bus as a whole and ask if anyone needs to go there. That’s still backwards, but fair enough – at least we’re given the option.
But occasionally a driver will decide that because nobody has specifically asked them to stop there, obviously no-one is interested and so they go straight to 30th street with a bus-load of pissed off commuters – content in the knowledge that according to the rules, they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, should anyone express dissatisfaction with this state of affairs they will quote the SEPTA regulations at them. Which calms everyone down perfectly as you’d imagine.
How about we drop the “request” service and just stick to the schedules, as if we were living in a civilised 21st century society.

And why are there so few services on the weekends? You do realise that people won’t start to consider public transport as an option if the option is crap don’t you?

So there you have it SEPTA. After all of this negativity it’s important to know that I still love you and will stick with you come what may. But we both know you can be better and if you still want to become one of the world’s flagship Public Transport networks you’re going to have to encourage more people to ride. We can work through this.

I’ll see you Monday morning.

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

Little Boxes

dog kennelNon-Americans: look at this fake house, built out of chipboard and plastic bags. What’s it for, you may be wondering? Is this for a movie set? Perhaps it’s some subterfuge to fool an enemy into bombing a fake encampment; much like the allies did to the Nazis in North Africa, and Sheriff Bart together with “the good folks” of Rock Ridge did in Blazing Saddles?
Well it’s neither of those things.
Do you give up? In fact this is actually how they build houses here in the USA! Really! And these are real houses for people, not dogs or anything like that. Not only that, but when they’ve finished building it they’re going to sell it for half a million dollars! That actual house, there! Not a real house based on that cheap mock-up, that is the actual house!
I don’t blame you for being incredulous, I didn’t believe it at first either but it’s absolutely true.
OK in fairness, the house isn’t finished yet and obviously the finished product won’t look like that. Firstly there will be more of those plastic bags stapled to it. They’re not your normal plastic bags either – over here they call it Tyvek and it’s a bit tougher than than the supermarket jobs obviously. Secondly they’ll cover it in other material like stucco or cheap Aluminium siding to hide the fact the whole thing is made of offcuts from the local lumber yard.
Half a million bucks – amazing isn’t it? It’s only a matter of time before this sketch becomes a reality:

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

New Toybox

Cypress PSOC BLEAnother perk of my new job is that we often get our hands on some interesting hardware, of which this superb little kit is the latest example. It’s a development kit for an amazing little chip from Cypress which, apart from having a full-on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) implementation, contains a Cortex M0 jam-packed with goodies, including most of the radio hardware you’ll need. It’s a great idea because it means that you can create just about any BLE device you could imagine with a single chip and the absolute minimum of external components – no need for an external microcontroller or PHY hardware.

The Kit itself consists of three  devices – one of which is capable of being battery powered and has Arduino compatible I/O ports, an RGB LED, capacitative touch pad, buttons and proximity sensor.

The software is pretty amazing too, but only runs on Winblows. Fortunately it seems to run perfectly on a Virtualbox VM running TinyXP which means I’m happily using it on my old Mac. You design applications by dragging components into a workspace and “wiring” them together on screen. Some of the components are designed to be external (e.g. resistors and LEDs), and some are internal to the chip (for example op-amps and logic gates) but you can hook them up however you like. Obviously, one of the components you have at your disposal is a BLE module, and it comes preloaded with all of the various standard profiles and configurations, so you can literally have it behave as anything you wish from a virtual mouse to a heart rate monitor.

When your design is complete, the software will generate the corresponding code for the device, complete with comprehensive comments, and you can tinker to your hearts delight before building. You can then run and debug it on the hardware. It will even generate a full PDF datasheet for your design that you can then publish to make it look like you’re a proper chip designer who knows what he’s talking about and everything!

So as a result of this I’m very excited and have a new project in mind. OK I’ll shut up now.

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author

Being a Tourrorist

San Jose, from the perspective of a non-driver in my hotel, is exactly the same as San Diego: a fucking horrible set of roads interspersed with malls and business parks. King of Prussia with mountains, palm trees, and mountains. The mountains are in the distance because you can’t walk to them. I tried. That’s another story.

Today we were supposed to start work with the client that was paying for our flights and rooms in this four star hotel, but we didn’t because of some bollocks I still don’t understand. They make so much money that it doesn’t matter apparently. Instead I slept off the bloody awful flights, went for a walk, and then spent the evening in the hotel bar.

The bar is also pretty horrible, with five 50 inch TVs above it forcing the miserable sport of American Football on all clientele. But I am happy as long as I’m left alone to read my books, respond to quiz challenges, and do all of the other things with my phone that keeps me feeling attached to sane people.

Then the drunk guy next to me starts demanding my attention. That’s fine, I understand drunk people, and so I use my drunk translation skills to express un-interest and preoccupation, but he doesn’t take the hint. Oh dear. He must be really gone…

We chat, which involves several circular conversations in which I tell him many times where I’m from, what I do, and why I’m here. He tells me his name, which I decline to print here, and that he is a pilot, for an airline that I also decline to name.

We talk nonsense, have a laugh, and then he notices that my nationality seems incongruent with my stated job as info-security guardian, and goes a bit weird. By this point he is slurring his words and thoughts so apparently that I fear for his passengers tomorrow morning at 10am – the time he told me earlier that he was due to fly. He asks me what clients we work for and I explain that it’s a closely guarded secret. He then turns serious and asks me if we’re working against ISIS! On being informed that we don’t directly work against ISIS, he makes a big, loud joke about how he’s going to call the police by typing 911 into the iArse login box of his iPhone. I play along with his stupid joke and hope that my new colleague, whom I have yet to meet, will appear and rescue me. At this point my opinion of the drunk pilot is that he’s hitting on me. I don’t have a problem with this because by now he knows, or rather would know if he’d actually absorbed anything I’d said to him, that I’m straight and married. So I don’t run away.

My new colleague appears and we recognise each other by the vague descriptions we gave each other over the phone a while before. I enthusiastically invite him to sit down at the bar and we talk nerdy stuff – he’s an awesome guy it transpires and we have a lot to talk about. Our drunken pilot friend meanwhile amuses himself by putting his head in his hands and murmuring to himself. As my colleague and I begin to bond about microcontrollers, Flight-Captain Pisshead clambers off of his bar stool, puts down some money, leaves the rest of his glass of Chardonnay and shambles off to talk to the bar staff. My new geek friend and I move on to discussing SDR, and begin to enjoy ourselves, especially as Orville Wrong is observed to depart the vicinity.

The geek-fuelled chatter continues now that the mad bloke has departed and it is a while later before I ask Mine Host if the Flying Sotsman was alright, and whether he had spoken about us. He laughed sheepishly before explaining that we had both been reported to the hotel management as terrorists!

As unlikely as this seems, we really had been reported to the hotel manager as terrorist suspects and, frankly, I’m surprised we’re both not incarcerated at this moment. Luckily his demeanor of an incapable drunk did not convince anyone of his theory. I only hope that by 10 am tomorrow – in 12 hours time – he has his shit together enough to pilot a plane load of passengers across the country.

Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditFlattr the author