As usual, I am not offering political views as such on the EU issue, but pondering the process and rules.

It seems Scotland and Northern Ireland may both be interested in staying in the EU. It seems some in the EU are not keen. It seems that either of them breaking off from the UK would then be stuck applying like any other country to join the EU.

However, things are not as simple as when considering a legal entity in a contract. I mean, what is the UK as a party to these international treaties exactly? How is a country defined? After all, they change all the time in subtle ways.

So thought experiments:
  • If, say, the Isle of Wight decided to leave the UK, the rest of the UK would still be the UK and still be in the EU (for now). That seems obvious.
  • So what if Wales left? After all, Wales was one of the countries that came together to make the UK a new entity. Would the UK vanish and cease to exist if Wales left? Or would the" residual" UK still be valid and be the UK, and still be the "entity" that is (currently) in the EU?
  • How far could it go? I mean, could Scotland and Northern Ireland join forces, and say they are "the United Kingdom" and that England and Wales are "leaving" the UK, but the residual UK that is Scotland and NI are still the UK and so still members of the EU with no need to renegotiate anything or make new treaties?
Maybe that is far fetched, but let's try a few more...
  • What if NI merged in to Ireland? Would that be OK? Would Ireland remain the same entity as a party to treaties and the EU, just bigger, and hence be, as a whole, an EU member still with NI?
  • What if Scotland decided to join Ireland? Would that be too much and mean Ireland is no longer the same thing?
  • What if a country in the EU now changed its name, e.g. Ireland become the "Celtic Union", and then let Scotland join them as a new combined country and part of the EU member formally known as "Ireland"?
Really, how does it work, and who actually decides? All of the above scenarios are, in theory, no concern of the EU, as they are internal to the various countries (unless EU treaties already contain rules on merging with new countries or splitting).

If I was the SNP I would be asking these questions in all seriousness though.

After all, if Scotland was allowed to “join” Ireland as an EU member, they could operate a “devolved government” system which basically means they are only there for the green card, I mean EU membership, and not really in bed with each other.


Heads or Tails? Who are your friends now? #EURef

I have not posted a lot on the EU. Indeed, the next day I posted that I would not say a lot on the analysis of the consequences as so many others will be doing that. I also made a comment on the only qualifications to be a voter being that you could spell "X" (something that others pointed out is not actually a requirement!).

I did not actually say which way I voted, and whist it may be obvious to some, I don't plan to.

However, I am really quite concerned at how divisive this whole issue has been, not just in terms of the country but families and friends. It is quite scary really.

Before the vote I was involved in a few discussions with friends. I think it is fair to say that we agreed that there was no real way to know the best way to go, and that probably we will never know which was best in hindsight (in the long term). There are interesting arguments based on the lack of knowledge, like "if we don't know what will happen or which way to vote, you vote for status quo, as what know what that is like now, and it is tolerable even if not ideal, and maybe can be fixed". There are arguments like "If we were not in and we voted you join, would we go in?" Possibly not. Sadly neither of these are actually helpful in making an informed decision, and all of the information we can see is speculative propaganda, and to be frank, in some cases, outright lies on both sides, or so it seemed to me.

Basically, my point is that democracy is clearly not going to work in this case. Don't get me wrong, democracy is pretty much the best we have and overall it works well. It is fundamentally a means to mitigate civil war, something from which almost any other system of government can suffer all too easily. But in some cases, and I could say this whichever way the vote went, democracy is not rational, simply because almost everyone voting did not actually have the experience or qualifications in politics or economics to know the way to vote. The fact that the vote was so close bears that out to some extent. Sadly a system of "rational government", which avoids the risk of civil war, does not really exist, as far as I know.

The one thing I am absolutely not saying is that people are idiots, or that the people that voted one way or the other are idiots. I am not even saying people are racist as I do not expect that people are generally (though a few in the news clearly are). What I am saying to some extent is that we are all not quite idiots, but, uneducated and uninformed, on this specific topic. To be honest I am not sure anyone is an expert in this as nobody else has done it before. This means we all voted on gut instinct or propaganda influence.

What this has led to is some serious talks with a good friend of mine that voted a different way to me, and I really think he is sensible and rational, enough not to let this ruin our friendship. It is however, a lot closer to being an actual issue than I expected. Some long text and talk conversations.

In partly this is down to me - I am not that good at working out when people will be upset by something or not. I am sorry about that. I have perhaps a less conventional sense of humour and so I have liked or retweeted some things I found amusing without thinking whether someone else seeing that would be offended by "my views" inferred by association with the article I liked/retweeted.

When I have strong views, I'll let you know! Right now I have some views on the way things are going, and concerns about them, but I don't have any thoughts that any of my friends, or colleagues or customers have been idiots! That would be silly, and, well, "not logical, Captain". Even my views on where were are now are concerns, not anger, and are around the more technical aspects of "what will happen?" and "what can we do?" not "who's fault was this?". I always try to be pragmatic.

