Blog template

After the mess of the last attempt, and noting the large number of people reading on mobile devices (phones 39%, tablet 10%), I’ve switched to a plain but hopefully more mobile-friendly blog template.

Here is a photo of some people doing geeky things to test the pictures.

Computers at Pax

I’ll probably do some tweaking, but any feedback on how it looks (particularly on phones and tablets) is very welcome!

Update: Testing a photo from Flickr:

Melbourne city, viewed from Regional Rail Link near Tarneit

11/2/2016: The ads aren’t really in good spots on mobile — this requires some customisation. But most of the other mobile layout looks pretty good.

14/2/2016: Via a child theme and a plugin, I’ve enabled numbering on the comments. This was nowhere near as straightforward as I thought it would be. The instructions for creating the child theme in particular to keep the modifications separate from the parent theme were particularly geeky, but it seems to have worked.

The need for speed part 2: Portable hard drives

For the video editors in our family who need to move big files around, apart from internet upload speeds, I was also researching the fastest connection types for portable hard drives.

Theoretical speeds:

  • USB 2: 60 MB/s
  • Firewire 800: 133 MB/s
  • USB 3: 625 MB/s
  • Thunderbolt 2: 1250 MB/s

(USB 3.1 will apparently be up to 1250 MB/s when it’s eventually out there.)

USB hard drive manufacturers even quote the full USB 3 speed on their specs. But these don’t reflect real-life usage when moving data to/from drives.

The bottleneck is the drive itself, and PC Pro found in tests that USB3 and Thunderbolt 2 basically achieved the same speed. Below I’ve put these results together with some MacWorld tests using a 7200 RPM drive.

So the practical speeds are:

  • USB2: 41 to 42 MB/s
  • FireWire 800: 55 to 74 MB/s (depending on read or write)
  • USB3 or Thunderbolt 2: 112 to 116 MB/s

MacWorld also found that with SSDs, there was some additional benefit for USB3 and Thunderbolt, with Thunderbolt being between 6% and 35% faster than USB3. Presumably a similar boost would be available on USB3 flash drives.

Why is Thunderbolt so much lower than advertised? Probably because it’s not just designed for storage devices. It can also be used for displays, which need a much faster data transfer rate.

Interface speeds using portable hard drives

The Thunderbolt tax

Thunderbolt in drives is much much more expensive than other interfaces: for example for LaCie Rugged 2 TB drives at this place in South Melbourne, you’re looking at A$239 for USB 2/3, A$279 for USB 2/3 and Firewire, or A$389 for USB 2/3 and Thunderbolt. So it’s basically a $150 or 60% premium.

Thunderbolt also severely limits the range of drives you can buy. Most brands aren’t touching it.

My budding video editors have access to machines at uni that do USB 3 and Thunderbolt.

But at home we had neither; our old-but-still-good 2008 vintage “3,1” Mac Pros have USB2 or Firewire 800. They can’t be upgraded to Thunderbolt, but they can be upgraded to USB3 (for about US$60 each plus postage; cheaper than the “Thunderbolt tax” for single a high-capacity drive). So I’ve gone with USB3.

Yeah eventually I’ll have to replace the Mac Pros — they were secondhand when we got them 3 years ago — but they do have a bit of life in them yet… though one seems to be playing up a bit, grrr.

Back to some transport stuff in the next post

The need for speed part 1: Internet uploads

Not to pre-empt anything, but this year I expect to have two film and television students in the house.

For this, I’m considering upgrading my Internet.

We’re currently on iiNet Naked ADSL2+ costing $69.99 per month (for 1000 Gb of data, of which, to my surprise, we’re using about a quarter). Actually I’m paying an additional $10 for VOIP, but I’m planning to ditch it because we rarely use it, and it seems quite unreliable — the handset frequently can’t get a signal. I don’t know precisely where the problem is, but given everyone in the house has a mobile phone, it seems an unnecessary cost.

Why upgrade the Internet? Well one of the things the boys have highlighted is the relatively slow upload speeds.

This is important for film students, because these days everything is digital, and moving big video files around quickly is important.

Computers at PAX 2014

Current speeds

Our download speeds are okay. Our upload speeds… aren’t.

Using the iiNet broadband test:

  • Latency 12ms
  • Jitter 3ms
  • Download 7.63 Mbps
  • Upload 0.68 Mbps

Using the Department of Communications My Broadband test:

  • Latency 15ms
  • Jitter 0ms
  • Download 7.54 Mbps
  • Upload 0.53 Mbps

This isn’t good. By my calculations it means that a 50 Mb file (which is not that big by modern video standards) would take 12 minutes, and that’s assuming no other bottlenecks.

