Saturday, 30 November 2013

Extrudicate

So, I now have a Makerbot scanner as well, and decided to do a better job of a Dalek than could be found on thingiverse. My main issue with the one on thingiverse is that I can't seem to edit it - it appears to be a flawed STL. What I want is an openscad engineering model for a Dalek so I can do things with it.

So, a good start was having a Dalek to play with. I did find a "how to build a dalek", which is a scan of a BBC publication explaining how to cut bits of 15mm ply and make a Dalek. The only issue was that it was wrong - it did not even agree with the pictures in the instructions. It does not even have enough balls.

Fortunately I have a bubble bath Dalek, which seems to match the Daleks on TV quite well. It has the right number of balls, at least :-)



So, I scanned it - did not work. So I got a can of white spray paint... Then scanned it... Much better, but still not very good. Usable as a reference.


Then, with the aid of some digital callipers, and a time consuming afternoon, I managed to make an openscad model. The scan helped ensure the overall model fitted in with reality.


This means I can make the top, the base, the weapons, all separately. It means I can make things like a Dalek salt shaker.


The only down side is being a bit of a perfectionist I keep tweaking the openscad to make it just a bit better. I have updated my model on thingiverse several times just today. This 3D stuff eats time :-)

It is fun though.

I still have a long way to go before I am a master at this. Just see this heart on thingiverse.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Still no day in court

It seems my letters to Tesco and Morrison's about Fuel Card spam emails I received were simple forwarded to fuel card services.

Initially they argued that they were acting legally, then sent to a director, and then made an offer with a 2 day time limit. Only catch is that the offer was not actually attached so I have no idea what it was. I did not agree it, but now, some weeks later, £50 has appeared in my account from them.

One of these days I will get one of these to court.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

BT & Huawei working with us

Well, I am pleased to say that BT & Huawei are actually working with us to try and track down the issue with FTTC modems.

We have also managed to confirm the issue on a BT Retail FTTC (fixed IP) line as well. It is very specific, and relates to PPPoE over an FTTC link, where recent IP/port combinations stop working after a PPPoE reconnect, but start if the Ethernet port is disconnected and reconnected.

We had several engineers at our offices working with us today, and engineers from BT at the exchange and Huawei in China on the phone as well. After several hours working with Paul we can confirm that they have managed to identify the problem and reproduce it in their labs.

Now we wait for a fix to be released and rolled out - no idea on timescales yet. We'll keep a close eye on it.

Once again, with all the ISPs and all the FTTCs lines in the country, it is A&A that are leading the way identifying issues like this and working with BT to resolve them. We are very pleased that it is actually taken seriously by both BT and Huawei.

Thanks to the customers who reported the issue and helped us pin it down, and well done to Paul in our offices for diligently identifying the issue and working with BT and Huawei to help them find the cause.

Brave move

Our prime minister is reported as saying that the same filters used to block porn sites will be used to block extremist web sites. Hansard definitely reports that he is talking of "blocking online sites".

Update: We can't find a proper source for the idea that the porn filtering will be used for this. It makes sense, having badgered large ISPs to have filtering at all, but we cannot find the actual source of that connection.

This is quite brave really. After all, we are not China, or North Korea, yet our prime minister seems to be scared of some people's views, so scared that he is prepared to mess with national communications infrastructure to block the public seeing these views.

I was under the impression that we were all responsible enough to make our own mind up over what we choose to believe when exposed to other peoples views, no matter how extreme they are, but no, apparently we need a Nanny State.

I was under the impression that holding views and expressing them was a basic human right, no matter how extreme or crazy those views are... but no, apparently not! Not if your views are too extreme.

Really, is this how we do things now? Silence the extreme views; Ban wrong thinking; Herd the population like sheep and make sure they can only see the right views and right thinking to ensure they do not form their own opinion of anything.

Of course, this will not stop extremist views, or stop people accessing web sites - no blocks will be able to do that short of making the Internet totally unusable. What this will do is give such sites a huge stamp of credibility for being so dangerous in their views that the prime minister is scared of them. Any site with any "anti government" viewpoint will want that stamp of credibility, and will just publish links via google translate or other proxies so everyone can see their views. Or are we banning google translate as well now?

It does rather expose the real reason for these calls for filters - many of us said this was just to ensure every ISP has a filtering system in place so that the filters could be extended bit by bit. I am surprised that the prime minister has not even waited for the major ISPs to all have the porn filters in place before showing his hand and extending the remit to cover extremist web sites. There is a fine line between extremist and minority, and it is always one small reasonable step forward to add the next level of unapproved viewpoints to the list, especially when the list of banned sites will not be under any supervision or scrutiny.

Maybe I was wrong, maybe we are in North Korea after all. A&A still have no filters, and short of some very well written laws, we won't.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Section 97A orders

As reported by ISP review, a number of UK ISPs are having to block yet more web sites.

An example is SolarMovie who appear to be site that streams films directly, rather than a file sharing or download site.

This seems to follow a trend of court orders issued under section 97A of The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 which includes the infamous Pirate Bay, blocks for which are clearly completely ineffectual.

However, what is interesting here is a judgement in April, which basically puts simply using the Internet to access material on the Internet as outside the scope of copyright. It is not "copying", it is accessing the information remotely.

The logic is similar to the fact that a person reading an illegitimate copy of a book is not themselves breaching copyright by so reading it. Accessing material (even with the inherent copying and caching in transmission) is not breaching copyright.