So please, let's all get over any personal attacks, tackle the issue at hand, and work on the way forward. Yes, right now, we have not left, and yes, that is not 100% certain yet, but seems very likely. Even if/when we leave, what that means is up in the air. Heck, we could leave EU, and re-negotiate identical terms with every EU state and so be status quo if they tried hard enough (not likely). What is likely is that if/when we leave a whole load of EU rules (like them or not) will move in to UK law and be just as hard to "fix". They may even be harder to fix than if they were EU regulations, as our own government do seem to be fighting their own people with laws like the IP Bill (something I do have strong views on). Maybe we should have a referendum on the IP Bill :-)

So, please, can we move on and not have a go at friends and relatives who voted the other way - it is almost as bad as getting cross because someone flipped a coin the other way and that is just daft. It is almost as daft as deciding your friends on who likes Marmite?!

P.S. I think I am really lucky - I can debate issues with my friends and resolve issues like this, which I think I have, but I know many people that could not do so and would have a life long rift in friend or family relationships over this. Now that is scary! It really is like if you had a referendum on Marmite: Like or Dislike.

Daft question

During the count, a friend asked if the result was like normal elections where the majority may vote one way in total but when done by constituencies the vote could go the other way.

Some of us found it amusing, and explained that it was a total count and not on constituency lines.

But now it seems things may not be so clear cut. Yes, the referendum was a straight count, but it is just a big opinion poll and not anything with any legal force.

Parliament ultimately will vote on this, and already, some MPs are saying they will vote based on the way their constituency voted. This makes sense given that an MP is there specifically to represent his constituents. Surely that is exactly how he should vote?

So we may yet have a crazy situation of the referendum going one way but the actual vote in parliament going the other.

We should all be used to this as number of votes overall has never been directly related to number of MPs and hence number of votes on any issue in parliament.

We'll have to wait and see...

The death of the land line?

My wife and I had a 25 year renewal of vows this weekend (I don't blog everything, any family wanting to see the pictures, just ask).

On Saturday night the family had the lodge at Peckforton Castle, and Sunday morning the girls were there getting ready. The whole area has really poor mobile signal, even outside, and the lodge had no wifi! It was meant to have wifi but something was not right (and no, I could not fix it).

This was something of an inconvenience. We had people arriving on the Saturday night to other hotels and people arriving all Sunday, and we were trying to keep in touch, check when people were arriving, try and get a message to someone to get some cufflinks as James forgot them, and so on. A total lack of any workable Internet was a pain. Even when I went up to the castle when the bride got ready I had no communications with the family in the lodge.

It was only when I considered writing this blog post this morning it dawned on me. There was a phone in the lodge. I just had not really occurred to any of us to use it to contact people!

To be fair, most of the communications did not want to be the type of interruption of a phone call, they suited a message which could be read later.

But this really does show how massively times have changed in just a few years. It has not been long since a time when there were no text messages or even mobile phones in popular use. Just a generation ago the phone in the lodge would have been the only communication one would expect to be able to use.

Clearly the land line is on the way out, replaced by mobiles and non voice communications.


Leaving the EU

Not a lot I can say. Started the day with something along the lines of "Holy fucking cow"!

I cannot really contribute to the analysis of what is happening today and what will happen next. There are a lot of people reporting that in a lot of detail.

Democracy is all very well, but sadly the only qualifications required to vote are that you survived to your 18th birthday, can find the polling station, and can spell "X".

P.S. Someone took this post as insulting. I was not trying to be insulting, sorry. I think that most people voting on this issue, myself included, lack the necessary experience or qualifications in politics, or economics, to have been able to make a remotely informed decision. We all went on gut feeling or propaganda. That is a problem with democracy, but it is the best we have at the moment.

Droney McDroneface: Day 4 (I passed!)

Well, day 4 is a half day, and we covered a bit on human factors, a planning exercise, and THE TEST!

This is the theory part, and I am pleased to say I passed. The questions were very easy, but a couple I was unsure of as I felt more than one answer may be valid. As it happens I got 5 wrong, and they will let me know which of these next week when the send the certificate. I can think of at least 2 I was really unsure of, but 5 is actually a lot worse than I expected, it means I only scored 91%. Pass level is 70%, so perfectly good, but I am kicking myself anyway, sorry.

The next steps are that I need to practice flying a bit, and we need to make an operational manual. Then I can book in for a practical in a few weeks. Right now I would not pass that, but in a few weeks with a few hours practice, I don't expect it to be too hard.

What I did see is at least three errors in the questions, which I noted :-) They kept referencing Kelvin metres not kilometres.

The good news is Alex passed too, same score.

