Friday, 31 January 2014

Web site operators will have to apply to UK government to allow their web site to be seen by UK citizens

Sounds like an unlikely headline, but how far from the truth is that I wonder?

The BBC article on whitelisting sites to not be accidentally black listed is clearly making this one step closer to reality.

The next step, obviously, is that they realise that the existing porn blocking is simply not good enough as it will miss so many sites. But they have this whitelisting system in place - all they have to do is block everything except the whitelist, and problem solved.

This really need stamping on - it is simply getting silly.

The politicians clearly have no clue. They think porn blocks are even possible (without making "the Internet" in to a whitelist of web sites only), and they even think that a "nanny state" of default blocks is sensible.

We have people like Baroness Howe using A&A as an example for why we need legislation on this, not realising that we already meet her proposed measures. That makes us an example of not needing legislation as her worst example already complies, yet all of this with no evidence of any actual harm caused in the first place!

Do we really want access to information in this country to be government controlled and censored?

THIS IS NOT CHINA
THIS IS NOT NORTH KOREA

So please talk to your MP and tell them this nonsense must stop now.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Open letter to Baroness Howe

Dear Baroness Howe,

I see that you mentioned Andrews & Arnold in your recent speech in The House of Lords in relation to child protection and Internet censorship.

I would be delighted to have the opportunity to discuss such issues with you if possible, both on a technical basis, and a practical basis, but also as a father having raised five children in the Internet age.

Whilst I am pleased that our marketing efforts have brought us to your attention, I am slightly puzzled that you seem to have mentioned Andrews & Arnold in a context of being something of a problem ISP, and a reason for your amendments. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding you have about our service.

For a start, we appear to be a company that already complies with the requirements of your proposals:
  1. We do not sell to individuals under 18. We already ask anyone ordering to confirm that they are not under 18. Obviously if OFCOM were to come up with some practical means to verify age on an on-line order we'd be more than happy to consider integrating such a system, but at present we feel it very unlikely that an under 18 could order. For our type of services it means having access to a phone line (without Internet already) in order to install equipment, or access to allow a phone line to be installed - both of which seem unlikely to go unnoticed by parents in a household. Our services are also unlikely to be cost effective for a minor to purchase.
  2. We already confirm that our customers want fully unfiltered Internet access, and this is made very clear when ordering. Indeed, it is one of the main reasons people come to us in the first place to obtain Internet access.
So it seems to me that we are already exactly the sort of ISP you want - one that does not sell to minors and only provides unfiltered Internet access to those that specifically request it.

I am quite sure that most other small ISPs would be happy to work in a similar way, and I would be happy to engage with ISPA, LONAP, LINX, and UKNOF to try and build an informal arrangement regarding such clear information at the point of sale.

Indeed, specifically for parents, we even go as far as providing means to set alternative DNS servers which are a way of helping block accidental access to unsavoury content on a customers Internet access with us.

In light of this, I am somewhat surprised that you appear to use us an example of why legislation would be needed. It seems to me that we are exactly the opposite, an example of why legislation is not needed.

However, as I said earlier, I would be delighted if there was an opportunity to discuss such matters more directly. I am sure, if you would like, that we could arrange a dinner/meeting with a number of similar small ISPs if that would be helpful. Alternatively, I would be delighted if you would like to visit our offices in Bracknell and discuss matters and see what we do.

I also have a suggestion for age verification which could be achieved by a change in BACS, using a variation of normal Direct Debit set up as a means to verify that an account holder is 18 or over. After all, the banks already do significant checks on account holders, and it would be ideal to make use of their information for such a purpose.

Regards,
-- 
Adrian Kennard
Director
AAISP.

[Being posted as well, I'll update any reply]

Mentioned in The House of Lords

It seems A&A got a mention in the Lords yesterday

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: "Self-regulation, for example, provides no means of dealing with the likes of Andrews and Arnold where default filters are concerned. Its closed loop system does not provide for proper age verification and the mobile phone code all too often—and at very real cost to children—has not been respected. If we believe that child protection is really important—and I have every belief that your Lordships believe just that—we must introduce robust statutory measures to help prevent children accessing this material."

I am pleased to see that some of my good work has been noticed, and I would love to have the opportunity to try and explain things to the Lords or Parliament.

I am, however, somewhat concerned at the comments that have been made. "age verification" seems an odd one, as we do not sell to minors (and ask people to confirm they are over 18 when buying as well as expecting a bank account with Direct Debit). I am not sure what "mobile phone code" means in this context either.

Indeed, we have no "age verifications" when a child uses a telephone to make a call, and no checks on the words spoken in that call. Similarly no "age verification" for a child to receive post.

As a father I am very interested in the "very real cost to children" this causes, and I would love to see a reference to any credible study of the impact of access to pornography by children and how it has affected them. I wonder how many MPs saw some porn when still a minor? I don't believe I know any man who did not, at some point, when a minor, see porn. I am sure such clear evidence must exist, or else Baroness Howe would not have used such strong words as "very real cost". I am always interested to learn.

However, with the comment "we must introduce robust statutory measures to help prevent children accessing this material." I do wonder what the objective here is.

I see two issues, one is younger children happening across something unsavoury when unsupervised accessing the Internet. This is, of course, easy to address, and many tools exist already, such as alternative DNS servers. Some ISPs (Andrews & Arnold included) will happily help parents set up alternative DNS servers on customer equipment or even pre-configure the equipment supplied to make use of such free services.

The second case is where a child wants to access "such material", such as a teenage boy (or girl, lets not be sexist here!). This is, of course, impossible to stop. None of the blocks in place by ISPs stop such access. The blocks in place do little more than stop accidental access and have lots of side effects with technical issues and over blocking. There are already people selling USB sticks pre-loaded with TOR+flash browsers to bypass all logging and blocking with one click.

But really, if this is such a real cost, why not make a law "It shall be an offence for any child to access porn on The Internet, over the phone or by post" - there you go - job done? Perhaps better would be "It shall be an offence for any parent or guardian of any child to allow that child to access porn on The Internet, over the phone or by post". That is a very simple law.

Or is it that such a law would be totally ineffective? Just like a law suggesting ISPs should block communications would be totally ineffective. I suppose we could cripple all communications in the UK massively by making the Internet some sort of white list only set of web sites you can access and no more - that could have a fun impact on the economy - I am sure that will be good for our children!

All the current ISP porn blocks do is give parents the false impression that the Internet is now "safe"meaning they supervise children less.

The recent blocks on The Pirate Bay, a single web site, being so ineffective that the Dutch courts have reversed the bans, just shows how ineffective blocks are. That was just one web site and not an attempt to block an entire, well funded, and legal industry.

If you are not convinced, go order one of these USB sticks and try, or better still ask a 12-15 year old, as an OFCOM report confirms that 1 in 5 of them know how to bypass filters, and that is a survey that pre-dates the recent introduction of filtering by major ISPs.

I do think the Baroness needs to think a little more on exactly what she is asking for here, and why. As I say, I am more than happy to come and explain things and can be contacted through the A&A press email address.

Update: As someone commented, we have been mentioned earlier and she even quotes our web site!

Interestingly the Baroness's actual proposals, having read them, would do nothing to our service as all of our customers have already opted for an unfiltered Internet connection and are over 18, so the service would remain exactly the same and we would simply not take on customers that ask for network level filtering.

