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Geek transport

Private operator, private profits

My blog’s RSS feed has been having problems. This has also affected some email subscribers. I think I’ve found the problem, so hopefully both are working again now.

Just a quick post:

The Age and Herald Sun reported yesterday that Metro Trains Melbourne made an annual profit of $29 million, on $786 million of revenue — despite still regularly missing punctuality targets.

I’m not sure the fact that they’re taking a profit is really a surprise. They’re a private company, and they wouldn’t be in this game otherwise.

Is the 3.6% profit high, or low, for a company earning $786m in revenue per year? I dunno.

Of course, if Metro misses targets, a lot of the blame should really be on the poor state of rail infrastructure – owned by the government. Upgrades are finally happening, but that follows decades of neglect.

I think the broader question is whether the taxpayer is getting value for money overall from the train network (regardless of whether the operator is private or public).

I’m particularly concerned that there’s such a huge amount of infrastructure/fleet investment (capex), as well as the fees to the operators (opex), but the service provision still has a strong concentration on commuter peaks.

This means that a lot of the assets are only being fully used for a few hours a day, despite strong travel demand at other times (both on the roads and on the trains).

Sandringham line, Saturday lunchtime

A moderate increase in opex would provide for all-day high frequencies (eg most stations with trains at least every 10 minutes for most of the day) that make much more effective use of the overall spend, and better match current travel demand by making the system so much more useful for people.

How much money are we talking about? One estimate I’ve seen is $100m per year. To put that in perspective, that’s about the same cost as the 2015 fare changes that capped zone 1+2 fares, and introduced the Free Tram Zone.

While people welcomed the two-zone discount, it’s not clear if it made a big difference to patronage. The Free Tram Zone benefits CBD motorists, and crowds out fare-paying users – it might be a good example of what Chris Hale wrote in The Age last year: a public dollar frittered on fare discounting is invariably a waste, whereas that same dollar invested in better off-peak service gets great results.

And any increased spend on services would be offset by additional fare revenue from increased patronage, of course.

The idea that trains only run every 30 minutes after 7pm (and 20-40 minutes in daytime off-peak/weekends, despite crowding) is just crazy for a city of 5 million in the 21st century.

It’s high time it was rectified.

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Is Google recording your conversations without you knowing?

You’ve probably heard about the case of the Amazon Alexa smart speaker that recorded a conversation and sent it to someone.

Amazon has been forced to explain how Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to an Echo userโ€™s colleague without their knowledge. A Portland woman identified only as Danielle revealed the odd series of events in an interview with local TV station Kiro 7, claiming that an Amazon Echo device recorded a private conversation between her and her husband and sent the recording to an employee of the husband. — The Verge

I haven’t got any speakers in my house that record. (Some of the newer Sonos devices can do it. Mine can’t.)

And I don’t think I particularly want any.

The other week, probably triggered by the EU’s GDPR legislation, I got an email from Google suggesting I do a privacy check.

I had a look, and digging around found a page on Voice Activity.

To my surprise, this has dozens of voice recordings, going back about 18 months.

Google voice recordings

Apparently the Google app on my Android phone (actually my current phone and the previous one) has semi-regularly decided I was trying to attract the attention of the Google Assistant (normally invoked by saying “OK Google”), and started recording, then saved the recordings in the cloud.

I can play the recordings. The sound quality isn’t great, but you can make out the words. In none of them did I actually want the Google Assistant. They’re just random conversations with people.

You can turn the option off (well, you can pause it). Which I’ve now done.

It’s good that you can access the recordings, and change the option.

But I wonder how many people don’t know that Google is recording snippets of conversations and saving them on their servers?

Check yours via this direct link, or go to myaccount.google.com and then choose My Activity; Activity Controls; Voice & Audio Activity (where you can also Pause the feature).

Note: the Google App is also available on iOS, so it’s worth checking even if you have an iPhone, not an Android… And of course Siri has similar functionality.

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Beware of fake email bills – and how the corporates are letting the side down

There are warnings of fake Telstra bills being sent by email.

They look like the real thing. The only clue that they’re not is that the View/Pay Bill button goes to a non-Telstra web site.