P.S. Revised (audited) result, I got 94.6%

P.P.S. I now know the 3 questions I got wrong. One was bang to rights, I forgot wind is described by the direction it comes from (bloody stupid system). One question was ambiguous and I did know the answer if only I had understood what they meant by the question. One question did not list any one right answer as all answers were dependant on other factors - I picked one of the valid answers but not what was expected. I hope the improve the test.

P.P.P.S. Seems I actually got one other question wrong too, but I answered as per the course. I.e. the course was wrong, in that it asked the baseline number of satellites in US GPS system, and I answered 24. Apparently as of June 2011 it is 27.


Droney McDroneface: Day 3

Today we covered more on weather, and operational manuals, and some details of the practical flight test.

One of the key things for the PFAW (Permission for Aerial Works) is that we have to produce an operational manual. This includes a volume (1) on the company and the work we will be doing and our various procedures for operation and risk management, etc. A volume (2) on the technical details of the aircraft. And finally, optionally, a volume (3) making the operational safety case for extra permissions, if we need them, such as working closer to people and buildings in congested areas. Volume 3 is tricky to get and may require showing some operating experience, so we are not going to do that yet. Some time next year we expect rules to be relaxed in various areas anyway so may not be necessary.

I have to say that it has not been 100% clear what the course gets us, so it is worth explaining in a little more detail...

What do you get from a CAA PFAW course?

The PFAW is something the company gets, and can then engage pilots that have passed the theory and practical tests. Obviously a lone operator can get the PFAW themselves and be the pilot. Hopefully we (Alex and myself) pass the theory tomorrow, then come back in a few weeks for the practical. Once we have our operational manual we can apply for the PFAW for the company.

Without the PFAW there are rules for small unmanned surveillance aircraft (SUSA), and for a congested area these are quite strict - not over or within 150m of a congested area! Also not within 50m of a person or structure not under our control (30m during take off or landing).

Given that a congested area covers anywhere built up in a town or city or settlement (anywhere that is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes) that pretty much rules out getting close to anywhere in a town or city or settlement. Even with permission of all of the home owners near me, I could not fly up by my house as I live in a residential area!

What we get with the PFAW is a basic or standard permission: "The standard CAA permission for SUA/SUSA in the 7 kg or less category allows flight in congested areas to within 50 metres of persons, structures etc. (or within 30 metres if the persons are under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft). This category of SUA/SUSA cannot fly within 150 metres of open-air assemblies of 1,000 people or more where only a standard permission has been granted."

Update: I assume that is bad wording and they do not mean "to within 50m" as 10m is "within 50m". I assume they mean 50m or more, sort of "without 50m" :-)

This is good news as it removes the restriction for a small drone operator operating in a congested area, but leaves the 50m restriction for structures or people not in control. Oddly it also imposes a 30m restriction for those that are (a restriction which does not apply outside congested areas!).

The 50m/30m may not be an issue, assuming, as we are, that it is a straight line from aircraft, as one can take off to over 30m height, and then be close (horizontally) to my house or neighbours houses yet outside these distance limits because of height. There may be a slight issue with finding somewhere to validly take off or land. It will be interesting to see what a PFAW says about that though.

One question that came up on the course, and the answer was not 100% confident (sorry heliguy), was that these distances are 3D, i.e. "piece of string", distances. From aircraft at height to the object/person. So if allowed no closer than 50m that could be achieved by being 1m away horizontally and 50m up. Pythagoras do your worst. This is confirmed by a phrase in IN-2014/190 and CAP 722: "In any circumstances or weight category, it should be noted that flights directly overhead persons and vehicles will not be allowed at any height in a congested area unless they are under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.". The fact they have to say this means clearly that the height is a factor in the distance calculation, i.e. we could fly 30m over our heads (if in our control). Good news, though I may need to buy some hard hats to mitigate risks.

Update: CAA have confirmed that these distance rules really do work as a direct 3D line, so height is part of that.

Getting these distances reduced is what takes a lot more work and an operational safety cases in volume 3 of the operational manual. However, the fact that the height is a factor means I should be able to fly high enough to avoid the need to get permission from my neighbours to take aerial shots of my house, and can even fly over my house (at least 30m above - though it is a structure not a person so maybe closer is actually allowed) as I control it. This is once I get the PFAW. Indeed, the documentation does say that this basic permission will be suitable for video of properties, filming, etc.

I do think heliguy should have had a slide right at the start stating clearly the rules without PFAW and the rules with PFAW - a clear indication of what you are getting by doing this course. It was not obvious to me, or others on the course, until just now that for under 7kg the basic PFAW allowed work in congested areas. I'll give them feedback on the final day tomorrow.

Somewhere to practice...

Before I do the practical I will need a bit of practice. The test involves a few basic flying manoeuvres, but as I have had exactly 20 minutes total flight time so far, I am not quite up to them yet. So where can I practice?