Update: I see we are not alone in our views, comment from Lord Lucas.

My letter to the Baroness.

Pirate Bay News

So, it seems the Dutch courts have lifted bans on The Pirate Bay. The main reasoning being that it is ineffective. Well done!

This is no surprise to anyone. It will be interesting to see if other courts take a similar view in light of this.

It is, however, highly relevant for the whole "Porn blocking" fiasco.

The Pirate Bay is one web site, just one. It did not have huge corporate resources, but still, it was able to avoid the blocks put in place by court orders on major ISPs. These ISPs had to play "whack a mole" games trying to track down where the site had gone and multiple mirrors, and so on. They fail, unsurprisingly.

But Cameron wants the UK ISPs to block not just one small web site but an entire, well funded, legal, world wide, industry: porn.

Each and every one of the sites blocked by such filters can (and probably will) take all of the same steps as The Pirate Bay to get around the blocks, and their actions won't even be seen as illegal in any way.

It really does seem like we have heard this story before by a chap called Knut.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Thank you (iMessage)

Finally, it seems 6 character emails can, once again, receive iMessages. This is great news for those of us with short email addresses (including many of my family).

I know that this was the result of various reports in to Apple by several people, and I'd like to thank you all for your help in this.

It is a shame that Apple seem to be immune from the normal rules of being a telco (even if done for free, they contract with end users under their T&Cs to provide a telecoms service, and you have to buy their stuff, so paying money, to so that). OFCOM feel they do not have to provide ADR even. If nothing else, it is useful to know how one can be outside the rules - it may be useful one day.

But, once again, thank you all.

Update: Thanks for the comments and tweets - this was really about iMessage working again - but the implications for stepping outside the rules really do get interesting, especially as and when there are stronger (legislative) moves to filter Internet content. Ways to not be within the scope of such rules could be handy :-)

Update: .... and it is not working again, FFS.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Royal Ascot Racecourse associated with criminal activity?

Well, I am surprised.

I received a junk email to me (as an individual subscriber) with no prior consent, trying to sell me tickets to Ascot, on the "New Official Royal Ascot Hospitality Site!". This is a crime under section 22 of The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003.

It claimed to be from "EVENTS LNTERNATIONAL LTD" (sic) company 04278759 (which is actually PLATINUM EVENT TRAVEL LIMITED).

No reply to an email to them, but, to my surprise, no reply from Royal Ascot Racecourse's press office either. I did give them to chance to provide a reply to my impending blog post, but no reply after over 24 hours.

I can only assume that they are happy to be associated with this criminal activity. It is very disappointing indeed.

Barclays Fraud Debt, again

I am dreading it.

I can see that Barclays have obviously decided something is up, as my card is blocked when buying stuff, again. Blocked when buying top up for smartstamp, as we do every couple of weeks, even with the annoying "verified by visa" crap I have to go through every damn time.

I can also see that there are no unexpected transactions or authorisations on my account, so no reason for them to have done it.

So, do I waste half an hour of my life calling their fraud department only to go through the recent transactions and say "yes, that was me, like I do every time I buy from them" half a dozen times.

Or do I await the inevitable call from a withheld number only to spend half an hour arguing how giving personal information to a withheld number caller is exactly how card details get compromised in the first place, and "have I passed the test?" Only to then have to spend half an hour calling their fraud department anyway?

It is so fucking annoying - they are protecting their own arse's here, not mine. If there has been any fraud, it is them that have been defrauded, not me. I really am sick of it.

I may call and start (recorded) with "if this turns out to be not fraud I will charge for my time making this call, OK?", followed by "what? do you work for free or is your time valuable too?" if they say "no".

Sick of it.

Update: Due to the tweet, Barclays are looking in to it - if this can be sorted without a call, I will be amazed.

Update: I think I see the trigger, eventbrite putting a transaction through as USA. If that is the cause then it is not any fraud (to bank or me) but highlights the stupidity as that transaction has gone through, but serious business affecting transactions like us paying Royal Mail to top up postage with verified by visa checking being blocked. We pay Royal Mail every few days for postage, yet they blocked it. I have had to expense it on my personal card, which is hassle.

Update: As expected, they could not sort by email, and even when they called (from an 0800) about my complaint they could not actually sort the issue, only saying that I would still have to call the fraud dept. I'll do it, but i have told them that in future I expect to be paid for my time. They really struggle to understand that "thinking there was fraud" when there is not is a "mistake" and that they should, perhaps, maybe, pay for their mistakes.

Update: 25 minute to fraud dept and unblocked. What triggered it? Paying annual RIPE NCC fees, as we do EVERY YEAR! And who the hell would buy RIPE membership, fraudulently, OMG!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Comparing broadband

I am not buying a house, but I was interested in how much behind the game estate agents seem to be and I wondered why. My daughter is selling her house (here) but the details do not list that she can get FTTC at 50-80Mb/s or ADSL2+ at 6-8Mb/s from any BT back-haul ISP, or that she can get TalkTalk DSL 5-8Mb/s. They could, but they don't. For some people this matters. For some people FTTC availability is a show stopper when picking a house!

To be frank I also wondered why broadband comparison sites (e.g. the ones you see advertised on TV) are behind the game as well. They ask for a postcode but do not actually work out what you can get.

The reason is the availability checkers. For both scenarios, what you ideally want is for the postcode (or better still address/number) check to be done to work out all of the underlying technologies available, and the forecast speeds and services available, and then report those along with the various packages that different ISPs can offer.

So, for example, if I go to broadbandchoices.co.uk, who proudly boast on their TV adverts that they "compare all of the best deals in your area" all I get is a list of the larger ISPs that have paid them money to be listed, all offering an "Up to XMb/s" services. They do not actually work out what speeds are available. Indeed, putting a friends postcode, who is in the middle of nowhere, and gets around 1.4Mb/s on each of four 20CN BT lines which we bond for him, broadbandchoices list a range of ISPs that use BT back-haul with speeds up to 6, 8, and 16Mb/s. Given that there is only BT 20CN, offering an "up to 16Mb/s" service is a tad optimistic, and given an actual postcode it is ludicrous. The fact that I am offered a choice of speeds for the same underlying 20CN technology which will work at the same speed is misleading at best. Yet this site is OFCOM accredited and approved?!?!

Actually, I wonder if the ASA should be involved here. Advertising "up to 16Mb/s" or whatever, is all very well for a national advert where someone in the UK can get that (and I don't agree with the ASA that picking a slightly lower figure helps), but when the audience is someone at a specific postcode that you know will not ever get close to that, then that is lying, surely? broadbandchoices.co.uk just plainly lie, in my opinion, in suggesting that anyone can offer "up to 16Mb/s" at my friend's Derbyshire postcode. It is a lie, simple as that.

The answer for both of these issues is that people like BT do not make the availability checks available to third parties. Even ISPs that have access have restricted terms of use, and can end up being charged for lookups.

If OFCOM had any sense then they would require all back-haul carriers to make these checkers available much more openly, even if for a [very] small fee, so that people like estate agents or comparison sites, could provide accurate comparisons and detailed information.

It almost falls in to public interest / national infrastructure type data, like the postcode location database which is now public under the ordnance survey data.