But this has implications for section 97A orders, surely. These orders are based on 97A(1): "The High Court (in Scotland, the Court of Session) shall have power to grant an injunction against a service provider, where that service provider has actual knowledge of another person using their service to infringe copyright."

But in this case the is no person "using the service" to infringe copyright. The user of the ISP's service is not in fact infringing because it is a streaming site.

So does that mean the section 97A orders are not in fact valid against streaming sites?

The wording of 97A makes sense, as if the customers of the ISP are not infringing copyright, why would the ISP be burdened with court orders. Ideally the copyright holders should take action against the site itself that is almost certainly breaching copyright by "broadcasting" or "distributing" content without the licence. Of course, if, in the country in which the server is hosted, such actions are not a breach (e.g. because for personal use) it could be that there is no copyright breach at all, but certainly there is no infringing by the users of the ISPs service. So 97A should not apply.

I am not a lawyer, but that is how it seems to me. Comments?

Friday, 22 November 2013

Oh, no ADR for me!

Well, I complained about the complaint handling process, which is something I can complain about according to the Comms Act, and I complained about the service, which is again something I can complain about, but this is what the Ombudsman service had to say!

Shame they were not so dismissive when someone complained about A&A.


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Duty of Care

I am having some interesting discussions with the ADR provider we now use, CISAS, over a particular aspect of the Communications Act and the service they offer.

Specifically, they can handle disputes in three specific areas, being the bills we have issued, the actual communications service we provide, and "customer service".

This last point is a tricky one for many reasons. I am querying it specifically with them, mainly because the Comms Act covers complaints made by prospective customers. After some discussion CISAS do agree that someone who is not actually buying service yet could only make a "customer service" complaint as they would have had no bill and not had a service to complain about.

So the issue of complaints over "customer service" needs more careful understanding. This is where it gets fun.

A&A have very explicit contract terms covering compensation for poor customer service. Specifically, there is none. A failure in customer service harms our reputation, but we don't compensate for it. We don't charge for the "customer service" aspect of what we provide either. CISAS did come up with examples, such as being rude to a customer or prospective customer, as being poor customer service.

Now, my view on this is simple. Customer service is all about making the customer happy. If a customer perceives that they have received poor customer service, then, by definition, they have. It does not matter who is "right". At the end of the day we would have failed to keep them happy. Customer service is all about perception of the customer.

So, if anyone claims to have received poor customer service then we will, of course, try and address that to improve what we do, and apologise, but fundamentally we have to agree that we did indeed provide poor customer service. So, there is no dispute. We would be 100% agreeing with the customer service complaint. And as CISAS only handle "disputes" there can be no case to take to CISAS if we agree all "customer service" complaints. I am awaiting CISAS's comments on that one.

Obviously someone may say "I had poor customer service, compensate me for that" to which the answer is "the contractually agreed compensation for poor customer service is zero". If they don't agree then we have a "contract dispute" and not a "customer service" dispute, which CISAS do not handle. Again, waiting for them to answer on that one.

But then I did ask more about this, and particularly covering prospective customers. CISAS said the arbitrator consider our "duty of care" when providing customer service. I asked where this comes from, and their answer surprised me. They say "This 'duty of care' derives from the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, section 13 of which places an obligation on all businesses that supply services to customers to "carry out the service with reasonable care and skill". This duty extends to the level of customer care provided. This duty also applies regardless of what the Terms and Conditions of a particular provider's contract states, and cannot be abrogated."

Well, that is a an odd one. For a start, that Act specifically relates to a contract for services having an implied term to carry out the service with reasonable care and skill, but for prospective customers we do not (yet) have a contract, so we have no obligation to use reasonable skill and care (yet). The obligation is specifically part of the contract. Waiting for an answer on that!

Also, the Act specifically allows implied terms to be explicitly agreed out of the contract. Now, the reason they comment on this duty of care not being abrogated is that we pointed out our terms say we will be rude and unhelpful. Well, the Act they quote allows us to vary those implied terms in our contract. We have asked about that too.

And finally, the Act covers there service we are contracting for, e.g. "broadband". It does not cover "customer service". Even if it did, "customer service" is not a communications service, so not covered by CISAS anyway.

I have to wonder what would happen if a separate company handled all marketing and pre-sales enquiries. One that does not sell communications services, just finalises the contract between the customer and A&A, and as such does not need to be a CISAS member. In that case any complaint from a prospective customer is rejected as the party giving the poor "customer service" would not be A&A and would not be a CISAS member.

So it sounds like they are struggling to find the basis for considering "customer service" issues at all, let alone the question of "customer service" for someone that is not a customer yet!

It makes sense - good customer service has never been a contract or compensation thing - it is a matter of reputation and good business. I reserve my right to be rude to a customer or prospective customer, even if I never expect to do so.

From what I can see we have no duty of care to provide "customer service". The Comms Act does mean we have to have a complaints procedure relating to customer services issues, which we do as we receive the complaint, agree it, apologise, and pay zero compensation.

But if CISAS cannot back up their claims that there is a "duty of care", then what then? Will they stop taking customer service complaints?

I'll post more when they have stopped wriggling. It is much more fun when we don't have an actual ADR complaint in progress!

Just to add - I am not saying we want to provide poor customer service - obviously. We try to provide the best customer service possible. What I am saying is I do not want someone to be able to blackmail me to the tune of over £300 because they say we offered poor customer service, especially if they are not even a customer! At the moment, that risk exists, and I feel strongly that it should not. It just makes no sense.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

WTF LG

Err? "Collection of watching info: On"

And greyed out, so no option to turn off?