One possibility would be a field, with permission from the owner, and not somewhere the public are likely to access (and not near power lines or flight paths, etc, etc).

But one interesting possibility is the office car park, at a weekend!

There are two ways to do this - one is pretty clear cut and involves removing or disabling the camera so I only come under the non-surveillance rules. Then there is no issue as it is clearly "safe" on a weekend, with nobody else around.

The other is more creative, and I am trying to find a reference for this. But the idea is simple. The definition for that area to be a congested area would mean it has to be substantially used for industrial use. Well, the argument is, that, at the weekend, it is not. All of the offices and work units are all closed at the weekend and nobody is around!

The formal definition does not say! It would be an interpretation to say "right now" this is not a congested area. It was suggested by one of the trainers, so hopefully is valid. One way to be reasonably sure may be to actually ask the CAA. I am not sure I want to open that particular can of worms right now though. Some have suggested that this rule is not time specific, but ultimately it has to be - if you build a housing estate it will, at a point in time, change from non congested to congested - so time has to be a factor - so why not time of days or hours?

What I can be pretty sure of is that it would be safe, especially if I am doing it personally as a private flight, covered by MBFA membership insurance. I'll get permission of the neighbouring units within 50m so I have "control" of the buildings, and have someone watch out for vehicles or people approaching (unlikely). With any luck this will give me somewhere to practice.

Not this weekend though, as I have my wedding blessing to go to. Oooh, look, it is in a castle in the middle of nowhere (not a town or city or settlement). That could be handy :-)


Droney McDroneface: Day 2 (Air Law)

Today we covered air law, and charts and classes of air space and NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen). The charts and air space are pretty simple and there is a really cool app / website (skydemon) which allows you to point and see what restrictions and notices apply where you are. That was the easy bit. The hard bit is air law!

The reason it is hard is the vagueness, and stupidity, of the laws around this whole area.

There are general requirements to ensure flight is safe and to avoid collisions and so on, but the main two clauses of the Air Navigation Order 2009 are section 166 and 167. These two rules cover, basically, drones, and drones that are equipped for surveillance.

The drone we have is a Phantom 4 which falls in the ≤7kg weight class. What is interesting is that if it did not have a camera, only clause 166 would apply, and this has some moderately flexible rules...
  • Don't drop anything from the aircraft!
  • Only fly if you think it safe, duh.
  • Fly only in visual line of sight (deemed to be 500m horizontally which you cannot really see the drone at, but can see other aircraft, which is what matters). In practice you need not to fly so high as to be unable to see it as well.
  • Don't fly commercially without a PFAW (Permission For Aerial Works) from CAA
This is quite good - there is not even a height restriction or any need to obey controlled airspace! It is sensible as a courtesy to notify ATC (Air Traffic Control) but not a requirement. There are types of air space that prohibit any flight, but the controlled space is a big issue as that covers large areas (e.g. Bracknell is within Heathrow space) so not having that issue is huge. The requirements change once over 7kg. Basically, providing you are "safe" you can fly a ≤7kg drone most places even in towns and cities, even quite high, even if near people or vehicles or property, if it does not have surveillance equipment.

Update: It is worth pointing out that there are a load of general restrictions, such as not endangering other aircraft, which effectively place some limitations on what you do even under section 166. Even so, 166 is pretty flexible.

Section 167 is where it gets odd. Bear in mind these regulations are meant to relate to safety. This section applies to drones with surveillance equipment (e.g. a camera) which my Phantom 4 has, as do many drones. Why separate safety rules apply for drones with a camera is beyond me! The rules are much more onerous, covering those in 166 (above) plus...
  • Not over, or within 150m of a congested area
  • Not over, or within 150m of an organised assembly of 1,000 or more people
  • Not within 50m of a vessel, vehicle, or structure not under your control (30m during take-off or landing)
  • Not within 50m or a person (apart from pilot of persons directly under his control)
There are big issues with the wording - for a start the "not within 30m of a person" during take off or landing does not actually stop the "not within 50m or a person" rule. That rule should have an "except for take-off of landing" and does not have it. Really bad drafting. The other issue is the "Not within 50m of a structure not in control" does not stop the "over or within 150m of a congested area". Congested area includes anywhere used residentially, so a house is a congested area if in a city, town or settlement, so even with permission and control of the home owner you still cannot be over or within 150m!

In practice it seems to be interpreted that the 30m applies for take-off and landing not the 50m, and in practice it seems the structure you have control over is allowed within the 150m, but not within 150m of a neighbour or someone you do not control! Well, we hope, but the way the rules are interpreted is not 100% clear!