That said, it is crazy to suggest that you can compare broadband suppliers in the same way you can compare electricity suppliers or even telephone call suppliers. Alex covered this on his blog as well (here). The actual service varies, and does so by a heck of a lot more that just speed. Something to check an address and report technology based speed forecast and list ISPs that can provide, with their differences, would be good, but comparison sites don't do that - they compare the "up to" speed (badly) and the price and that is all.

So, my latest plan is to work with the local estate agents here to see if we can find a way to provide actual forecast speeds and availability checks for things like FTTC on particulars of houses they advertise, in return for an AAISP advert.

P.S. Did I mention that her house has FTTC, and structured cabling to each room, three floors work well with the unifi APs as a set, convenient to the town centre, and the local pub. You know you want to buy the place.

Update: Someone has pointed out that whilst the particulars of the property to not list broadband details, they have a link. This link is wrong, as it does not say the FTTC speeds that they can get - but well done for trying :-) It does beg the question - why can't broadbandchoices manage that?

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Audiophile bullshit

Once again we see some incredible twaddle from audiophiles and once again people fall for it - so as a public service I am going to try and explain things as clearly as I can. I will try and be fair here, honest.

To start with, you need to understand a relatively simple concept, which is useful for anyone, not just those in to music. The difference between digital and analogue. It is really not as hard as it sounds.

In the real world we encounter things like sound waves. These work with our ears to allow us to hear things - they are pressure waves where the air has waves of compressed and less compressed air (sound can travel through other media). These waves trigger nerves in our ears to signal to our brain that we have heard something. We are very good at picking up the frequencies (tones) of sound within a range of frequencies. Some creatures can hear wider ranges, and the range we can hear changes as we get older.

These compression waves in the air have a pattern to them. If you drew the pattern of higher and lower pressure as a height on a graph on paper, you would see something like this image below. This shows one frequency (i.e. one tone) at a time, but sound can be a complicated mix of different tones. Here you see how louder means higher changes in pressure, and higher pitch means faster changes in pressure.


One of the problems with sound waves traveling through the air is that the sound changes. We know this. We know a sound further way sounds quieter. We know that other background sounds can make a sound harder to hear. We know that some rooms change the sound we hear, with an echo being the most obvious of changes. This is why theaters are carefully designed so that people can hear the sound as it was intended.

But some times we want to record sound or make sound, and the simplest approach to this is using analogue signals. These mean converting the sound from pressure waves to an electrical signal. Once upon a time the conversion was not even electrical - it was mechanical movement of a needle on a cylinder. We can use something simple like a different voltage for different sound pressures. We get voltage wave forms just like those shown above. A microphone does this conversion. We can later convert back from electrical signals to a sound using a speaker. The electrical signal is analogous to the sound pressure wave, and is called an analogue signal. There are several ways to do this conversion, some being better than others. For example, AM and FM radios work in different ways.

The problem with these analogue signals is that they too are not perfect. A long cable will reduce the signal (like making it quieter). Electrical circuits to amplify the signal can also add interference (noise). Some cables can pick up background noise (interference) from other electrical sources.

The quality of the cables, connectors and electronics make a difference to the analogue signal. So, if you have a system to make sound (e.g. music), AKA "HiFi system", and it uses analogue signals, then the quality of the HiFi system and its components matter. Better (more expensive) systems produce noticeably better sound. So people made and sold more expensive better systems, and people bought them. No problem here.

But the world has changed. Even the link from a sound system to a speaker can be digital now, and in practice most people are listening to music that is streamed or downloaded and played on a device that makes the sound directly (via headphones, etc).

Digital signals work in a different way. Instead of using an analogy of the sound pressure waves, the waves are measured, and those measurements conveyed as numbers. Later, those numbers are converted back to sound pressure waves.

The reason for this is that numbers are easier to transport and store reliably than analogue signals. You can reliably communicate a number. "42" is still "42" if it is quiet. Ultimately these signals may be carried as 1s and 0s on a wire, and it could simply by one voltage for a 1 and another for a 0. In practice it is way more complex now, but there are systems that just use these simple voltages.

The result is that you have digital cables, carrying one or more digital signal (these 1s and 0s) between equipment. If the cable works then every single 1 and 0 that is meant to go down the cable gets there. It does not matter if the cable is not very good, if the voltage for 0 is a bit off, as it still comes out as a 0.

Such cables can be used for some direct signaling of sound or video, such as an HDMI cable to your TV.


This presents a problem for those that sell high end cables and equipment to audiophiles. How can they sell expensive gold plated connectors and silver loaded conductors to people if any old cable will do?

You get some amusing cases of gold plated connectors for optical cables. Optical cables use light to carry the 1s and 0s rather than electricity as this avoids interference from electrical noise nearby. Even so, gold plated connectors, something that could help on an old analogue electrical cable, have been seen!

Well, with digital electrical cables, they were quite cunning. When you transmit a digital signal you need to do something called clock recovery which means you extract the timing from the signal. If you have a really cheap cable, with distortion on the signal, you may not get the exact timing of the start or end edges of the digital signals. If you had really cheap and nasty electronics that did clock recovery on a per bit basis, that could affect timing and affect the timing of the sound generated. Timing is quite important and could, in theory, affect the sound you then hear (although these variations are way above the frequency anyone can actually hear). So, whilst the argument was incredibly tenuous, it starts with a gram of fact which made it harder to just shoot down in flames. Saying "theoretically, maybe, but outside human hearing" being met with "well, I can hear the difference", and the whole thing becomes subjective.

But, once again, things have moved on. Now we have audio that is played from audio files like MP3s, which are downloaded or streamed.

It is worth pointing out that, in the digital era, there are things that make a difference. The quality of the original audio source (the recording studio), and the digitising equipment (microphones, ADCs, etc) all make a difference. The final quality of the playback systems, DACs and headphones or speakers make a difference. Both of these deal with the analogue and real world of sound ways, so that makes sense. Another big difference is the compromises made in making a digital signal, the measurement of those sound pressure waves. Ultimately you are throwing away some detail as part of the process. The different ways of coding an audio signal, and the data rates and sampling rates, all make a difference. This is why you can get difference quality formats, even just within MP3s there are different bit rates which sound different.

But when we finally get to the article I mentioned, with expensive high quality Ethernet cables, used for Ethernet for streaming audio, things get a tad special.

Here we are talking about a system that is not just about transferring bits, but a system for sending packets data - basically a system for sending a file of information which is the digital record of the music to which you wish to listen.

Ethernet cables do come in different grades and standards, and there are much higher standards for 10Gb/s cabling, which makes it expensive. But if you don't have a 10Gb/s network, then getting such cables does not help matters at all. For audio you do not need 10Gb/s, or 1Gb/s, or even 100Mb/s. A file transfer can keep up with real time at a few hundred kb/s. The only risk you suffer is streaming audio in real time is if the link is bad enough and slow enough (e.g. a really dodgy ADSL line) that the data transfer cannot keep up and the audio has to stop playing to buffer more data. This is a pretty clear audio failure which is not subjective, and not something that "better ears" can hear when others cannot.