WTF LG? Really?


Update: There are legal issues here. If I, as the installer, click "accept" on some LG terms that allow details of my viewing to be sent, I cannot necessarily enter in to any contract on behalf of other users of the TV in my household. If they change channel and the TV tells LG, that may be a criminal offence by LG for that to have happened as they have no consent to such data collection from that person. Criminal!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Dear OFCOM

I have asked you before about this - it seems O2 are offering a
service which uses 07 numbers and allows calls to go to PCs which are
connected without the means of wireless telegraphy, contrary to the
national numbering plan and as such contrary to the general conditions
and ultimately the Telecommunications Act.

I had assumed that you had relaxed the rules in the numbering plan to
allow this, and asked about such relaxation of the rules, but still
have had no reply from OFCOM on this.

So, how exactly do I ask OFCOM, formally, and on the record, to explain...

1. Have OFCOM relaxed the rules for use of 07 numbering to allow O2's
TU Go service?

2. If so, then how exactly, and where is this published. We'd like to
do the same and need to know exactly how the rules now work.

3. If not, then how exactly are O2 offering this service without
losing their licence to operate a telco, exactly, as we would like to
do the same and want to know exactly how one does this?

I look forward to your formal reply which I can publish.

Regards.
-- Adrian.
 

It is worth explaining this in slightly more detail. OFCOM have rules which they are allowed to impose because of the Telecommunications Act. They have rules for 07 mobile numbers which require that every call must involve wireless telegraphy to a device that can be used while mobile.

You can vaguely understand the logic of this rule when calls to mobiles were very expense as the mobile operators had the cost of building a mobile network. If not, then the mobile operators could make the revenue for a mobile call without the costs, a sort of back-door premium rate service.

The idea is obsolete now, as mobile calls are so much cheaper now, but even when it seemed like a good idea it was very flawed.
  • Many mobile operators have their call centres within their mobile range, and so they make money for a terminating a mobile call without the costs. This is still the case now, and is against OFCOM rules, but OFCOM do nothing.
  • Mobile calls can go to voicemail - indeed this is not only on by default on most networks but hard to turn off. This gets them revenue for the call, and (in many cases) revenue when someone picks up the voicemail (especially if picked up from a landline), and for a further call that is often needed. Again, this is against OFCOM rules, and OFCOM do nothing.
  • Call diversion to any non mobile gets them revenue for the incoming call and the diverting leg, and again is against OFCOM rules, and OFCOM do nothing.
  • And now, O2 are routing calls and texts to PCs that may not be even on wifi, so again breaking OFCOM rules.
Ideally OFCOM should scrap the rule now - it is not really needed now, it is not helping, being ignored by OFCOM in relation to larger telcos, and stifles innovation. After all the O2 service is quite cool (even if A&A were doing it way before O2).

What is odd is that OFCOM simply don't answer the questions when you ask. We have asked how the existing operators are allowed to do voicemail and call divert - no answer. We have asked how O2 run Tu Go, no answer. OFCOM seem allowed to ignore their own rules, or rather, enforce them against some operators and not others, but then are allowed to completely ignore inconvenient questions on the matter.

Learning OpenSCAD

I have been using openscad to make 3D models, now that I have something reliable on which to print them. It is a scripted CAD system, which is nice. It has basic primitives for 2D (circle, square, etc) and 3D (sphere, cube, cylinder), basic transformations (rotate, scale, translate), and Boolean operators (intersection, union, difference) which allow complex shapes to be combined. It also has basic program control (loops, conditionals) and variables as well as functions/modules and means to include them from files allowing libraries to be created. Overall it is pretty damn impressive.

Of course, even given the basics, one has to learn programming techniques that make sense with any new language.

There are a couple of rather fun functions, one is hull which makes a convex hull of a set of objects, and minkowski which creates a Minkowski sum of a set of objects.

Example of hull() on two spheres
The hull function is very useful for constructing more complex objects. E.g. what if you want a cylinder with rounded ends? You could make two spheres, and a cylinder jointing them, or just make a hull of the two spheres. If you are joining several simple objects using the hull function you can create quick complex objects with rounded corners and seamless joins.

Example of angular shape Minkowski with a sphere.
The other function, minkowski, I had to look up. It effectively means creating the object that is the union of one object when repositioned at an origin in every place within another object. This sounds complex, but can allow some very simple tricks. Even if you want to grow an object by a defined amount, just minkowski a sphere with the object. The only catch is that it can take a lot of time to calculate. The good news is that openscan is smart enough to cache the minkowski functions, allowing you to redraw quickly as long as you have not changed that part of the design (it may cache lost more, but this is where it is most noticeable).

Now, this growing a shape a bit trick is actually quite useful if you want to print two things that do not quite touch. For example a hinge. I printed a letter box and the hinge is a block with a cone each end, and needs a hole in the surrounding to match, but there has to be a clearance so they are not printed as one solid lump. I found 0.5mm clearance to be fine.

So I made a function for the flap with the hinge, and then used it with the difference function to make a hole in the surrounding. I used minkowski to make it 0.5mm larger all round to create the clearance, and even included versions rotated at 45 degrees and 90 degrees to ensure the hole covered the flap when open as well as closed.
I actually used a minkowski with a cube and not a sphere for the simple reason of speed. Openscad allows you to define how many parts are used to make a sphere, but even with very few the minkowski sum takes ages, and a sphere does the job fine for just making consistent clearance.