The lesson here is: check where the link goes. If it doesn’t go to an address that is clearly on the company’s web site (telstra.com), be suspicious.

…Which is why I’ve been asking South East Water about their email bills.

Those look legit, but the payment link goes to ippayments.com.au — in fact it’s worse — it goes first via a URL forwarder edmconnect.com.au (with a very long path/querystring)

So my simple question to them was: how is anybody meant to know this is legit?

Their response:

That I think shows a misunderstanding of the question.

IPPayments might be super secure (PCI compliant suggests that it is). But how does a punter know that?

They were still clearly not getting my point, so I persisted.

Still completely missing the point.

Okay, try another tack… provide an example of a company doing it properly:

No response. Radio silence.

Perhaps they finally understood; perhaps not.

It’s frustrating, because if you register for their online portal, you can make payments through that. You go to southeastwater.com.au and end up on southeastwater.secure.force.com — which I do recognise — it’s Salesforce.

Ideally they’d use a subdomain. Subdomains allow a company to delegate part of their web site to another one, for instance their online payment gateway.

If they can’t do that, they should direct users to their main web site, and have them click through to the payment gateway from there, so people at least can have some confidence that the web site they enter their credit card into is actually authorised by the organisation.

Paperless billing, using online instead? Great. But with so many scammers out there, corporations really need to make it easy for their customers to know they’re safe.

(Lead photo: Anonymous Hacker, by Brian Clug — Creative Commons. I love a hacker stereotype photo. ‘Cos all hackers wear masks when they’re working, in darkened rooms. I bet those screens are showing fast-scrolling green-screen character interfaces.)

Update 11/6/2018: I noticed that Optus also use IPPayments, the same payment gateway as South East Water, but Optus uses a “secure.optus.com.au” subdomain.

Categories
Geek General

The Last Post (of the year)

One last post of miscellaneous stuff to mark the end of 2017.

Grandad

My Grandad was born on this day in 1924. He passed away on Boxing Day, just shy of his 93rd birthday. Being one of our UK relatives, we didn’t visit him much, but we did manage to see him during our UK trip this year. RIP.

Some blog stats

Total blog posts for 2017: 120 excluding this one.

Total comments for 2017: 1276 up to 6pm.

Most popular posts, by number of comments, are all transport posts:

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Geek

It’s August! I’ve got a new blog template

Eagle-eyed readers would have noticed I’ve put in a new blog template.

The intent was to provide more space for photos and table data. The old template (and most like it, in fact) squash them up even when displayed on a big desktop screen.

See any problems? Leave a comment.

Also, I’m interested to know what’s better: a rotating or random header image, or the same one each time (for easy recognition)?

Issues I need to fix:

  • Comment numbering has disappeared. The usual method of fixing this isn’t working yet.
  • The Google ads are turned off for now. Sorry, but I’ll be switching them back on. Will try not to make them too obtrusive.
  • A change earlier in the year to HTTPS has broken a bunch of pictures in older posts. — fixed

Reminder: At present I’m posting a mix of new blog posts, and backdated Europe trip posts.

Cardiff Bay: Pierhead building and Millennium Centre

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Consumerism Geek

New phone: Motorola G5 Plus

A reminder that despite how it may sometimes seem, not all my blog posts are about transport. If you want to view only the transport posts, try here. For convenience, this link is also on the menu at the top, under Transport.

Over the years I’ve had many mobile phones.

Here’s an update to that old list:

November 2013: Google Nexus 5 — I did that Apple-like thing of preordering this before I’d actually seen it in the flesh. This was a terrific phone. Fast, good camera, great features, no bloatware, and being a Google device, got updates really quickly.

I loved some of the features I only discovered well after I got it, like the pedometer which is now tracking my steps, and NFC, which has all sorts of uses such as checking public transport smartcards (in smart cities like Sydney and Singapore where this is enabled) — see below.

Then the phone died in late-2016. The power button got stuck, and it continually switched itself on and off.

I replaced it and then stuck it in a drawer until a couple of weeks ago when my son Jeremy needed a phone to use while his was being repaired. He found a way to repair the power button, and it’s still going strong!