Ethernet cables transfer data very fast, and there is no issue with clock recovery as that is all part of the protocol and the switches and Ethernet controller chips. None of that feeds in to the process of playing the sound in any way. Also, ironically, even a non fully working cable, i.e. one on which there are errors, will usually not cause an issue as the data is resent if incorrect as part of the various IP based protocols. So you have a case where you don't just need an "up to spec" working cable, you could even have a "really dodgy" cable, and still get perfect audio. If there are no pauses for buffering, the final data getting to the audio playback is the same, it is the same 1s and 0s, so it sounds the same!

There is no way whatsoever that a better Ethernet cable can ever affect the "quality" of a streamed audio playback, simple as that. What could have an impact is the quality of the sound card, and speakers or headphones, and the person's ears.

There is one other small point you see in that article in the pictures, which is direction arrows. This was one of the very special ideas that audiophiles had, and dates back to speaker cable and analogue signals. The idea was that somehow you could "condition" the cable to work better in one direction, and this was done by the manufacturer of the expensive cable. You should therefor always connect the cables the right way around with arrows from amp to speaker.

Well, this was always bullshit. Cables don't work like that, and neither do electrical signals. In practice the arrows were almost certainly there to avoid mistakenly connecting amp output to amp output and causing serious problems as a result. Having arrows and following them avoids that. But people started to believe they had some electrical signficance.

What makes this extra special is the use on Ethernet cables. The way Ethernet works is that signals go both ways anyway. Even if the bullshit was true, that a cable could be conditioned to work a certain way, the fact that Ethernet sends data both ways defeats that totally. They are just for show as connecting an Ethernet cable back to itself does not cause fires.

There are other factors when buying cables, like: The colour - is it one you like, or does it fit a colour scheme you are using for cables? How robust the cable is - is it likely to break or wear out somehow - can the cat chew through it? Some cables have nicer features like guards for the cable clip to stop it snapping off. These are all important, but if it meets cat5 or whatever standard you need for your network, then electrically, it does the job, end of story.

The one final thing I would mention is confirmation bias. This is a real thing - it means that when you expect a certain result, you inherently have a bias in your assessment of subjective matters towards supporting that outcome, and are dismissive of any counter evidence. What this means is that if you go out and spend £255 on a 12 metre Ethernet cable, and use it on your HiFi, you will be convinced that it sounds better.

So please, don't fall for bullshit.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Direct Debit Rules (an evil thought)

A Direct Debit Instruction is an authority allowing an originator to collect money from your bank account. There are rules they have to follow for this.

The main one is that they give you at least the agreed notice (normally 10 working days) that they will collect, specifying an amount and a date, and then they have to collect that amount on that date. They are allowed up to three days late, but not allowed to collect early or a different amount. They are not really complicated rules.

Annoyingly some people get this wrong, and the banks offer their customers a guarantee. The wording of this guarantee has changed a few times and there are a couple of key points on the latest wording which I found interesting.

The first point is that the new wording now says "If an error is made in the payment of your Direct Debit" rather than "If an error is made". The error still has to be made by the originator or the bank, but the new wording is much more specific. This is good, as previously one could reasonably argue that invoicing the wrong amount, or even making an error in providing some service, was "an error ... by the originator ... " and so a reason to claim on the guarantee. The new wording is narrower and relates only to an error made with collecting the Direct Debit. I am sure this is what they always meant, but new wording is clearer, good.

The other change is subtle too, it adds "If you receive a refund you are not entitled to, you must pay it back when [originator] asks you to.". We'll ignore the fact that it should be "... to which you are not entitled ..." for now. This made me wonder - have people made bogus claims and refused to repay them? Maybe.

But this led me to ponder the whole basis for claims under the Direct Debit guarantee.

Let's suppose someone collects money from me under a Direct Debit, but did not give the correct notice. Something simple and provably wrong. I have had this lots of times, and even had a letter from someone that was dated later than 10 days notice with "This is your 10 working days notice of collection" on it. So, within the one letter, it was clearly wrong. This is a valid reason to claim on the Direct Debit guarantee.

So, you claim from you bank. This is a claim on a guarantee your bank offers you. It is part of an agreement between you and your bank. They pay up (the refund). Good, but this is entirely a matter between you and your bank.

Then, the bank are out of pocket here. But they have an indemnity policy (an insurance policy) with the originator. This is part of becoming a Direct Debit originator - you have to indemnify all of the banks against any losses they have. The originator is insuring the banks. So the bank claim on that, and the originator pay the bank. This is a matter between the bank and the originator.

All good. But what has someone paying out on insurance go to do with me, as the person that claimed on a bank guarantee. I would have complied with the contract with the originator and paid by DD. This is not a "reverse the DD payment, reclaim the DD payment, or reject the DD payment", it is a "claim from the bank on a guarantee the bank gave me". The fact that the originator is out of pocket is down to them providing an insurance policy to the banks. Insurers always risk being out of pocket. How is that my problem? I am not even the one that created the insured event, it was the originator themselves making a mistake that did so. It is the bank that refunded me, not the originator.

So, technically, do you owe the originator the money back?

The new clause on the Direct Debit guarantee does not cover this, as it only covers cases where you claim but are not entitled to claim. In this example, you are entitled to claim as there was a mistake.

So legally, can the originator actually ask for the money again?

Just a thought.

Where this gets really interesting is when a supplier goes bust, is wound up and no longer exists. You can still claim against the bank on DD guarantee (if you have a valid claim, i.e. a mistake was made in the collection). The fact that the bank cannot claim against the now defunct originator is not your problem as the bank still exist and they still provide that guarantee.

[Before you ask, A&A have this sown up in the contract terms and make it clear that such a claim against the bank is counted and un-doing the original payment and as such the money is again owed, but I am not sure every DD originator has this spelled out in their contracts.]

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Nanny state getting worse

Nominet have made a decision, based on a report by Lord Macdonald QC, that recommends that they check any domain registration that signals sex crime content or is in itself a sex crime. This is screening of domains within 48 hours of registration, and de-registration. The report says that such domains should be reported to the police even.

In spite of this, the report actually states that Nominet should have no role in policing questions of taste or offensiveness on the Internet!

So, lets start with why this is a problem - it is very simple, and is a trend we are seeing in other areas already.

There is a question of "should we censor or not?" which is a big and important question. By picking a very narrow "think of the children" type example to start this process, we bypass that question. When someone later proposes extending these rules the question of "should we censor?" is moot, already decided, and the question becomes how much should we censor, with each extra step being entirely reasonable.

I do not think this is too extreme a view to take, really. We have already seen this with IWF filtering and now filtering porn sites. Once in place the rules are gradually, and without fuss or even consultation, extended to other things.

I think it is very bad for Nominet to have taken this first huge step to vetoing domain name registrations, especially as the report even concludes that Nominet should have no role in bad taste of offensiveness.

But the other problem with this step is the pointlessness and ineffectiveness of it. The report itself states, for example, that in 2013 Nominet checked domains for key words used by the IWF, and as a result reported tens of thousands of domains to IWF for checking, all of which were false positives. Not one was, in fact, related to child sex abuse.

The report also highlights some bad domain registrations, including ones like pedophile.co.uk, which appears to be one of these speculatively registered domains linking to a generic advert based search for porn sites (legit porn sites, not child sex abuse sites). So, whilst in bad taste, not actually any illegal usage in any way. Indeed, the word pedophile or paedophile simply means someone that likes children, like most people do, much as francophile is just someone that likes all things French.