I am sure I will learn more tricks over time.

[P.S. I know that buying a letterbox from homebase would be a lot cheaper and quicker, but I would learn nothing, OK, so don't even say it]

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Something useful

So, the printer has a door, which has a catch, which broke.

For a long time we have had tape over it, but that has to be removed if ever there is a paper jam, and tends to come undone anyway, it is a pain.

Now I have a 3D printer... So a bit of work on openscad.

Now, send to print...

Original (broken) on left, new one on right.
And it works!


Update: I will find my micrometer, but I bet the metal rod was not 6mm but was 1/4", which explains why I had to make the hole larger, eventually 6.4mm (1/4" is 6.35mm). So sounds like the printing is in fact spot on.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Back to the 3D

A couple of years ago I made a Shapercube 3D printer. I posted several blogs on it, and the software design for slicing 3D image files and plotting the extruder path. I made it from a kit, soldering the components, and setting fire to some as well. I spent weeks on it and learned a hell of a lot. It really was very educational.

I progressed it to the stage of a working 3D printer, but far from "plug and play". It needed careful attention and could not usually be trusted to print something right first time, especially from cold.

Over two years on and things have changed a lot. A lot of people have had a lot of practice with this stuff now.

I have now bought an "off the shelf" ready built 3D printer. I chose the Makerbot Replicator 2. It arrived next day. I plugged it in, followed the on-screen setup, and printed a test object (chain link). It worked.

The weeks of working on a 3D printer make me really appreciate that this was no simple task for the manufacturers. I am impressed.

So, I plugged in my Mac laptop, downloaded the app from the makerbot site, opened one of the 3D models I had from before (a gear), pressed print. It printed, flawlessly.

I loaded a more complex model, a die cube. This is more complex as it needs a support layer internally for the dimples on the top. I pressed print, and it printed, flawlessly.

Finally I loaded a TARDIS, selected high resolution, printed. It is nearly flawless - some whisps of plastic around the window frames which I suspect could be fixed with a slight tweak of the design. They came off and left it equally flawless. It took 3 hours and is very high resolution!

I am at a loss for words - the technology is just plug and play now. It really is.

What does this mean?

Well, last time I got to a stage where I was spending the time on the printer and software and not actually looking at making any 3D models. I designed a gear, a die, a TARDIS, and a hopper extension for the coffee machine. It was so much work actually printing anything I did no more.

Now I have a reliable printer I can work on some actual 3D models of stuff. We have a number of things that are practical, and could be fun to design. I'll post more when I have done some.

It also means we can offer printing services at A&A, so we'll make some prices, probably based on machine time (like we do for laser cutting and engraving services).

Why a MakerBot?

You may well ask why I got a MakerBot and not something else. There are some alternatives, and the main contender is the Ultimaker. The Ultimaker has a larger bed and boasts an impossibly high resolution. It is about the same price (around £2,000 inc VAT). The ultimaker has open source s/w and works on linux as well as windows and Mac. The Makerbot is windows and Mac only.

In fact, I did order an Ultimaker. They charged my card, and nothing?! It was not until I called (they ignored my email) that I found it was going to be two weeks. Then they told me 4 weeks. Finally I gave in and cancelled and now they say it will be weeks before I get my refund!!! Not impressed.

But there are other concerns now. I had seen the Makerbot in operation at IPExpo, but have not seen the Ultimaker. I did however try the Ultimaker software (cura). It looks slick, and does actually forecast the time taken which Makerbot could really do with. But I looked at what it would do with the die cube and I could see it was trying to print on thin air without the necessary internal support needed. It also failed on on the TARDIS model completely. I really have no confidence that it will "just work". I welcome reports from anyone with one.

So, overall, at this stage I would have to recommend the Makerbot. They do also have a dual extruder model which is marked experimental, which maybe I'll upgrade to some time. Dual feeds allows two colour, or, more usefully, a dissolvable filament allowing otherwise impossible prints that have separated parts and flying parts printed in place with dissolvable supports, even in closed enclosures. For now I am sticking to the standard model, the Replicator 2.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Clueless API

We have been working on the idea of an API for true main A&A control systems (known as "clueless"). The problem is that it is potentially quite a complex project and so we struggle to start it.

However, following on from my comment on banks, it is a fair comment to ask what A&A can do.

So, one simple idea is we do the same - a simple email every day or week or whatever with an XML of various data. This could include the usage stats, and perhaps the data we get on talk talk lines for attenuation and margins. As XML it is relatively easy to add more data later.

So, we'll look in to doing that. It would be interesting to hear from customers what data they would like.

This will save some people screen scraping clueless's web interface, and means we can send the data as a background batch job and reduce load.

Obviously encryption may be sensible too. We need to sort a way to log customer PGP keys sensibly, and allow them to be updated, etc.

Why not just email me an encrypted XML bank statements every day?

I am really fed up with banks not making it easy to get your banking data. I want the data for business and for personal accounts every banking day.

The really simple thing that the bank could do is simply email an encrypted XML statement of the days transactions after closing the banking day.
  1. It saves banks resources as it is done on the banks timescale, not having to handle peak load from customers as happens with on-line banking. It is a traditional batch processing job which banks know and love.
  2. It does not allow any control of the account just the data, but it is safe as it is encrypted.
  3. Using XML is easy, extensible, and allows anyone to machine process the data simply. It would allow more data (such as sending sort-code/account) and properly formatted data.
  4. The data could go to authorised parties such as accountants without giving up on-line banking login details.
Ultimately it will save resources for the bank as it will reduce load on on-line banking.