Opal NFC phone app

October 2016: Google Nexus 5X (which cost me $489 at the time) — the spiritual successor to the 5. I really wanted to like this as much as the 5, but I didn’t. It was a good phone, but not a great phone. It feels a little laggy at times.

Perhaps that’s one of the perils of buying a phone that was released 12 months earlier.

There’s also probably a point at which (for all phones, tablets, and other devices) you should stop installing major upgrades to the operating system, which often bring major new features requiring perhaps more horsepower than the device can provide. Instead, it might be better to just install the security patches… at least until they run out.

Daniel buys a new phone

Having a good, fast reliable phone is more important these days than it has been in the past. I’m not sure that back in the day, any of us Gen Xers really appreciated that by the 2010s we’d literally have such a useful computer that we could carry around in our pockets all day.

I decided last week to get a new phone, and after some research settled on the Motorola G5 Plus (currently retailing for about $380), for three main reasons:

Get something faster. The 5X was released in 2015. Interestingly, you can still buy it new through some dealers (though Google themselves no longer sell it, having moved to the Pixel — at about double the price). I think there are now better value phones in the $400-500ish range.

Fear of the boot loop. I don’t know if it’s common or not, but a known hardware problem with the 5X phone is that occasionally they will get into a state where they continually boot, and (barring hacks to fix it) have to be sent back for repair or replacement. This is something I could deal with at home, but there’s no way I’d want it to happen while on our overseas holiday later this year.

Dual SIMs. I’d like to have mobile data for maps and so on while travelling, but I’d also like to be reachable on my usual phone number. Telstra international roaming isn’t cheap: $85 for 300 Mb or $160 for 600 Mb.

In contrast, a Three UK prepaid SIM, including 1 Gb data and texts and calls for a month, costs 10 pounds (A$17), or 12 Gb for double that cost, and it includes roaming in Europe. (I’m still looking at the options, but this appears to be one of the best.)

The solution to cheap local rates + keep your usual number? A dual-SIM phone. Use data and outbound calls on the cheap local SIM, and still be able to receive calls/texts on my Australian number. And the money savings will help subsidise the new phone.

(I wonder if the phone companies dislike this?)

In fact I suppose I could even choose to use a second SIM at home to get cheap data and/or try and get around the Telstra capacity problems on peak hour trains between Malvern to South Yarra — though from what I’m told, the other carriers are no better.

Motorola G5 Plus phone

So I bought a new Moto G5 Plus, and sold the Nexus 5X on Gumtree over the weekend. (eBay won’t let me sell a mobile phone, due to Paypal having a grudge against me, for reasons they’ve never been able to explain.)

I listed it for $220, and got all sorts of cheeky offers from as low as $130. I refrained from telling them they were dreaming. Eventually accepted an offer of $180 from a bloke who had a Sony phone he quite liked, but dropped it and smashed the glass. Whoops.

And the new phone? So far so good, apart from the wallpaper, which I’ve changed to my own design, and the “Hello Moto!” audible greeting, which was the first thing I switched off!

Categories
Consumerism Geek

I need a new phone

On Thursday night my phone, a Nexus 5 that I got about three years ago, finally started playing up.

Android phone booting

It would continually boot, with a buzz, and a proclamation on the screen of “Google”! Then repeat. Bzzt… Google! Over and over.

Scouring online, I discovered this is a reasonably rare, but not unique, situation. The power button was jammed down.

The next morning, before work, I went looking for solution. No problem, said people on the forums… there’s a quick and simple fix. And they pointed to a Youtube clip someone had uploaded showing how to do it.

Quick and simple. Get your jewellers screwdrivers (okay, I have a set), take off the cover, then remove the battery, unplug all these ribbon cables, then…

At the point where they said to take out the motherboard, I thought yeah, this isn’t going to be the kind of quick and simple fix done just before going to work.

Then I found another suggestion in the forums:

Give the phone a good whack against the side of a desk. A couple of hits and the power button may go back into place.