There were interesting discussion of vehicles and hence roads. Being 50m from a road could be a pain, but actually the rule is 50m from a vehicle. So we think, if the road is clear of vehicles (that are not under our control) we could take off near the road and get to 50m high. The rules do not say the 50m or 150m is horizontal, so 50m high and not actually over a vehicle would seem to be OK. But to make sure you are safe you have to have some procedures to cover checking the road is clear during take off and landing near the road somehow.

Another discussion is congested areas and the definition which is: ‘Congested area’ in relation to a city, town or settlement, means any area which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes;

This seems to cover basically everywhere and every type of "area" or land unless not actually a city, town or settlement. So I guess a house or castle in the middle of nowhere is not a congested area. Maybe a field in the middle of nowhere is not (though fields are commercial). One interesting point though was the time frame. The idea that our office, on a Sunday morning, is not at that time being used substantially for commercial or industrial use as nobody is working in any of the offices. If that is a valid interpretation then we simply have to contend with the 50m rule for structures and vehicles not in our control. I also wonder what one has to do to justify "control" of a structure! If an adjacent office is empty can I just "take control" of it (i.e. have someone to watch out for any people approaching it and tell them we have a drone over head). So could I control all of the buildings within 50m of me as they are empty? This may mean my test flight at the office on a Sunday morning, and even over the road leading to the office, may have been 100% legit even with no PFAW. If so, cool, a place (and time) to practice.

The good news is the 150m of congested area goes down to 50m if you get a PFAW and possibly lower if you get one of the extended permissions.

Apparently, one of the other extended permissions is night flying. But I have failed to find any restriction on night flying in the legislation, so I may ask that one tomorrow. Maybe some of these restrictions are included in the basic PFAW as caveats and hence why one needs extended permission for such.

But it all makes no sense - what the hell makes a drone with a camera unsafe around people, vehicles, structures, congested areas, but a drone without a camera is not inherently unsafe around such things and so not needing of such restrictions?

One idea for practice was to put a lens cap or tape over camera on Phantom 4. I would argue that as equipped, at that point, it is not capable of surveillance and so not subject to 167. Not an argument to have with a judge maybe, but not a bad argument I feel. That would allow me to practice in my back garden then as clause 167 would not apply.

Overall it is not a good mix of pedant, techie, and the law, one way or another.

It is shitty wording and shitty legislation, clearly. The good news is that the FAA (US Federal Aviation Authority) are relaxing rules and the EU are expected to make rules that will replace the UK rules next year. Hopefully these new rules will at least be sensibly drafted and hence much clearer.

There was one other useful (and cost saving) point. The PFAW is something the company obtains, having produced an operational manual. It can then engage any pilot that has passed the theory and practical tests. This is slightly odd as part of the practical test is confirming we can follow the operational manual, when in theory we may not know who we are going to work for an what operational manual they will have! It is also the company that gets the commercial drone insurance. Given we are training two pilots, this does save some money.


Droney McDroneface: Day 1

Well, the first day of the heliguy course is over and this means Alex and I have embarked on the first steps to becoming proper drone pilots.

Personal I think today was quite slow, but I gather tomorrow will be a lot more work as tomorrow is mostly on air law. Today was covering principles of flight and aircraft knowledge, and quite a lot on Lithium Polymer battery safety (with scary videos).

So hopefully in tomorrow's post I can explain a tad more about what is allowed and what is not, and what will be allowed once we get our PFAW (Permission For Aerial Works).

The process to get there means this course and a theory test which we have to pass, then producing an operations manual, and then passing a practical test, and finally an application to the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). This week should complete the theory test part. We will need insurance as well.

One of the things we have to decide is what sort of aerial work we want to be able to do, and if we want to try and apply for some extended permissions rather than just the basics. The basics, for example, allow working outside 50m distance of people or property we do not control, but it seems there may be ways to apply for closer distances if we can present the risk assessments and mitigation in our operations manual. Hopefully we'll know more on that tomorrow as well. Other possible extended permissions are things like night flying, and flying beyond visual line of sight. I doubt we need to go for either of those to start with.

It seems the Phantom 4 is a good choice of drone - it is very capable with an excellent camera and a lot of safety features. It fits in the lowest weight category (≤7kg). There are other drones we could get, within that category, or go for the heavy lift (≤20kg). The only real concern expressed with using a Phantom 4 on commercial work was the customer perception issue (I could get one of them from Apple/Maplin, or my kid has one of those). Obviously the fact we have done a CAA course, passed tests, and got PFAW is what really matters, but customer perception can be an issue.

What would make a difference, if we wanted to do more work, such as in London, or over people, would be a hexacopter or octocopter which can survive a rotor failure. A quadrocopter like the Phantom 4 cannot. The CAA stuff is all about safety and mitigating risk.


Should I thank Theresa May?

For some decades now the security and Internet community have tried to convince people to encrypted data.

It has taken a long time to do this - partly as computing power used to be difficult to handle secure communications even only a few years ago, but times have changed.