Of course, this is just a first step. I would like live data of transactions during the day, especially incoming fast payments. That would require a more detailed API where the bank push the data to me. Ultimately, including things like card authorisations, would help tackle fraud and save the bank money. Even if they emailed an encrypted file when transactions come in, it would work well enough. Email is simple and reliable and again a batch processing function, but can also be very quick.

Ultimately, things like account transfers and payments via an API would be useful, but this could even just be a matter of allowing something relatively safe to be automated like inter-account transfers.

Apparently there are third party companies that already screen scrape data feeds from banks. It seems the banks do not approve, and it means giving your on-line banking details to them, breaking terms with the bank and possibly causing problems if there is any fraud later. There are even people that sell anti-screen-scraping systems to help the banks and the like avoid the "problem". The solution is for the banks to provide an official API or data feed and that would put these companies out of business over night.

If there is a bank that does this - someone tell me - I'd be prepared to consider moving all our accounts for a proper API.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Fuel card spam - seems they just cave!

My reply to them:-

Thank you for your letter.

I am rather puzzled by "We do everything in our control to ensure that we do not send any unwanted e mails i.e. we always ensure that we follow strict processes and will only purchase data from reputable sources who guarantee that addresses are not unsolicited as your letter suggests."

You cannot "purchase" my email address in any way that allows you to send such emails.

For you to comply with the law *you* would need consent from *me*. No consent I give to a third party meets that. Any consent I give to some third party (which I have not) is not something you can buy. I am concerned that you do not understand this point. None of the addresses you buy that may be individual subscribers can legally be sent unsolicited marketing emails.

Any email address you have purchased that is an individual subscriber and to which you send unsolicited marketing emails means you are criminally breaking the law. It is as simple as that. It makes you a criminal. And it means the victim can claim compensation as well as requiring the ICO to exercise enforcement action and pursue criminal charges and penalties.

If you are agreeing to comply with the law, and pay me the amount you offer of £50, I am prepared to agree that I will not pursue a claim against you in the county court for compensation for your emails to me at adrian@titanic.co.uk, advertising a fuel card/discount for WM Morrisons fuel purchases.

Payment will need to be made to myself by bank transfer, sort code 20-16-99, 20556858, ref PENC-MORRISON.

From Russia with love

I decided to take my wife away for a nice weekend in St.Petersburg.

RUSSIAN VISA

A good start is flight and hotel, which is easy enough, but it turns out you need a visa to go to Russia. I have never had to apply for a visa before, so this was all a bit new.

The first problem was that I nearly got caught out by one of the many visa companies, with convincing names, that are just companies that will get your visa for you. My understanding is that these companies are useful in some cases - like when you need visas to cross a number of countries as they will quite literally walk the visa application embassy to embassy and sort it all. However, for a simple Russian visa they add nothing. The big hassle is the visa application, which has to be on-line. They cannot do that for you, and once done you can post or hand deliver to the visa processing centre in London. There really is no added benefit paying a visa company to do it for that.

But the application is hassle. It is a lot of paperwork and took me all afternoon for myself and Sandra just for the form. It was especially difficult for a pedant such as myself as the questions were not entirely clear. Like "List all educational establishments you attended except high school" - err - so include primary school? What of the week I spent on a course in Edinburgh? I ended up being pragmatic and just listing Brum Uni. But they wanted all organisations I have ever supported or been a member of - I left blank but I have been in Brum Students uni and many other minor "organisations". They say that errors or omissions could be a break of Russian law, so not nice. They even asked for all countries visited in last 10 years with dates, FFS. I had to go through my photos to tell and I am pretty sure I missed the odd day trip to Amsterdam to install kit in a data centre. I tried my best.

I was nearly thwarted as the web site did say company directors working from home and self employed has to submit bank statements but the paperwork had a comma after "directors" so affected me! I realised (and they confirmed when I handed in, in London) that company directors need bank statements for 3 months to show a certain balance. That nearly screwed me as I run my main account at £0 with a big overdraft limit and a small shell script to shuffle stuff from mortgage account as needed (which is very negative until I pay it off). I was half expecting to have to resign as director for a few days while applying for a visa so I could correctly and honestly say not a director. Thankfully I have a joint account that was in credit. Even so I had to print and get bank to stamp it as authentic so more wasted time. What gets me here is that any one-man-band could resign for a few days to game the form, so why do they ask? They ask loads of crap which either they can (a) verify independently (so why ask), or (b) cannot (so why trust the answers). It is a total waste of time. Anyway, next time, it should be simpler. You end up with a single visit visa. I had to get the hotel to send an invitation to Russia to support the visa application, which they did with no problem (but were geared up for fax not email, but coped).

FLIGHT

The flight was surprisingly short - with head wind it was well under 3 hours, but they faffed about on the tarmac at Terminal 5 in Heathrow for nearly an hour. Not amused. This was BA who are one of the airlines doing direct each day to/from St.Petersburg.

Business class was OK - a rather odd arrangement of two people in three seats each side, to give more room, and better service (just). A short enough flight not to matter.