I tried it. Bang. Nope. BANG. BANG. There it is! Wow, it worked! All without pulling the phone apart.

Except… no. It couldn’t be that easy, right? It wasn’t. 36 hours later it was playing up again. Bzzzzttt… “Google”!

So I need to buy a new phone.

The Nexus 5 had been excellent. Three years is a long innings for a smartphone, and over that time it hadn’t slowed down markedly, and Google had kept feeding it updates, without them having to be filtered through the phone manufacturer and phone company first. (In fact, they’ve only just announced updates for this model will cease in a few months.)

So I wouldn’t hesitate to get another Nexus.

For now I’m getting by on a borrowed HTC Desire 510. It’s functional, but I’m reminded of how much bloatware HTC and the other manufacturers and the carriers put on Android phones.

The Nexus 5’s replacement, the Nexus 5X (RRP $579), has been getting good reviews, and might be a good option.

And apparently in the next few months a new set of Nexus phones are expected.

No, I wouldn’t go an iPhone (SE from $679 RRP; 6 from $929). I love Apple’s hardware, but I love that I can plug an Android phone into any computer and move files around — I couldn’t stand being locked into iTunes and Apple’s ecosystem.

Categories
Geek

Master of my domain… or not

A couple of experiences with online hosting services that I wanted to relate.

Don’t worry, I’ll try not to let this get too geeky.

NetRegistry domains

For years I had a domain name custard.net.au associated with the company I owned that I used for contracting — this is a common thing in the IT and contracting worlds. I stopped contracting some years ago and wound-up the company (I couldn’t justify the ongoing expense, let alone the damn paperwork), but the domain name stayed active for a few things including email.

The domain had originally been registered through a company called ClickNGo, which was acquired by NetRegistry in 2011. In turn, NetRegistry was bought by Melbourne IT in 2014.

About a year ago, out of the blue, it became apparent that another party had somehow got control of the domain, the web address, the associated emails.

Initially I thought it was some kind of hack attempt, but it turned out that the registrar, NetRegistry, had handed it over to them, on the basis that the old company ABN I’d used was no longer current.

NetRegistry claimed they had emailed me beforehand. They hadn’t. Or at least, nothing was received. It wasn’t in my spam folder; it hadn’t arrived. They’d had my email and snail mail details, but neither had received anything.

Email isn’t 100% reliable. If they had tried, they certainly didn’t seek any kind of confirmation that I’d seen the message.

I was in no position to dispute the eligibility to continue to hold the domain; that was fair enough. But it seems ridiculous that in such a situation, the registrar doesn’t try a bit harder to make contact. In a lot of cases the assumption over eligibility might be wrong, and/or the domain could be used for something really important.

I had used the domain for a few things, but nothing critical other than emails for a lot of different online services. I made contact with the new owner, who was kind enough to agree to forward emails and a few specific URLs across so I could gracefully withdraw from the custard.net.au domain.

No thanks to NetRegistry.

AussieHQ web hosting

For years I used AussieHQ for web hosting.

The company used to be called “Aussie Hosts”, a small web ISP run by a family company. When I first dealt with them, they were really good — very responsive and reliable. Apart from my own hosting, the PTUA web site got moved there too.

Over the years they have acquired (Aussie and McGoo HQ merged to become AussieHQ), and been acquired, and are now part of UberGlobal — nothing to do with the well-known car “ride sharing” company; they are an online services company.

Alas, as they have got bigger, their service has got steadily worse. Web outages, email problems, hacking… and they’ve usually been unable to provide any useful response to any of these issues. They’ve also failed to update their status page or Twitter feed during problems, and have done things like renewing annual plans without any notice.

Due to these problems, in the past 12 months I’ve moved all my own hosting and the PTUA hosting off their servers. There plenty of more competent competitors.

By the way, in 2015 UberGlobal was bought by Melbourne IT.

So in both these cases, the problems were courtesy of subsidiaries of Melbourne IT, which was spun out of Melbourne Uni in the 1990s.

I don’t know if their other services are better or worse, but based on this, I’d be wary of dealing with them or their subsidiaries again.

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Geek Net Toxic Custard newsletter

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.

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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