The process would have to allow through TheRapist.co.uk (therapist.co.uk) even if used with capital T and R, as registrations have no case.

The process would have to allow through a registration permitting a web site such as www.fuck.children.co.uk as children.co.uk is a perfectly innocent domain name.

So the steps being taken are, in fact, totally an utterly pointless except for starting the ball rolling and approving the principle of censoring domain names.

Update: Oh, and they are planning to check existing domains too - that will be fun! Lets wait for them to block www.nominetsucksdonkeydicks.co.uk (a name proposed by someone on uknot mailing list).

It is a slippery slope.

[apologies to the actual registrant of these domains, I am not suggesting you are up to anything dodgy here, just using as examples of the problem]

Monday, 13 January 2014

3D Banana

If you are looking for a 3D scanner, then there are several choices. I have tried two so far.

The first, having been impressed with Makerbot, was their laser scanner. It costs around £1000+VAT, and is a turntable laser scanner. It does a reasonable job, but I have to say I was disappointed on a couple of counts.

  • The first was that it is very fussy over the colour/lighting of the object. Dark objects are very hard to scan. There are settings to pick light, medium or dark, but even then it is not obvious.
  • The size of scan is very limited, around 8 inches cylinder. This is fine if you want to scan something to print life size on a makerbot, but there are many things to scan that print smaller very well.
  • The resolution was disappointing, I felt.
  • It takes a long time to scan (around 9 minutes).
This is a banana, scanned in Light mode, as a banana is light.


I scanned again in medium...


It is not too bad.

The second scanner I tried is basically the Asus version of a kinect, the Asus Xtion Pro Live, which is available from around £110+VAT, and the Skanect s/w for my mac which was around £60+VAT.

It is not actually intended as a 3D scanner even, but captures depth data for a whole scene. You can move around an object and get all sides within a few seconds. I scanned the same banana on the bed of the Makerbot digitiser in under a minute.


It looks to be around twice the file size, so around twice the detail.

But what is really clever is that you can scan anything that will sit still, even people. So making a bust is really easy. But if you want to scan a room, you can. It also fills in colour at the same time if you need (not useful for 3D printing) and is a fraction of the cost. A definite winner.


Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Day After Tomorrow

Given the weather in the US in the last week or so, I though I would re-watch The Day After Tomorrow. Where do I begin?

The idea that there could be radical and very quick climate change is interesting. I don't think anyone would expect anything so fast for any reason (a few weeks going from now to ice age) but you almost give them licence to do that for the purpose of making a film. An ice age that creeps up on you over 50 years is boring as a story line.

But then you get the real killer - the breaking the laws of physics in a film set our universe. You simply cannot make air, as a gas, cold enough to instantly freeze you. It simple does not have the mass and density to do it. Yes, it is dangerous, but nothing like what is depicted - showing effects similar to liquid nitrogen which is massively more dense than air. On top of which, in the eye of the storm, there is not the wind chill effect to take that heat away from you, it is still air. The eye of the storm would have felt a darn sight warmer.

But looking deeper, the whole story line seems to have a political theme to promote the global warming agenda. The moral of the story is that we did this to ourselves with carbon emissions. Yet the very start of the story is based on a climate model of the last ice age starting 10,000 years ago. Now that was not caused by us pumping crap in to the atmosphere. So the whole story line is inconsistent at best.

Anyway, apart from all that, it is entertaining - as a basic quest and survival story line for a father getting to his son through impossible odds to keep a promise to rescue him

But it does make me wonder if I should post more on my views on climate change. I have to say that I find myself in a very odd position. Normally, in any argument that pits intuition against science, I have to take the science viewpoint. It is so easy for us to feel and guess differently to reality (and perceptions of risk is one of the areas we are so provably wrong so much of the time).

But I find I am siding with the skeptics a bit because science is being so mixed with politics.

But then, I think, take a step back and look at this. Lets assume for a second that the climatologists and scientists and politicians we hear about are 100% correct, that (a) we caused all this and that (b) we can fix it, at great cost to industry and economies. We'll get the Earth back as it was. Yay!

So we live on a planet that has major climatic swings as a matter of course. Humanity has lived through ice ages as well as tropical climates that leave us with fossils of sea creatures half way up mountains. The world has, and will change massively.

If we have made some small dent in that, good or bad, I am impressed. Basically, whatever we have done, or if the climatologists are right, what we may undo, will be a drop in the ocean in terms of what will happen in thousands of years, if not hundreds.

So we cannot actually change anything apart from the timing. Maybe we put off global warming a bit with all this work, yay! Maybe we bring the next ice age closer because of this work. Either way a generation of humans, at some point in the future, will face a massive upheaval of a society wrecking scale.

Why does it matter exactly which generation faces that?

If we did not spend all this effort on avoiding global warming, we would be better off. We could, perhaps, spend some effort on how we would handle climate change when it does happen.

At the end of the day we are not saving the planet here, it will be fine, we are trying to make life easier for a generation of people that may be our children or their children or their children. It is understandable, but we are missing the point! What we are doing is creating a legacy of annoying rules and regulations to combat climate change for us and our children and their children. It will impact generation after generation, creating hassle and cost, and then the climate change happens anyway, eventually.

Why?

The need for speed

So, the latest BT advert had someone streaming music, and it keeps stalling. They are selling FTTC as a fix for that.

So, let's try and understand this shall we. A streaming audio can be of the order of 200kb/s. But the slowest broadband lines, even on old 20CN exchanges, are rarely as low as 250kb/s. Under 2% of A&A BT circuits have a sync under 300kb/s at present. Audio can stream at lower rates.

So, basically, any working ADSL line will be able to stream audio without pauses.

But that is not the only possible issue. The streaming can be stalling for several other reasons

  • The line is filled with other data at the same time (downloading email, web pages, torrenting, etc). This issue applies regardless of speed, and even an 80Mb/s FTTC can be full of traffic causing streaming audio to stall. In fact, you need some sort of QoS stuff (like the way A&A prioritise small packets) to fix that, something a normal BT FTTC would not provide. So that can't be the reason as FTTC would not be a valid fix.
  • The far end could have capacity issues, or some peering link in the Internet could be full. Again, this would not be fixed by FTTC, so not the issue.
  • The back-haul over the BT network could be congested. This is usually at the ISPs control. It is, again, not something that is fixed by changing to FTTC. If the ISP has full links that cause that level of congestion, a solution is to move to an ISP that does not. FTTC is not the fix.
  • The line could have some sort of fault with lots of loss or some such. The fix is not FTTC, it is fix the fault.
Basically, unless that example is an incredibly long line with 250kb/s DSL trying to run a higher bit rate down it, then FTTC will be no help. Sadly, such long lines are normally in remote villages which don't have FTTC. Even so, that would be an obscure example to pick for an advert.

I'm not saying FTTC is bad, no. It is good. What I am saying is that raw line speed is not always at all relevant to the issues you are trying to fix. This is a perfect example - it is really unlikely that the line speed is the cause of the broken audio.

All this advert does is propagate the myth that speed is all that matters. What is often more important than speed is lack of congestion in back-haul and over the Internet, low and consistent latency, and lack of packet loss on the line. Even OFCOM don't actually bother measuring these.