Now it is not just possible, but desirable, for https everywhere not http, and end to end encryption in communications.

The challenge has been convincing people of the need. After all, criminals may be smart but they had not, until more recently, been that smart.

The good news is that it seems to me that the message is finally sinking in. More and more people are assuming every web site they make should be https. Heck, even the aa.net.uk site should be soon. We are looking at ways to make this the default for our web hosting customers too (but that is quite a complex project).

The odd thing is why this is happening. Criminals are the real threat here - they could hack communications providers to access unencrypted data. They could hack DNS to impersonate a web site. They can get your data and exploit it.

But the real reason I feel worried, and I know a lot of others do, is not the criminals, it is the authorities. It is the massive invasion of privacy that the government want to have access to.

I am far more concerned that my privacy will be invaded by the government than criminals.

Why? Well, if they get the IP Bill through they will simply have the legal power to do that, and on a large scale. Criminals take a risk and have to compromise systems. Government can simple issue secret orders and warrants and do what they like. Which is more likely to happen?

The good news is more and more people are using end to end encryption like PGP, Signal, iMessage, and all sorts. More people are encrypting hard drives as standard. More operating systems are making it easy and default to do so. If they insist we disclose passwords, we make systems with hidden partitions, and steganography and secondary password protected innocent file stores. So many ways to defeat the adversary. So may ways we can prove we are complying and innocent whatever data we really hold. These are techniques to handle the criminal, even those with $5 wrench but they work just as well on the authorities if you are a criminal yourself, or not and you just want your human right to privacy.

It really seems we all fear a police state more than we fear criminals. Crazy, I agree, but end result is we are safer from criminals too. So a good thing.

Thank you Theresa May for whipping up enough paranoia for people to finally take privacy seriously. Well done.

Canon EOS 1DX MkII

The new Canon EOS 1DX MkII is finally with us. It was meant to be released some time in April I think. Sadly York Cameras closed down a few years ago, so I ordered from Calumet in April, and was on their waiting list. Oddly being a CPS Platinum member no longer helps - why Canon?

They were told various dates by Canon, including end of May, and then 6th June, and then maybe end of June.

I was hoping to try the new camera out on my LA/Vegas trip (7th), and on the wedding blessing (26th) and I was getting rather concerned that it would not arrive in time.

So, I went to LA without my new camera. Surely, if anywhere would have it, then that would be Hollywood!

The concierge at the W Hollywood was very good, calling round camera shops. Best Buy claimed to have them available to collect in store on the Friday (10th) if you ordered. The Canon USA on-line store said in-stock for delivery before we left (6th). But I was very reluctant to order one whilst in the US in case it did not arrive on the promised day and I ended up without it, having paid.

Samy's Cameras have several stores in the area, and one in Hollywood said they would have one in on the Friday (10th). As we did not drive to Vegas until the Saturday, that was the plan.

So on the Friday we went to Samy's Cameras. An impressive camera store! They did not have one, and were puzzled that someone told us they would! They said they had one in the warehouse and could have it dropped in to the store later that day - yay! They took my number (which was tricky as none of us knew our US numbers on our holiday SIMs). I asked about the new WiFi adapter and he checked and only then said "Oh, we don't have the camera in the warehouse". Not impressed.

Anyway, we asked if any other stores had them, and he said no. So we went to Universal and ate at Bubba Gump (they do chicken too). Anyway, when we came back the concierge said they had found one, in Samy's Cameras in Pasadena! (So much for no other stores having them, FFS). However, someone was buying it, but his card was not working! But now they were shut. We should have given her our number!

We went there on the Saturday on the way to the I15, waited for them to open, and yes, they did indeed have one the day before, and the guy's card had failed, but he had come back at 5:30pm and it worked and that was the only one they had. We had missed it by half a day all because of the apparently totally inept sales assistant in the Samy's in Hollywood.

OK, off to Vegas. Again, not keen to order as only in Vegas a few days, but Best Buy says they can get one ordered to the store for Wednesday. We fly back on Wednesday. My plan was to order one on the Monday and see if we can pay for it to be expressed for Tuesday instead.

Thankfully, by the time I got up on Monday, PDT, it was afternoon in the UK and Calumet had emailed saying they had them in at last and mine was shipped for Tuesday at the office in the UK. So no need to go to Best Buy, phew. I decided against DHLing it to Vegas.

Now I am back, I have had a bit of a play with it. The offer of a CFast card does not work - having completed the on-line form it insisted a mandatory field is not completed, but does not say which (and they all are). No reply from their support people yet. Maybe the offer is a scam?

Anyway, first impression of the 1DX MkII...