A 500 Mb file would take over two hours.

Theoretical speeds

This explainer web page from Optus compares theoretical speeds, and notes that the limit of ADSL2+ upload is 820 Kbps (eg 0.82 Mbps).

The ADSL upload speed is so slow that when Isaac wants to send a big file to Dropbox (or whatever), it’s often quicker to go into campus (about an hour’s trip away) and do it there, then come home again. I suppose it gets him out of the house, but it’s not brilliant, is it.

It’s not just study. He’s starting to do post-production work as a part-time job. This is the kind of agile digital economy PM Turnbull often drones on about.

Cable internet is faster; around 3 times faster for uploads. DOCSIS theoretically allows faster upload, but queries from customers were answered in a vague way by Telstra. The speculation is the Telstra and Optus cable internet networks are set up for cable TV, which are pretty much all download.

If only we had some kind of universal super-fast internet service providing a future-proof fibre connection to everywhere. Some kind of Network of Broadband right across the Nation.

Well, I checked. NBN (especially proper NBN, fibre-to-the-premise/home, but even fibre-to-the-node) would be great, and would improve upload speeds by up to 50 times, but isn’t getting to my area anytime soon.

So what are the options?

Given their enlightened social media operative Dan, I’d be more than pleased to sign up for Optus Cable… if they serve my street. This is confusing as their web site variously says Yes or No depending on how I enter the address. I suppose I’m going to have to ring them up.

Also notable: complaints about speed from local Optus cable users.

Telstra cable does serve my street. Theoretically may get me about a threefold increase in upload speeds (around 2.4 Mbps), for $95/month for 500 Gb or $115/month for 1000 Gb — and appears to include a home phone service.

Importantly, with cable there are no guarantees about speed — it depends on network congestion.

I’m sure I’m not the only one in this position. Assuming I don’t want to pay a heap of money for a fibre connection myself, are there any other options?

Update 22/3/2016:

I finally made the switch, to Optus Cable. Comparing the My Broadband test old and new results:

Old: Latency 15ms / Jitter 0 ms / Download 7.54 Mbps / Upload 0.53 Mbps

New (at lunchtime): Latency 1 ms / Jitter 12 ms / Download 27.61 Mbps / Upload 1.96 Mbps.

New (at 6:15pm): Latency 78ms / Jitter 24 ms / Download 19.80 Mbps / Upload 1.29 Mbps. So download and upload speeds have both increased by about 3-4 times.

Scammers try to connect me to the “Rescue Machine of Telstra”

It is a common scam for people to ring you up claiming to be from Microsoft or Telstra (or another major corporation that sounds plausible). They tell you your computer and/or internet connection has a problem, and it needs to be fixed or your internet connection will be cut off, or that something else bad will happen.

They then try to walk you through the steps to enable them to take over your computer, or install software that captures your credit card number, or a variation on these.

Microsoft has a good article on these scams.

I never get these, but M+J do on their number, quite often, and today I got to take such a call.

The man claimed to be from Telstra. The background noise of a call centre was audible (during one pause I heard another operator asking “Are you from Hyderabad?”).

I played along for a bit.

He said there was a problem with my “computer internet connection”, claimed “Telstra” had sent us a warning about it, and that we would shortly be disconnected from the internet if it wasn’t resolved.

He tried to get me to open a Windows command prompt and type ASSOC. This is something to do with file associations, no doubt as a first step to something more sinister, but at this point I told them that I was using Linux. (This was the truth — I had my old laptop in front of me, which dual-boots; I normally use Linux because it’s faster.)

At that point he said he’d transfer me to a supervisor. This took a minute or two, then a second man tried to get me to go to the Team Viewer web site and use the “Join remote control session” (eg install the Team Viewer client)…

He said I would need to connect to the “Rescue Machine Of Telstra” (very impressive-sounding — he used this phrase twice) which would provide protection for my computer.

He tried to convince me that once I connected, I would see a Telstra logo, proving it was legitimate.

Yeah right.

I moved into sceptical territory, and asked why, if as he claimed they knew all about my computer, his colleague hadn’t known I was using Linux instead of Windows.

The reply: “He’s my junior; he doesn’t know anything.” !

At this point I’d strung them along for about fifteen minutes, as I’d been interested to hear what they said, and it was quite entertaining. But I had a hot cup of tea waiting for my attention, so I terminated the call.