Even the government is hung up on speed, but with arguments about ensuring people have access to government services via the Internet, e.g. on-line VAT returns, etc. These are things that don't need speed, but they do need connectivity.

There are speed milestones, levels where completely new services become possible. At a few Mb/s it possible to have streamed video in real time. Below that you can have downloaded video. At higher rates you can have multiple streamed video in real time, and very high resolution video. There may, some time, be yet more speed milestones for some new services we have not invented. That said, entertainment is the main use of high bandwidth, and that comes down to how many bits/sec of useful information can a person consume (eyes, ears, touch, etc), and we are hitting that sort of limit with TV higher resolution than we can see, and sound higher fidelity than we can hear, so entertainment is not likely to push the limits a lot more than it does now. So higher speeds are useful, but far from the only factor.

Everyone is just concentrating on speed!

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Nuisance or loss?

One of the huge possible issues with the The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 is that the only way to make progess is a civil case for damages.

The legislation covers the nuisance of junk calls and junk emails. It is illegal, a crime, to junk call me (i.e. an unsolicited marketing call) because my number is in the TPS. It is also illegal to junk mail me on any of my personal (individual subscriber) email addresses. It has been for over 10 years.

Sadly, the criminal side, the law breaking, is handled by the ICO, who rarely do swat, IMHO.

But the regulations do allow, in section 30, a civil action for damages against someone that has committed the crime. This can be very effective at causing the criminals nuisance at the very least, and in some cases costs. Enough people doing this would eventually screw up their business model.

There are problems, though, and a court case today by a customer of mine against some junk callers has highlighted some of these.

1. In the case of junk emails there is a need for the email to be that of an individual subscriber. After a lot of discussion with the ICO, they have agreed what the law says. If, for the email address, there is a contract between an ISP and their customer for that email, and their customer is an individual and not a company, it is an individual subscriber email address. It does not matter if the email is used for business purposes, has a domain owned by a business, or is clearly a work email address as long as the contract with the ISP is with an individual. This is one hurdle that should be easy to prove to a judge. We have not had that opportunity yet, but proving it to ICO and having an email from ICO confirming that, should help matters if ever we do.

2. Who broke the law? In the case of my customer there was a complex chain of parties that made calls and transferred as a qualified lead to someone else (who I would say clearly instigated such calls, but judge did not agree), and so on. In this case it is important to take all of the parties to court in one case as that means the judge can separately decide if there is a liability from which of them is liable, and could even decide they are joint and severally liable. Taking one to court can, as happened for my customer, mean that they manage to blame someone else and get off as a result.

3. What are the costs of a nuisance call or email? This really is a big issue, and is another reason my customer lost. For most people, most of the time, a single nuisance call or email is no actual cost (damages). But the constant bombardment of nuisance emails and calls is clearly a problem. I even started a petition on this. I want to make it that you don't have to justify costs for claims of up to £50.

So, the legislation is useless if we cannot show any costs. How can a junk call or email have costs? Anyone? Suggestions please? Something a judge may accept?

Well done for trying, Tim, and well done not having to pay costs for their train fares.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Dear Accounts Departments

I know that it caught you by surprise last month. These things do creep up on you without notice, so I hope this helps.

Just to let you know, in advance, that there will be a Christmas this year.

It is scheduled for 25th December, and there is a serious risk that the 26th December (known as "Boxing Day") will be a holiday too.

It almost certainly means your accounts staff will be on holiday, your accounts department may even be closed for some time around the end of December, and it is more than likely that the person that signs the cheques will be taking some holiday.

Please take this in to account and get the payment signed off BEFORE this all happens. Otherwise you'll have more late payment penalties next year.

Or better still pay by BACS or Direct Debit, FFS.

</rant>

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Incorrect weather

NOT the customer's picture of their site :-)
You can't make this shit up.

I often wonder if there is mileage in a TV show based on our office - can't be worse than one based on people that make motor cycles.

Today, as is usual, Shaun (our escalations manager) is on the phone to our favourite telco, BT plc. It is quite normal that he is getting "assertive" with them. I phrase that as such because he has had years of practice and has been on proper telephone techniques and assertiveness courses and really does it well. One such course was run by BT I think.

So, he is cross that BT stated that an engineer had been assigned to the job and would be on site at the customer by 11am. The poor customer having driven 500 miles or so to be on-site for an engineer yesterday had decided to stay over to wait for the job to be finished today. I do feel sorry for customers when shit like this happens.

By now Shaun was on the phone for a long time, escalating from one person to the next as each told him lies or spoke over him, etc.

The excuse, initially, was that the engineer missed the 11am deadline because of "incorrect weather".

Seriously! I would not have been as calm as Shaun after that.

After a few levels of escalation, he was trying to get to the bottom of this, and they said it was "storms".

OK, storms, stopped an engineer getting to site - wow - well, there has been some bad weather in some places - that is possible. Well, we could all over hear Shaun, and we all did a double take at what he said next.

He explained, very calmly, that this customer had, on-site, on-line, an interactive weather station and camera showing clear skies, dry, 9 degrees, and very little wind. What storms?

You have to love customers like that. It almost rang my bullshit alarms, but I went to his desk and there on the screen are the on-line weather station stats for the customer's site. No bullshit at all.

The arses still did not send an engineer today, but that has to be the quickest and best answer I have seen to such a comment in my life. He has spent a lot of time on this, and I am sure the customer will get the "best" service we are able to get him for this. But well done.

Hats off to Shaun, and the customer, for that one.

Best efforts

Just one of the things that annoys me is when someone (e.g. BT plc) offering a "best efforts" service as a way of saying "yeh, well, it can be crap some times".

"Best" has a meaning, and if there is any way that the service could possibly be "better" then what we have is not "best". Adding "efforts" to the end does not really add much to the meaning. "Best efforts" should mean the best they can do.

So why is it that a "best efforts" service is not as good as a "committed rate" service at a higher price?

Heck, when doing QoS stuff over BT, "best efforts" is one of the lower settings, with "guaranteed" being higher. How can "best" not be, well, the best? What is better than best?

Then we get to phrases like "Your order has been acknowledged and BT is aiming for provisioning it as soon as possible." which is the normal response on a standard DSL provision with BT.

But hang on, if I give them around £100 more for an "expedite", it will be sooner. How the hell can it be "possible" for them to provision the service sooner than "as soon as possible" exactly?

It is all blatant lies!

It is not so much that there are different services for different prices - that makes perfect sense. It is that they lie about it - they claim to be providing "best efforts" but there is better, or "soon as possible" but there is sooner.

Why lie? Why make up crap?

Arrrrg!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

iMessage i@j.je please

Update: Finally fixed - thanks to some reports in to Apply by various people - that you all - but still not rolled out and still causing issues. No need to send me a text/email/iMessage now - thanks everyone/


Update: Reward! If this gets fixed, the first person that emails me evidence that their complaint to apple got it fixed gets a free 6 character email address (forwarding to address of their choice).

Apple iMessage is broken, and lots of people are unable to iMessage me on my normal email address. Most of my family have similarly short email addresses. I have complained to Apple, and several of my friends have. We are getting nowhere with this. I even tried to convince OFCOM that Apple are a communications provider and so have to have ADR, but in spite of the wording in the Comms Act, OFCOM do not agree!

