Friday, 30 January 2015


I've just been to see Ex_Machina, the Alex Garland film about a cyborg, which is played by Alicia Vikander (Who also took centre stage in the recent 'Testament of Youth').

Coincidentally, I re-watched Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' a few days ago (it's free on Amazon Prime at the moment), where Scarlett Johansson plays a kind of alien 'Woman who fell to earth', set in Scotland.

There's similarities in some of the ideas around empathy and adaptation. Without spoilers, Ex Machina explores whether a created AI can pass the Turing Test, where another human considers it indistinguishable from a human in terms of its responses.

After the jolly opening scenes, the movie is mainly a closed-world three-hander showing the interplay between the off-key billionaire software developer (Oscar Isaac - who played Llewyn Davis in the film of the same name), the unwitting software guy being used to conduct the test (Domhnall Gleeson) and the initially somewhat transparent cyborg played by Alicia Vikander. As you'd expect, the tension ratchets in the closed surroundings.

Probably the last proper gag in the movie is in the first 20 minutes, when Gleeson gets his pass into the billionaire's science hideout.

After that, it's all set in a secluded high-tech designer-cool secure laboratory in a lush wilderness of mountains and streams. There's a strong storyline that certainly had me thinking about the themes.

Garland previously adapted the Ishiguro story 'Never Let Me Go' which I though was a superbly haunting movie, and there are some similarly big questions in this one. I can't really say much more without spoiling the plot, but it's one I enjoyed and will probably watch again.

(sorry if you need to skip a particularly long youtube BMW supermodel advert before the trailer starts)

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

time to restart the cycling TSS climb

My silver bicycle has a somewhat chequered history, being made of parts from other bikes cunningly re-assembled.

The underlying frame is a modest aluminium Carrera and it has bits of SRAM road climber gearing on the back and mountain bike doubletap shifters on the front. The wheels are unidentifiable because the original labelling has been removed leaving them -er - black. The saddle is a leather Brookes B17 narrow. Altogether a bicycle built for comfort over speed.

It's been out and about in the winter months because it can easily take fatter tyres and mudguards and even the occasional rack.

Most useful of all, it easily hops on to the turbo, where the little number windows on the gear shifts are a handy way to keep track of the gearing. It is easily my best bike for the turbo, even if it rides differently from a normal road bike.

This Gryphon remix has been my friend as I restart some pedalling for 2015. The Garmin keeps track of my progress and my accumulated TSS (Training Stress Score) graph shows I'm at a very low level at the moment. It is nearly the lowest since I started recording back in 2011. A few of us have entered for the L2B again later in the year, which gives me a friendly target to aim towards.

Monday, 26 January 2015

re-booting the house for the Internet of Things

they lied to us
At least my tee-shirt still works.

They tell us all about the Internet of Things, but we still all need to read the small print.

Here at rashbre central we often utilise low serial number products, although this can sometimes create a few hiccups.

A recent case in point is the change to our internet connectivity. The man from Openreach connected up the new box and made sure that a single internet connection was working. Job done for him, and I'd already reconfigured everything else to plug back in.

It raised an interesting point about the way we're already using the Internet of Things.

As quick examples, the heating here is internet enabled, with separate ZigBee connections to the smoke detectors. Then there's the television. That has an internet connection for Sky+HD. Oh, and another one for the DVD player. And one for the Apple TV. Come to think of it the amplifier is connected to the internet. And the remote control uses a wifi hub. That's the same hub that controls the fireplace ignition.

I could go on about the lighting dimmers or the energy monitoring system (622kW right now).

The thing is, modern stuff is progressively adding Internet of Things components which are a hybrid of wifi and IEEE 802.15.4, but it's still somewhat unpredictable.

The manufacturers are tinkering to get the technology to work and do things like creating ad-hoc wifi networks (like from a smoke alarm) which is then used to configure the device. In 2015 it's okay if you know what you are doing, but I can see it becoming more impenetrable unless these systems are somehow standardised.

There are still many loose ends: They don't tell you that our BT Home Hub struggles to pass DHCP through a bridge after a certain loading. They don't tell you that multiple wifi nodes can confuse some of the Zigbee products. The antivirus and firewall software loves to play a cheeky part in blocking things unexpectedly. And some of the IoT devices don't behave quite as one would expect on a LAN for the purposes of keep-alive and renewal of IP leases.

The stuff in rashbre central works fine, but it's partly because of random knowledge of the weird bits. I suppose it can start a whole extra home industry when the repair man starts to get called out to fix things. It starts to get beyond just switching it off and on again.

I'm waiting to hear about the first 'reboot home' buttons. Like something out of a space movie, perhaps, but without the reference manual.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

neeps an tatties this eve

We've not been to rashbre north in Craigendarroch for a couple of years now, but what with it being Burns Night, we thought it about time to do something Scottish. We could also earmark a date for our next visit north of the border.

The very last minute plan was for haggis, neeps and tatties, but down south here there was something of a local Sunday haggis shortage. Fortunately a tasty Macsween vegetarian variety appeared just in time, so we were able to recite the words and an' cut you up wi' ready slicht, after sip or two of the single malt.