It works well, and is very much like the 1DX. The built in GPS is very good - one of the main features I wanted as I like geo-tagged pictures, and had the GPS module on the 1DX all the time, meaning I rarely took a flash anywhere. Whilst it is very good in low light the flash is a useful addition to some pictures, obviously, and I was having to choose flash or GPS. Oddly the inbuilt GPS is not quite as good - struggles to lock in doors, and has no compass. Why the downgrade Canon?

Another really annoying feature is that unlike the 1DX, the wifi disables auto-power-off! I used to leave the camera switched on. It would auto power off and use no power so would be fine even if not used for weeks to just pic up and take a picture. If in the office or my house it would also immediately upload the picture via wifi. Then, on auto power off the wifi goes off.

Now, I have to faff with turning wifi on and off (in a menu) or turn the camera off, which is a total faff. Also, the GPS in mode 2 carries on checking occasionally when auto power off, but this seems to have no back off or time limit, which means it too will drain the battery after a few days. If I go for the "turn it off" option, then that loses the GPS lock and takes ages to get it again, so I want the auto power off for that, meaning I have to faff with turning wifi on and off. To make it worse, on the 1DX you could use the "transfer on SET" feature when wifi was off - it would turn the wifi on and send the selected images. That would not be a bad compromise, but guess what - that does not work on the 1DX MkII.

These are simple things, but really, why the backwards step Canon? Just make it work, make it auto power off, and back off  the GPS, to zero power usage if left on. Reading some comments on line I am not alone in leaving the camera on, ready to take pictures with no messing about.

Also disappointing that the wifi is not built in yet - it is possible to squeeze wifi on to an SD card even, so why not build in to the camera?

As for focus speed, image quality, etc. I need to do more playing with it. It seems good. The video is easier to do than on the 1DX. Maybe a follow up post on the actual photography aspects in due course.

P.S. One small puzzlement - it is specified as approx 20.2M effective pixels, but the images are 5472x3648 which is 19961856 pixels, so not even 20M.


Busy day

It would appear that there has been some sort of sporting event involving a football this afternoon, and, of course, lots of people have watched it via the Internet.

This is the LONAP graph...

As you can see, it was a couple of hours of very high usage.

A&A customers were no different, and our network saw proportionately similar burst of traffic. The good news is that the recent upgrades have proved their worth and it looks like we managed very well. The stats we publish with show that some links were pushed to the point of some errored seconds (even one packet dropped in a second counts as an errored second) but not enough to cause damping of any lines, or any packet loss of latency peaks showing on our line graphs.

It would appear that some other ISPs did not fair as well. We would not have coped before our recent network upgrades. This has been a good test, and well done to the team at A&A for all their hard work this year making it happen.

Using Mondo Card in the US

I have just returned from a week in the US and I tried to use my Mondo card as much as possible whilst there. We spent a few days in Hollywood, LA, and then went on to Las Vegas.

Cards in the US

Firstly it is worth understanding how cards work in the US. In the UK we are used to chip and PIN everywhere, with contactless for small transactions like Starbucks. The US is still somewhat different, though one retailer did say that it is all changing and they have a deadline of the end of the year for chip and PIN (no idea if that is all US or just that state).

At the moment the mag stripe is king in the US - you pretty much always swipe your card, or hand the card over and the retailer swipes it. Chip and PIN is rare, but they do appear to have chips on a lot of US cards, and readers that handle chips and even contactless are common even if only the swipe is used currently.

For small transactions like Starbucks you will often simply swipe the card and get a receipt. This is very quick and efficient and much like we would use contactless. For larger transactions you are asked to sign, either on a paper slip or using a stylus on a screen. The terminals that have a screen like this, and swipe and chip reader all in one, seem very common.

Why use the Mondo

There are two main reasons to use the Mondo card.
  1. Budgeting is very easy. This can be important on holiday, loading a budget on the card, and then having real time tracking in pounds and pence as you go. This is one of the nice features of the Mondo card. Even though I have on-line banking with my other cards the Mondo makes this just way simpler. 
  2. The other reason is saving money. Compared to my Barclays VISA card, Mondo has the exact same exchange rate but the Barclays card charges and extra “Non sterling trans fee” around 3% which is not funny! 
Cash machines

Cash machines work. I tried both Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. Both charged a fee ($3 and $5). I also tested a $20 withdrawal on Mondo and on my Barclays card. The exchange rate on mondo stated $1.45 and on Barclays $1.449899, so the same apart from the aforementioned non-sterling trans fee on Barclays. What was odd is that there was no machine fee for the Barclays card though. I must ask Mondo why that is - maybe Barclays have some deal with Bank of America. I did not test the Barclays on Wells Fargo. Obviously the more you take out, assuming a fixed fee, the better the deal. I am leaving the US with a lot more cash than I took out thanks to the roulette wheel.

Chip or swipe

It seems that many of the machines work best if you swipe the card, especially in smaller retailers. It is worth trying anyway as it will say if it wants chip instead, but I had no problem with the swipe.

