Took the train anyway

February 6th, 2015

…despite the previous post.

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Trains and Cars

February 5th, 2015

Whenever possible I prefer to take the train. When it’s not overcrowded it feels quite civilised. But from where I live (Stamford) it’s almost always considerably cheaper to drive. If I need to get to London in the week for an early meeting it’s the best part of £110 return (or 2 singles) on East Coast unless I choose a specific and inconveniently early or late train, which usually means hanging around for a few hours. And this is with East Coast being state owned. Now that Virgin and Stagecoach are taking it over prices can only go one way.

This weekend I want to visit my brother in Brighton for his birthday, and this is going to cost me £75.80* (advance, off-peak only) and it will take around 3 hours 50 minutes on 3 different trains plus the Victoria Line between King’s Cross to Victoria.

By car – based on my car’s average MPG – the petrol will cost me about £40 for the round trip. And if I avoid the Friday M25 peak traffic it’ll take around 2 hours and 45 minutes.

So not only is it quicker in this case, it’s also cheaper to drive (OK, you have to allow for the fact I bought the car in the first place) even with only me in the car. If I had one or more passengers it would be a no-brainer.

It’s obvious that the government has little interest in infrastructure outside of London getting people our of their cars and onto public transport.

If you live in London it’s a different story of course. I had no need for a car when I lived in the capital. It’s a transport utopia.

Grumble grumble. I might fork out for the train anyway. Quite an expensive way to read a book.

[EDIT]
It has been brought to my attention that I omitted one of the key benefits of travel by rail: Train Beers. The freedom to just sit back and tuck into a 4-pack of over-priced Stella trumps all other factors obviously. It should be noted that, by definition, train beers are not Train Beers if bought cheaply from the off license.

(*Yes there are some cheaper tickets on non-express trains, but for me the whole point of traveling by train is speed.)

On encryption

February 3rd, 2015

I should apologise that this blog is not (currently) served over https. It’s on my to-do list, but that list is pretty stupidly long. (As an aside I don’t look forward to the day when I have nothing to do. The idea of just putting my feet up is horrible. It feels like I’ve had at least 50% more things to do than I have time to do since about 2007; but the upshot is that I genuinely don’t think I’ve been bored once in the last 7 years.)

Anyway, recent comments by Phil Zimmermann – the creator of email encryption software PGP – struck me as particularly (if unsurprisingly) smart. The upshot is yet another timely argument against David Cameron’s frankly embarrassing stance on end-to-end encryption: Hackers are always going to be able to get around whatever security you put up, but if your data is properly encrypted it doesn’t matter if they get access to your servers. So those Sony emails and movie scripts, for example, would never have been leaked if they’d been stored encrypted.

This article is worth a read, as is Phil’s original blog post.

In related news, BWM recently patched their ConnectedDrive software after a flaw was identified by a third party. The shocking part of the story is that prior to this patch the software was using unencrypted plain text HTTP to send and receive data! Given that the software operates door locks (among other functions) it is mind-boggling to me that its developers didn’t choose HTTPS in the first place.

A culture of ‘encrypt by default’ needs to be instilled.

First world problems

February 2nd, 2015

It’s cold, unremarkably. Not Sweden cold, just UK cold. Not that the predictability of it being cold in January stops certain newspapers from screaming about ‘Arctic Blasts’ and such on their front pages. If something isn’t soaring it’s plummeting I suppose.

We’re about to have the back of our house lopped off to make way for an extension, so it’s going to get very chilly and probably dusty in here. Where to put stuff is becoming a big problem. To complicate matters the current kitchen is being ripped out, and the garage has to be cleared – after three years of filling it with stuff – so that the builders can drive a digger through it to get to the back garden.

Next time we move house (if ever, please no) I think we should get one that’s big enough to begin with. In our defence, the location was very good.