But no doubt some people fall for this. As the Microsoft web site notes, the consequences can be serious. They might:

Trick you into installing malicious software that could capture sensitive data, such as online banking user names and passwords. They might also then charge you to remove this software.

Convince you to visit legitimate websites to download software that will allow them to take control of your computer remotely and adjust settings to leave your computer vulnerable.

Request credit card information so they can bill you for phony services.

Direct you to fraudulent websites and ask you to enter credit card and other personal or financial information there.

So, be wary of any of these types of calls, and make sure your less-computer-savvy friends and relatives are also made aware.

In fact, to help limit any damage from any type of malware (be it via a phone scam, or a dodgy email, or an infected web site) it doesn’t hurt to ensure that home computers are set up so that no users have administrator access, and only an experienced computer user has the administrator password.

Short Sydney trip day 3: Geeks galore

Posted 27/11/2015. Back-dated.

The third and final day of my obsessively-blogged short trip to Sydney, and it was destined to be pretty geeky. After breakfast and checking out, we caught a train to Penshurst (changing at Wolli Creek, which I assume is a pretty new interchange station), then a walk in the sun to The Gamesmen, a shop we’d run out of time to visit on Saturday. It had a pretty neat mini-museum/shop of retro games, though as Isaac remarked afterwards, the things he was most interested in buying weren’t for sale.

Display in The Gamesmen, Penshurst, NSW

From there we caught a train back into the CBD, hopped off at Town Hall and wandered around the central shopping area, cutting through the very impressive QV building and heading up George Street, which was partially closed due to light rail construction.

We looked inside the Apple Store in George Street. Melbourne CBD doesn’t yet have one of these, and it’s a different beast to the suburban Apple stores. Apple obviously has made an attempt to make this something of a geek landmark, all gleaming metal and glass.

And like Apple’s interfaces, there’s a minimalist design inside, which doesn’t tell you what’s up on the next level — you’ll just have to click, I mean climb and go and find out. The stairs were weirdly silver metal, like walking around inside a giant Apple computer.

Apple Store, SydneyMicrosoft Store, Sydney

Broken down laptop in the Microsoft Store, Sydney

In nearby Pitt Street, we found the Microsoft Store, also unknown in Melbourne. It’s like they tried to copy the Apple Store, but ended up with something not quite as fashionable. Both stores had helpers in red t-shirts. Hopefully that’s not redshirts in a Star Trek sense. And typical Microsoft, one of the laptops on display had stopped and was in Repair mode.

We found some lunch in one of the shopping centres, then took a look in the very grand Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay. It was okay, but I think not as interesting as the Art Gallery of NSW which I visited last year.

The weather was glorious as we wandered around the Quay, stopping to buy ice-creams at some place called Royal Copenhagen, though Princess Mary didn’t seem to be in attendance.

The previous night we’d noticed one huge cruise ship in port. Today a completely different cruise ship was docked — a P & O liner — it turned out the next day P & O had no less than five cruise ships in the harbour.

Selfies by Sydney Harbour
Selfies by Sydney Harbour

Boats on Sydney Harbour
Only a matter of time before there’s Water Uber?

We had a look around the Opera House, joining many other tourists snapping away on our cameras, before climbing the nearby Moore Steps and finding a park to have a little rest on the grass.

By this time it was getting late in the afternoon, so we went back to the hotel and picked up our luggage, then headed for Museum Station and a train to the airport. Being peak hour, the train was pretty busy, and notably there must have been 100+ people getting off at the Domestic Airport station — pretty good for a service running every 6-9 minutes as they do in peak.

Domestic Airport station, Sydney

Qantas plane

View out of the plane from Sydney
An uneventful flight back — a dish of chicken gumbo for dinner — we landed back in Melbourne on time. I was furiously chewing gum again, and managed to bite my own tongue as we landed. Ouch.

We walked back to the car park, encountering the taxi queue along the way. The lead taxi was parked right across the pedestrian crossing, blocking the ramp — making life difficult with wheeled luggage. I angrily tapped on his boot as we walked around, and he moved a paltry few inches up, not really helping at all. Honestly, I know taxi drivers aren’t perfect, but I really expect better from people who drive for a living. This guy might as well have been trying to get people offside deliberately — the last thing the taxi industry needs right now.

Anyway, it was a quick trip home from there.

Total steps that day, according to my phone: 20,215.

We had a great time in Sydney. Yes, it cost a fair wad of cash to go up for only 3 days, and to attend the Doctor Who Festival, but the weather was perfect (we arrived the day after the 41+ degree heatwave), and the whole trip was very enjoyable.