It was amusing at baggage drop - I am impressed we can do iPhone boarding passes now, and they are so common, but the boarding pass for Russia had to be on paper so that someone can check the visa and use highlighter on the paper boarding pass to show it was checked!

On landing, I was shocked at the passport control, which was nearly an hour. I know getting in to UK can be bad, and so can places like Vegas, but this was crazy. We saw relatively short queues, but each person was well over a minute, maybe two. They typed loads in to some terminal, printed stuff, stamped stuff, and put some printed card in my passport. No machine reading of passport. What was odd is that everyone else with their Russia passports were taking just as long to get in. Once we got through the baggage conveyor had finished and bags were stacked up by the wall.

Russians like their stamps!

HOTEL

The hotel had, as booked, sent a car, and Sandra made the driver wait while she got a costa coffee. It was a somewhat amusing process as she pointed to syrup because she did not know the Russian word for cinnamon. It then took nearly an hour to get in to the centre of St.Petersburg as the traffic was mental.

When we arrived the hotel was nice - and Lynda, from Guest relations was waiting eagerly for us to arrive and welcome us by name.

At this point it is worth pointing out that I went slightly over the top here. I wanted to make this a special romantic weekend, and as it was just my wife and I, and only a weekend, I booked a suite. Well, not just a suite, but the Ambassador Suite, at the Astoria Hotel, St.Petersburg. I did not go for the Presidential Suite as even I could not justify that, but still, the hotel were falling over backwards to help. Lynda was great. She was trying to pre-empt anything we could think of, even arranging for extended stay on last day to match when we left for our flight (at no extra cost). When we suggested eating at a restaurant at the next door hotel she personally walked us there via some back passage and introduced us and got us a 50% discount (was a nice meal).

I have never booked a suite before. It is not cheap, and was a key part of the cost of the holiday. I am not sure if actually "worth it" but it was damn impressive. The hotel did manage a couple of silly errors but they were sorted quickly with massive apologies. The room was lovely - double size, with sitting room and bedroom and huge bathroom and shower, and hall and even a second toilet! You could live there (well, no, I could not afford that!).

We get the impression that she thought we were some real high rollers, so much so that I did not have to dress in anything but M&S jeans and a shit, you know - that rich?!?!

If ever you can afford something like this, I would suggest it is worth trying at least once. The only downside I can think is that every hotel you stay in afterwards will seem cheap, and affording this every time is not viable.

The Astoria is clearly a very nice hotel and has had loads of famous people stay. Highly recommended.

NOT WELL

Sadly Sandra was not well - we went to the Galeria shopping mall. This was a huge 4 storey shopping mall, which shows how much Russia has embraced capitalism. Every store you know and love from Mothercare to TGI Fridays. It was every western store you know of, and a handful of Russian stores. The food hall had some Russian, but KFC, McDonald's, Burger King, and more. But Sandra got a coffee - that was it! Anyone that knows her will know that means she was not well. In fact she felt terrible on Saturday and only marginally better on Sunday when we went to the Hermitage Museum. It was not until Monday she felt a bit better.

It always seems the way - by the last day you finally get the hang of stuff, find that cafe that is just right and the restaurant you finally understand the menu and know what you like - you finally find that one taxi driver who speaks English and tells you all the sights you meant to go to three days before. But still, we got some souvenirs and managed to get home.

RUSSIAN POLICE

There seems to have been some sweepstake or some such in the office as to when I would find myself in a Russian police station or the British Consulate somehow. Well, it was Sunday. As some of you may know I have a nice camera, a Canon 1DX, and L series glass on that. I only took one lens (24-70 f/2.8). I only took like 150 shots all weekend (it is mainly a work camera).

What I did not know, and had not even thought of, is that people nick lenses! I really had not considered it. I always make sure I have a good hold of my camera by the strap. I know the straps are good (some oiks tried to nick one in Gloucester once). But the idea someone would just detach the lens had not occurred to me. Apparently it is common, especially in Russia.

So, on the way back to hotel we popped in to MacDonald's and got a diet coke - a queue that is packed, and my camera on my back, well attached by the straps. Sit down and WTF - no lens. I could not believe it!

I seriously have never even thought of that, let alone had one stolen like that. Sandra was near me and saw nothing. I took a picture on the way in, so know it was not before McD's. It was in the queue. Most expensive McD's ever.

So, back to hotel, talk to Lynda, and it was almost funny! She was falling over herself to help, and apologise for our visit to Russia being so marred. Giving me coffee and cakes while she arranged for hotel car to take me to the police station with an interpreter to report the theft. Turns out easier said than done - the police were really not interested as I did not witness the theft. WTF? To be honest I am really glad I do not have to rely on these people to investigate this (even though McD's had cameras) as they did not care. It took some persuasion by my interpreter to get them to simply give a letter confirming I reported it. She was happy to translate and give a written (stamped, obviously) report from the hotel, Now to chase insurance company.

GOING HOME

The airport was a tad odd - very simple security to get in to airport. Then more at the gate. Did not need the couple of hours we usually would allow. Passport control was almost as slow leaving, but the queue was almost non-existent (thankfully). I got a migraine which was a bugger as I could not read the signs or departures board, but all was well and we got home. They actually have a business lounge. I assume the airport code of LED is Leningrad. Thanks to Виктория for the driver home (OK, she is Victoria normally, I am just getting the hang of this Russian alphabet).