So, how can you help?

Note: Apple staff are welcome to send me test iMessages as well.

Step 1: Go to iMessage and start a new message and enter i@j.je and then put the cursor in the Message part.

The address changes colour, red, green or blue.

So, What do the colours mean on an Apple iMessage?
  • Blue means you can iMessage. Please do just message me the word "blue" so I know how many people can.
  • Green means you can text or MMS but cannot iMessage. It may be worth trying to message me the word "green" but I suspect you will get an error.
  • Red means you cannot message. Do try and send the word "red" anyway. This is normally an iPad or Mac which cannot text/MMS.
Note, green will mean sending by MMS which may have a message charge, so you may not want to do that. But please do complain to apple that iMessage is not working!


Step 2: Type a message, ideally just the word "red", "green" or "blue", followed by "iPad", "iPhone", "MacBook", etc, and try send. You may however see a message like this saying that i@j.je is not available.

I can't easily see which address you messaged, so do say you are testing if not just sending the colour. Happy to discuss this on iMessage.

If you would rather just comment on the blog to tell me what happened, feel free. I am not collecting email addresses and numbers, honest.

I'll update notes on here to say what I have discovered.

Step 3: If it would not send as iMessage, contact apple support and tell them you cannot iMessage i@j.je or for a real bonus, ask one of their genius's if you are going to an apple store. Do let me know the various crazy excuses why they say it won't work!

I am sure that if enough people do this they will, eventually, fix it.

The issue, it seems, from various tests, is that some parts of their system block 6 character email addresses. It is fine if 7 characters.

What is especially odd is that if I iMessage someone from a 6 character email address they cannot reply, but if I iMessage two people from a 6 character email address then both can reply to the group!

If someone wants me to iMessage them and someone else as a test to demo this to a genius, please do let me know.

If you are a registered apple developer, please file a bug report. See notes below for details - main issue is unable to sent to 6 character email addresses.

As you can see, I have i@j.je set up for receipt of iMessages.

Obviously, at some point, I'll turn off i@j.je - I'll update this post when I do. Lets hope it makes them fix it.


Notes.

  • The address typically fails to verify, coming up red or green and not blue.
  • On an iPad it seems that even when red, messages can be sent!
  • On an iPhone it will try MMS or fail.
  • On a Mac it fails to send as iMessage
  • Replying to a message from i@j.je has the same problems, but when they try and reply I see the "..." (typing) icon, but no more, and the sender gets an error.
  • If I message from i@j.je to a group of people then they can all reply to the group, and I get the replies.
  • Someone hassled apple who gave their iMessage. I iMessaged them and they could reply! But that may, of course, have been an iPad. They weren't keen to talk.
  • The best we have so far from Apple is that they recommend using a longer email address as a work around!!!!!
  • We have an apple developer account, and like several others, we have reported as a bug - but Apple have actually asked for debug logs (which we have no supplied). You never know, they may be finally working on it.
Stats:
  • "Green" arriving by MMS in my email: 38
  • "Red" arriving by iMessage (from iPad): 16
  • "Blue" arriving by iMessage: 1 (from iPad)*
  • "Blue" arriving by iMessage: 2 (from MBP / air)
  • "white" arriving by iMessage: 1 (from iPad touch)
  • "Green but blue after 30 seconds or so" via iMessage: 1 ?
  • Could not be sent: 1 (but I won't be told all of these)
  • FFS, someone sent "red green or blue", really?!?!?!
* I did not ask, and have deleted the address, but it is possible this is one of those cases where  someone has looked at the colour of the message text, which is indeed blue when sent from an iPad, even though the address is red.

Explain the difference: Modem, Router, WiFi

The way many ISPs sell services it is getting increasing confusing for consumers to understand the different components that go in to making "The Internet" work in their home.

For many people it is just a black box.

So here, I am going to try and explain the difference between a modem, a router and wifi, as well as the reasons you may want to buy one or more of these components separately.

HiFi

To try and put this in to context, anyone of my generation will remember HiFi (no, not WiFi, I do mean HiFi). This is how we listened to iTunes back in the day :-)

You had components to a typical HiFi system which included things like a turntable, a tape deck, an amp, and speakers. You could buy them all in one simple cheap unit from someone like Amstrad if you wanted to, although the speakers were usually physically separate boxes connected by wires so that you could place them left and right.

Alternatively you could buy the various components and connect them together. You may buy the same make of components (i.e. from same manufacturer) but select which specific models you could afford, or you may choose to buy from different manufacturers because you feel that each was best as some areas and not others. (Ironically, some of the single board solutions where styled to look like separate boxes stacked up)

The main advantage of one box was cheapness, but you compromised choice and quality when doing this. Buying components allowed you to choose what you wanted, pick the right models that suited your tastes and budget, and get the system exactly the way you like it. It also allowed individual components to be replaced if you wanted, or of they broke.

Modem

If you are using broadband you will typically have a service from an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that runs via a phone line. This could be a normal ADSL service (the typical, up-to around 20Mb/s type services), or VDSL (the higher speed, often mis-named "fibre", services of up to around 80Mb/s). We'll ignore cable modems for now, but the principles are similar.

The modem is the bit that connects to the phone line and makes the broadband signals work on the line. Modem actually stands for Modulator/Demodulator because of what it does.

The choice of modem is mainly down to how well it works on your specific lines. Most modern modems work very well on most lines. Occasionally, on long lines, we find one make of modem will work better that another on a specific line. This is because each modem will use one of a small selection of chip sets, and each chip set has proprietary software that work well in some cases and not others.

This makes it a bit hard to pick a modem - you may not know which will be best for your line without some trial and error. In practice, for most people, there is not a lot in it as they are all pretty good.

There is, however, a key point that you have to have the modem that is right for the service. Generally a modem is either ADSL or VDSL but probably not both. Until now you would only be buying an ADSL modem as the BT VDSL services come with a modem supplied, but ISPs will now start offering wires only VDSL services. Trying to use an ADSL modem on a VDSL line will not work.

There are also other features. For VDSL there is a new vectoring feature that BT expect to launch soon, and not all modems support. For ADSL, which are almost all ADSL2 and ADSL2+ capable now, you may want AnnexM for higher uplink on the line, and not all ADSL modems do AnnexM (though, most do).

Ideally your ISP should be able to help you get the right type of modem for your services.

The modem connects to the phone line on one side (using a 4 way US style phone cable, usually via a splitter or adapter to a BT phone plug). On the other side, the modem connects to a router (using an 8 way Ethernet cable).

Router

The next component to consider is the router. This connects to the modem. It works at a different level and provides IP (Internet Protocol) packets. It is responsible for actually logging-in to the ISP to allow your connection to work.

Often a router will have a modem built in and so you don't need a separate modem. In some cases, even if a modem is built in, you can use the router with a separate modem if you like. A good example is where the router has an ADSL modem built in, but you have a separate VDSL modem on an FTTC line so do not use the routers modem at all.

When the router and modem are separate, they are connected using an Ethernet cable (8 way connector) and use a protocol called PPPoE. It is actually possible to use PPPoE directly from most computers, e.g. a Windows or Mac laptop, connecting the laptop to the modem directly. This is really useful for testing as it lets you confirm if the modem is OK independently of the router.