That said, there were a few cases where using the chip was the option, and that asks for a PIN as normal and worked. The Apple store were on the ball, and chip and PIN worked perfectly as expected.

Checking ID

As the US does not normally use chip and PIN, they will normally want ID to check against the name on the card. This is not the case for small amounts where they do not even ask you to sign, but for larger amounts they will ask for ID. The reaction to the Mondo not having a name was a constant source of amusement. The Apple store looked and said “I guess it will ask for a PIN” which it did. We had a few “I’ll need your I… Oh, no I don’t”. One place insisted on ID anyway even though they had nothing to check it against, which was slightly amusing. Obviously in the US, checking ID like this is pretty essential when they don’t have PIN. You might say “surely they check signature” but the answer is NO! We did not see any signature check ever.

When using in a restaurant the process is you get the bill, enter the tip and total and offer card, they come back with receipt and slip to sign and your card. You take card, sign and leave. No checking the card or signature. The transaction is complete (as per the Mondo ka-ching on the iPhone) before they come back to the table and ask for a signature! You can see why ID checks matter normally though.

Silly questions

When using a card in the US, they have more than one account on the card, typically ”Checking” and ”Saving” (if I remember correctly). On a cash machine just select “checking account” (AKA “cheque account” or “current account”).

One oddity is that we were also asked on retail consoles for “Debit” or “Credit”, which makes no sense to me. Surely the card is debit or credit and no need to ask, but maybe like “checking” and “saving” there are type types of account on a card in the US? You pretty much need to say “Credit” contrary to what you would expect as otherwise it seems not to work.

On one occasions we had a real oddity where the card was declined (Mondo logged as being an invalid CVV even though it was a swiped card not on-line). The retailer was not surprised, tapped something and said try again, and it worked. Maybe the credit/debit question or something. Not clear.

Mondo app

As in the UK you see the transaction instantly (before you sign). Conversion is to UK pounds. It is slightly confusing that this is not final amount and can change a few days later so it seems when the transaction completes but not a big issue whilst exchange rates are not being silly.

Where it does not work

Chemists, I mean Pharmacies… They seem to be a problem. One was very strange - swiping said to use chip. Using chip said to swipe. It did the same on my Barclays VISA too. I had to find some cash! Another one just point blank refused, but the Barclays worked. The retailer said “does not work with foreign cards” but there was no explanation, and we even had that in the case where the UK Barclays VISA did work.

Another oddity which Mondo are looking in to, surrounds the hotel making a reservation on the card. When I checked in to the hotel in Hollywood they reserved $500 which was £344, but when I checked out the charge was actually $209. What was odd is it showed the $500 refund but as £199 claiming to be a $2.51 exchange rate, but looks like the right amount for the balance of the reserve. Naturally I was concerned that the $500 had been refunded at a silly exchange rate and that I may later get the $209 charge but that did not happen. I think I now have a Mondo statement that does not actually add up, but one to check when not on a plane. So was confusing to say the least. [update: My Mondo statement does not add up to the balance, and they are investigating]

Fun and games

We did think it would have been amusing if the card had different track 1 data. Track 1 on the mag stripe holds the card number and cardholder name. The name on a Mondo card is “/NON-PERSONALISED”. This often got printed on the receipt on a line on its own. We did think a name of “SERVICE INCLUDED” would have been entertaining, especially in the US tipping culture :-)


It works, at least as well as other UK cards, saves money by not charging a “Non sterling trans fee” and makes a really easy way to budget and understand what you spend.


The Hangover, Part 50?

A couple of my long (suffering) friends have agreed to be best men at my wedding blessing / renewal of vows later this month. Thank you Mike and Simon.

I know this is payback big time for the fact Sandra and I got married in a register office 25 years ago... Be warned anyone else doing that! But it will be a nice event and I am looking forward to it.

Now, when it is a wedding blessing a "stag night" in any traditional sense does not really seem right. But we did wonder about doing somethings, and then we realised (a) Simon was 50 a week or two ago, and (b) Simon has never ever been to Vegas!

So, the three of us, are off to LA then Vegas shortly, for a week. It seems they have what they are calling a heat wave and temperatures are forecast for something like 42℃.

Vegas is a challenge, it is a strange place. I once went during Halloween, and that was doubly strange.

We know that what happens in Vegas stays in vegas, apart from STDs and tattoos, and we have no intention of getting close to either!

Hopefully it will be fun. It may be a tad hot, but they have air conditioning, and we are all a bit old now :-)

I'll post pictures, I am sure.

What could possibly go wrong?

Update: Pictures here http://e.gg/e460

NOTSCO (Not TOTSCO) One Touch Switching test platform (now launched)

I posted about how inept TOTSCO seem to be, and the call today with them was no improvement. It seems they have test stages... A "simul...