CONCLUSION (заключение)

It was a nice holiday. If ever we go to St.Petersburg again I will stay at the Astoria. I can just imagine how the will cope with myself and Sandra in the Tsar suite with the family in normal rooms. It would almost be worth it to see their faces. I will hold my lens though...

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The next spammer to tackle

I am trying to do these one at a time, hopefully one will get to an actual court hearing. The next one is Fuel Card Service Ltd who have spammed my titanic address at least 5 times now, and ignored my reply and notice of action every time.

What is interesting is that they are advertising fuel discount cards for specific supermarkets, e.g. Morrisons and Tesco.

So this time I have written not only to Fuel Card Services Ltd, but also to Morrissons and Tescos stating that I intend to make them co-defendants as the party that has apparently instigated the sending of the marketing email.

We'll see what happens when you threaten someone big like that. Should be fun.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Not getting my day in court

Sorry to say that Deane have paid up, not accepting any liability and on the basis that court would be too much hassle, which I do understand.

What is a shame is all this work to prepare a court case, and it is wasted. I really wanted a judge to look at this and say one way or the other. I am deprived of that by their choice to just settle.

Shame.

I have a long list of others that have emailed that particular individual subscriber email address and this case and the previous one have both helped me understand the details of the county court process and the subtle aspects of the regulations. So I have to thank Deane for finally discussing the case in more detail and detailing their defence, which I can now counter in advance on future cases.

We have it very pinned down that the email address in question is that of an individual subscriber. The ICO comments on even less likely email addresses, and their clear re-iteration of the regulations and definitions therein, makes that crystal clear. If there is a contract between an individual and a public provider for the email address, it is an individual subscriber, job done.

The interesting defence I wanted to understand from a judge's point of view was the defence of "taken such care as in all the circumstances was reasonably required to comply with the relevant requirement". In my view there is a really simple step that can be taken which is not to send the emails at all, and the only reason to ignore that simple step is for purely commercial reasons, which is not usually justification for breaking a law.

The fact that the step of not sending any emails, or unsolicited emails, is a step that could be taken, and was not, is a key point in my view. A judge agreeing with me on that point would have been really useful. Shame.

We'll see what the next case brings. I do think that I have to revise my estimate of costs from the spam somewhat upward. This was £10, but clearly actually pursuing a case resulting from the spam means costs in my time alone that is way more. I suspect next case will be £100. In any case, if I ever get in front of a judge I'll ask for advice on working out the damages.

One spammer at a time.

Confusopoly

It was a Dilbert idea for a "Confusopoly" and I think our favourite telco are taking that to extreme.

I won't go in to the details, but suffice to say they would like us to do more FTTC. This makes a lot of sense at their competition still don't have FTTC yet, so it is an area where they have an edge.

The problem is that the offer they are trying to make is so confusing even our account manager cannot answer the most basic questions. He is trying, and we have a good account manager again, but it such a complex mess, I am not sure anyone really understands it. I mean, who has a clawback for a cease in 12 months on a service that has a 12 month term (and hence gets 12 months paid, whatever), that makes no sense at all.

We have spent weeks trying to work out the offer, and even get it tweaked to make sense. We would love to offer our customers an incentive, and we are pretty happy to pass on any offer pound for pound to customers. Sadly that is not to be, sorry. We really have tried. We suspect we will gain some benefit from more FTTC lines over the next few months, but exactly what is really not clear. I was seriously considering saying "no", forget it. If we can, we'll see if we can do something on units tariffs next year anyway. Fingers crossed.

What I found most amusing is a comment from farnz, one of our more technical and understanding customers, who said the following. Sadly, what he is saying is easier to understand than the offer we actually have, IMHO.

Yeah - you want something simple like "regrade from ADSL to FTTC, pay £50 instead of £100", you got something like "with probability e^-1/pi², an FTTC upgrade on certain exchanges will be £10 instead of £100, but only if the goat bleats".


BT Huawei FTTC modem bug breaking VPNs

We have confirmed that the latest code in the BT FTTC modems appears to have a serious bug that is affecting almost anyone running any sort of VPN over FTTC.

Existing modems seem to be upgrading, presumably due to a roll out of new code in BT. An older modem that has not been on-line a while is fine. A re-flashed modem with non-BT firmware is fine. A working modem on the line for a while suddenly stopped working, presumably upgraded.

The bug appears to be that the modem manages to "blacklist" some UDP packets after a PPP restart.

If we send a number of UDP packets, using various UDP ports, then cause PPP to drop and reconnect, we then find that around 254 combinations of UDP IP/ports are now blacklisted. I.e. they no longer get sent on the line. Other packets are fine.

Sending 500 different packets, around 254 of them will not work again after the PPP restart. It is not actually the first or last 254 packets, some in the middle, but it seems to be 254 combinations. They work as much as you like before the PPP restart, and then never work after it.

We can send a batch of packets, wait 5 minutes, PPP restart, and still find that packets are now blacklisted. We have tried a wide range of ports, high and low, different src and dst ports, and so on - they are all affected.

The only way to "fix" it, is to disconnect the Ethernet port on the modem and reconnect. This does not even have to be long enough to drop PPP. Then it is fine until the next PPP restart. And yes, we have been running a load of scripts to systematically test this and reproduce the fault.

The problem is that a lot of VPNs use UDP and use the same set of ports for all of the packets, so if that combination is blacklisted by the modem the VPN stops after a PPP restart. The only way to fix it is manual intervention.