Routers do vary a lot. One of the key aspects of routers is whether it supports the current Internet protocol (IPv6). Another important aspect is whether it has some sort of firewall, and if so, what sort of firewall. You can have a separate firewall if you want (yet another component). If you have Network Address Translation (NAT), that is usually in the router itself, and may mean you don't have to bother with a separate firewall.

There are a lot of subtle features that can affect the choice of router. One example is how well the router copes with re-connecting after an outage. It is so annoying for a network blip of some sort to leave you with no Internet until you reboot your router, and even worse if it is some remote, unattended, site.

The router typically connects to your home network. It may include a network switch and so have a number of 8 way Ethernet sockets. You may have it connected to a separate network switch (yet another component), or perhaps first to a firewall. If you have a separate WiFi, then that would be connected to the router or firewall via an 8 way Ethernet cable.

WiFi

Wireless Internet connections are increasingly common within people's homes, replacing or supplementing the wired connections and network switches. They are very useful and found on laptops and tablets and phones.

For WiFi to work you need an Access Point (AP). This can be packaged in to a router or router/modem or connected separately. Even if your router has a WiFi AP built in, you don't have to use it - you could turn it off and buy your own separate APs.

In general, if you have a fixed desktop PC you are far better off using an Ethernet cable to connect that to your router/firewall than using WiFi. WiFi has limits on speed and latency (not good for gaming) and is subject to interference from other WiFi and non WiFi sources. It is also shared by all of the devices using it. A cable is always better.

There are many sorts of WiFi available, and usually have complicated codes like 802.11a, 802.11n, and so on. These are then confused by 2GHz and 5GHz options which are related to the different frequencies used and the protocols used.

I am not going to try and go in to a great deal of detail on the different types - there are far better web pages for that - the point here is that there is a choice. The choice is around budget, number of devices that the AP can handle, speed of wireless connection, compatibility with devices you have, and so on. In general the range of signal on a single AP is not so much of a choice as this is based on standards for the power used, so normally the same from one AP to another working to the same specification.

This is where buying components is a good idea - if your home has thick stone walls, or lots of floors, you will find that a WiFi signal will not work well in many parts of the house. You have to consider where to put a single WiFi Access Point for best coverage, and that may not be where the router is best located.

You can normally connect multiple APs on the same named network (the SSID) and that can work well. Devices will typically switch over automatically between the APs as you move around the house, though this can mean losing signal briefly. Each AP will normally be connected via an Ethernet cable back to your router/firewall.

It is possible to get WiFi repeaters which act as a WiFi device on your existing wireless network, and then provide further WiFi as an AP. These are not quite as good as running a separate new Ethernet cable to each AP.

One of the other annoyances with APs is reliability when working with some devices. There seems to be quite a lot of variation, with many APs needing rebooting occasionally. The two main makes I would recommend are the Apple Airport range, which seem to just work and the Ubiquity UniFi range which are ideal for wider areas needing several APs. The UniFi also have a cool feature of seamless handover between APs as you move around, as well as entry level models at a very reasonable price.

Unless you have a small house that can be covered by a single WiFi AP with no problems it is well worth getting separate APs and setting them up where you can get the best signal, cabling them each back to the router/firewall.

Update: If you get additional APs then, ideally, you need to cable them back to a network switch. This could be an Ethernet cable, and usually power to the AP. There are two other approaches that help. (1) Some APs will work with Power over Ethernet so the power can be connected by the network switch (e.g. router) and only need an Ethernet cable to the AP. This is great when the AP is best located somewhere that is not close to a power point. (2) It is possible to get Ethernet over Power adapters allowing Ethernet to use the power wiring, meaning that power at the AP elsewhere in the house can also provide the Ethernet connection via that adapter. (3) Obviously you could have Ethernet over Power to a separate power point, and there have the Ethernet over Power adapter and connect the Ethernet via a Power over Ethernet to allow just a single Ethernet from that remote power point to the AP, if that makes sense.

Combinations

It is not uncommon for an ISP to provide one box which is modem, router, firewall, and WiFi AP, all in one. For a simple, cheap installation, just like the Amstrad HiFi, it may be ideal for lots of people. Another very common mix is modem and router/firewall. Until recently, the VDSL modem was usually separate from a router/firewall/WiFi box.

In many cases the standard device you are provided by your ISP may well be perfectly good. It may also be that you can use some of the components, and sensibly get a separate device for some aspect. You can usually turn off the built in WiFi and get a separate WiFi AP or set of APs if you need. You may be able to use the modem in the supplied device and configure it in bridge mode to link to a separate router/firewall. You may be able to use the supplied device router/firewall with a separate modem using PPPoE, ignoring its built in modem.

Don't be fooled

One of the reasons people are confused is some adverts from some big providers. You see providers offering the best signal or most reliable WiFi or longest reach for WiFi for the Internet Service they are selling. These are typically aspects of the WiFi AP part of the equipment they supply with their service. It is not really an aspect of the Internet Service they are selling at all, just a feature of the kit they choose to include.

You can buy service from an Internet Service Provider that provides a good Internet Service, or one that is the right price for you, and then separately buy WiFi APs that meet your specific needs to give you the best performance and reliability and range for WiFi in your home.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year

Well, another year over. Welcome 2014, and Happy New Year to you all.

This blog is an odd mix - with serious comment on technical and political and consumer issues, as well as interesting technical posts like 3D printers, and s/w design, as well as silly things. Some times I have my views and explain them, with other times asking what people think if I really do not know the answers. The debate is always interesting, and occasionally controversial.

But the blog would be nothing if nobody read it. According to the stats from blogspot, I have finally reached the million page views, and December's total confirms that. 1,011,157 wow!

Once again, I have looked back at what makes my blog popular and again I am at a loss. If I understood this shit I would be dangerous. I wonder if people that do marketing professionally really understand it too.

Of the top 10 pages ever, there is one that stands out as a likely candidate, What a moron... (No. 6) being a page about an pre-recorded response to junk callers, catching hundreds of them. It is a common annoyance that we can all get behind.

But then, oddly, * is also there (No 8), and that is a very specific technical issue of a bug in asterisk. That seems such a specific issue that I am amazed it is up there. It could be that a blog post with such a simple title gets people intrigued, or something. No idea.

The top hits are سمَـَّوُوُحخ ̷̴̐خ ̷̴̐خ ̷̴̐خ امارتخ (No. 2) which controversially crashed a lot of iOS devices, or did it? I checked before posting that it did not crash mind because of the way bloodspot presented it. The issue of the crash, and that I posted it, were both controversial, making Crashing blog post No. 1 page with over 300,000 page views!

But then you get somewhat unexpected pages, like § (No. 3) and Stranger key on my keyboard! (No. 5), Really strange key on my keyboard? (No. 7) and Strange key on my new keyboard? (No. 9). I mean WTF? These are just silly posts about keyboards. Why are keyboard posts so popular?

Finally, there are posts about blog posts! Popular blog post (No. 4) and New blogger - has no title on posts (No. 10) which are almost as strange!!!

I am sure 2014 will bring more debate on Internet filtering, and 3D printing, but we'll see what other topics take my fancy. Happy New Year all.