Frost

January 4th, 2015

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New tune – Visitor 2010

December 16th, 2014

Here’s a new track that I have produced. It started out in 2010 as a remix of Another Visitor (sticking with the Impossible Mission theme), but then it sat on a hard drive as an unfinished loop for four years. I finally grabbed a day recently to turn it into a more finished tune. I think this is better than the original; I’m much happier with the production but I definitely need some monitor speakers to get more control over the mixdown.

Bitcasa was (in my opinion no longer is) a very promising cloud data storage provider – a bit like Dropbox except for two practical differences: Firstly the Bitcasa desktop application mounts your Bitcasa drive as a network volume, rather than syncing to a local folder (so it can hold more data than your hard drive). And secondly the data is encrypted both in transit and on the server. They also offered “infinite” storage for a very reasonable fee. In principle it was great.

Rachael has been using it (on my advice) to back up her photography work (~80GB of new images per week), and now has several terabytes of TIFF and RAW files in her account. We’ve been running an automated upload process every evening and had a further 10TB to upload. The data is also on RAID hard drive units but, as it’s business critical information, a remote backup seemed sensible.

Unfortunately on 23rd October Bitcasa announced that they were discontinuing the infinite accounts and were going to be offering a 1TB or a 10TB service for $99 or $999 per annum. For those in the early pricing scheme and with over 1TB of data this amounts to a roughly tenfold increase in annual cost.

“You have between October 22, 2014 and November 15, 2014 to migrate your data”

The other key part of the announcement was that there was a 15th November deadline (just over 3 weeks) to either migrate the account or to download all data, otherwise it would be deleted. That such an unreasonably short amount of time has been given reeks, to me, of some corporate / financial “emergency” measure, but that’s just speculation.

Bitcasa has always felt, in my experience, a bit “beta”: uploads are much slower than with Dropbox and are very processor intensive. This is, I understand, related to the encryption processing but generally (particularly more recently running it on a new computer) it’s been usable. We’ve never had much reason to download files from it though.

Rachael was (grudgingly) willing to upgrade her account to the $999 10TB package in order to buy enough time to find an alternative long-term solution, but it isn’t working. More than 20 attempts to run the account upgrade process have failed with a server error. Several support tickets I raised have not been answered after several days, except one which was marked by them as “Solved” with a generic advice response.

Bitcasa upgrade server error

Awkward indeed… It doesn’t bode well. Maybe they’re just being swamped with user requests but it feels to me like they are going under.

We have therefore been trying to salvage critical data from the account, but the process is slow and unreliable. Despite us having (according to speedtest.net) an 80Mbps download connection speed, downloading 1GB from Bitcasa is taking about 2-3 hours, when dragging the file out of the Bitcasa drive using Finder on the Mac. And more often than not the operation fails after 40 minutes or so.

Bitcasa - Finder error

The alternative – downloading via their web app – isn’t much better. It’s faster but trying to download more than one file at a time results in a corrupted zip file. Not very practical when you’ve got a folder with hundreds of files in it. Even Bitcasa recommend avoiding it (in a support response):

“We recommend not downloading multiple files through the web portal. If one of the file(s) is damaged, it will break the entire zip file. Downloading single files from the web portal should be fine.”

However, this morning I discovered that moving files in the Terminal is much more reliable. A lot of the problems seem to be related to the Finder. It’s going to take right up to the deadline to get all of the data but it is now, finally, just about feasible.

On balance, for us, speed and reliability are more important than encryption for this use-case. So we’re moving the data to Amazon ‘Glacier’ (via S3). Uploading directly to S3 is like a dream compared to Bitcasa, the data is uploading at over 2 megabytes per second.

The sad thing is that we were willing to pay $999 to migrate the Bitcasa account but then technical failures and lack of support simultaneously made it impossible to do this, and destroyed any confidence we had in the system that we would have been paying for anyway.

It looks on the face of it like Bitcasa are moving more towards a business-to-business API-driven service provider but this is basically a big “fuck you” to all their existing customers. If I were one of their investors I would be less than impressed.