The modem is meant to be an Ethernet bridge. It should not know anything about PPP restarting or UDP packets and ports. It makes no sense that it would do this. We have tested swapping working and broken modems back and forth. We have tested with a variety of different equipment doing PPPoE and IP behind the modem.

BT are working on this, but it is a serious concern that this is being rolled out.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

ADR from the other side

Well, now that AAISP no longer do voice SIMs, I have a GiffGaff SIM for my personal use. It is a while since I have simply had a normal mobile contract like this for myself.

So, I asked them on their support web page if they do ACR, as required by section 11(3) of The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003.

Before anyone starts talking of just pressing the red button (or whatever you do on an iPhone), the regulations require that the "subscriber" has the option to reject such calls, and the subscriber is not the same as the "user" and may be nowhere near the phone. This basically means the telco have to offer ACR (Anonymous Call Rejection). Thankfully the ICO seem to agree. I pursued this back in 2003 and got nowhere, apart from ICO confirming that the mobile companies were in breach and refusing to "exercise their enforcement function" when requested to do so by myself.

Now we have ADR, so this seems a perfect chance to try ADR from the consumer side. I really hope GiffGaff are not using the same bunch I had the misfortune to deal with last. Mind you, if they do, having been so unbelievably biased towards the customer last time, I would hope they are not hypercritical enough to treat me differently.

What is interesting is that I am almost seeing the point in ADR now! I can't for A&A, but for GiffGaff, so far, they are a shambles.

  • I asked if they do ACR.
  • They said no.
  • I asked for a deadlock letter as this seemed to be the end of the matter and a deadlock, so they said to email a complaints email address.
  • I did, and they replied saying they would answer in 5 days
  • They did not
  • I checked the old ticket raised which said it is closed, cannot be updated and to raise a new ticket. They had marked it "solved" which is clearly not the case.
  • I raise a new ticket, explaining old ticket was closed, and asking again for deadlock letter.
  • After a day or so I get a reply saying this is covered by an old ticket and to reply to that old ticket, the one I cannot reply to now.
  • I have asked again, now for the forth time, for a deadlock letter, and added a complaint about being given the run around.
So, will be interesting to take them to ADR now.

We'll see if ADR is, as it seems, a simply way to blackmail any telco in to caving in on any point that may otherwise cost them up to £350.

It will also be interesting to see what happens if the arbitrator orders them to actually provide ACR. If they can, then why the hell did they not before, i.e. 10 years ago when a law required them to. The regs do not even say it has to be a free service.

If they cannot, then what then? Would ADR insist on compensation? And what happens when, next month, I point out that the law still says they have to do ACR and take them to ADR again? Or hundreds of other people take them to ADR?

I have no idea how this is going to pan out - it seems crazy that I can, as an individual, cause a telco this much hassle. We'll see how it goes.


Update: Just got this from GiffGaff (3rd Nov)

"The law you have quoted is indeed correct, however, this law also states the anonymous call rejection is only required where it is available. As you have been advised already we do not offer this service and therefore it cannot be provided."

Err, no, the law says "Where a facility enabling the presentation of calling line identification prior to the call being established is available". Which means where I get CLI at all, which I do.

They also say "Our ADR provider is Offcom who can be contacted anytime through their own web site."

WoW!

Finally, the ICO agree with me

I have been chasing the ICO on the point of "individual subscriber" in relation to section 22 of The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003.

An unsolicited marketing email to an individual subscriber without consent (via various permitted means) has been illegal for over 10 years.

The reason I have been chasing this is that the determination of what constituted an "individual subscriber" for an email address seemed to be unclear to the ICO. They seemed to be insisting that anything that could be called a "work email address" would not count. In fact, as they have now finally agreed, it is the nature of the party to a contract with a provider of public electronic communications services for the supply of such services that matters. If that party is an individual, or not. It is as simply as that and a simple matter of fact, not opinion.

I have many email addresses, ranging from ones where a third party (who is a provider of public electronic communications services) sells me email, and is otherwise nothing to do with me, through to a case where AAISP, my employer and a company I own, provide a personal email address, and finally where AAISP have a domain but contact with me personally for email services on that domain.

The latter is the most "edge case" I could come up with. Whilst it is not what I put on my business cards (that is actually an email on a domain I own), it is clearly a "work email address", adrian.kennard@aaisp.net.uk. Indeed, it has to be a work email address to meet Nominet rules for net.uk, but there is nothing to stop AAISP contracting with me such that I am the one paying for that email, even if the usage is always "work usage". Due to a quirk of the way we always have to have someone to bill for everything, I personally have been paying a nominal charge for email and domain services to AAISP for many years. So, I personally have the contract for email services on that domain.

Thankfully, after a lot of discussion, and a complaint and an internal review in ICO I have this.


They do go on to say that it is ultimately up to the court and that the court do not have to listen to ICO. It seems to me that as the ICO are the ones that enforce the criminal aspects of these regulations, their comments should play a major part.

The reason it took so long is not so much that this is, in any way, vague or a grey area. It is that mostly people are trying to get a work email or a university email address considered as an individual subscriber when that is not normally the case. Normally a company pays a provider of public electronic communications services for the email, and they are not themselves a provider of public electronic communications services, so even with a contract with the member of staff or company owner, the email is not that of an individual subscriber. Working for an ISP I am in an unusual position to come under the regulations, which should, IMHO, apply to commercial email addresses anyway.

So, I thank the ICO, and I may have to notify Deane that I have an extra document to reference in my upcoming court case now.