I should admit that this is my first boozy tipple since the new year, and was a concession to this particular supper, before I resume my dryathalon until the 30th.

It would otherwise be tricky to try the champit tatties which had soaked up improbable quantities of the whisky sauce and then the cranachan pudding also steeped in malty goodness.

Okay, we may not have done all the stages of a full Burns Supper, but it still worked pretty well for a last minute Sassenach improvisation.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

we bump into Madam Zaskia, and cross her palm with olden coins

Madam Zaskia thinking about the futureAcross cobbled streets, we found ourselves in an arcade, filled with ancient slot machines. After I'd won few sweets from a crane, we passed by one of those fortune tellers.

It was a great opportunity to ask for a prediction for 2015. Well, we are still in January, after all.
Madam Zaskia at work
Madam Zaskia needed large old coins to operate, which we managed to acquire and then after a satisfying 1d clunk, she wound into life and enchantingly began scribbling away on a note which eventually was delivered from a small slot in the front of her booth.

Here's Madam Zaskia's prediction for me, and I shall be intrigued to see what happens on Thursday. I'll be around Chelsea, in case anyone wants to join in.
Madam Zaskia's prediction
These fortune tellers remind me of the thrill of seeing another one, when I was in a small town called Eureka, on the West Coast of the USA, a couple of years ago. Right outside the second hand bookstore was a Zoltar.
'What's a Zoltar?' I hear you ask. Why, only the very fortune teller used in the Tom Hanks movie 'Big'.

Of course I had a go, although I don't think I was on the extra lucky fourth turn, on that occasion.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

the bitter comes out better with a Seville orange

It's proper marmalade-making season at the moment, so we've slipped some Sevilles into a pan.

The myth goes that Keiller cheaply bought up a cargo of stranded Seville oranges in Dundee. Turns out they were too bitter to eat, so his mother cooked up a rind-inclusive marmalade.

I'm told that marmalade is dwindling in popularity nowadays, with only 5.6% of English eating it, with a mainly 'over 45 years' demographic. It might explain why many hotels have those little pots of jam in flavours like apricot and raspberry for breakfast which, to me, just seems wrong. The Scots still have it ranked at number three amongst the morning preserves, after strawberry and honey.

So for a simple recipe:

Wash the fruit. Cut the oranges in half around the middle. De-pip (any excuse to use the food processor).

Cut some 2-3 cm strips of rind and whack the rest through a julienne blade in the processor.

Add the rind and juice to a pan with water at around 1 cupful per orange. The pips could be added to this in a muslin bag for later removal. Simmer for around an hour to release the pectin. About 1/3 of the liquid will have been reduced away and the rind will be soft and transparent.

Slowly add sugar at approx 2:1 weight ratio and boil for about 20 minutes.

Check a few drips for that not-runny, wrinkle-on-a-cold-plate effect to know when it's done.

Tip into jars.

A yummy jam.

And it's orange.

Even better with home made bread.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

serial box channel hop mystery

Icy roads this morning and a few snowflakes falling from the sky. For me, it's bike turbo weather and I've fired up the PC to watch some boxsets whilst pedalling.

In the olden days I'd use DVDs, but for years I've been Netflixed-up which is altogether more convenient.

Except for one thing.

VBS - Vanishing Boxset Syndrome.

It's happened to me a few of times now. The first was "Ashes-to-Ashes", the retro cop series involving time travelling/comas from the 21st Century back to the 1980s. There I was at the end of Season 2, with Season 3 cued-up to watch when the whole Netflix box-set turned to ash.

Back in the day, I watched Weeds across three delivery channels, the first parts on Netflix, then some on iTunes and I finally had to buy the American region code last two series on DVD. Its an excuse to play the Little Boxes opening again, the version below by Elvis Costello.

The latest boxset to disappear is Justified, which I'd been watching on Netflix. I'd just got to the disarming ending of Series 3 and had Series 4 wound past the start as my next viewing, when it suddenly disappeared during the opening parachute flashback sequence. I've looked around and it's now on Amazon Prime, so I can recover from this unexpected blip. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Justified is now on Sky, but whether it's all five series remains to be checked.

It makes me wonder what is going on in the smoke-filled back rooms of the various channel executives? I suppose if I read the small print somewhere it will tell me when these various series will expire, but they don't make much of this when they first advertise the availability of new materials.

Maybe they want me to watch them even faster. I'll need more icy weather and longer pedalling sessions for that to work.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

the theory of imitation of everything game

I'd expected The Imitation Game (the one with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley about Alan Turing) to do well in the various movie award nominations, and indeed it's up for plenty in the coming weeks. But then I saw The Theory Of Everything (the one with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones about Stephen Hawking).

The Cumberbatch movie is a tough act to follow, and even my accomplice, a hardened sceptic of Cumberbatch, admitted it was well played.

I think the Stephen Hawking movie somehow pips it. At a cheeky level, they both do that bit where the scientist has to look science-y with a blackboard and chalk. There's great 'where will we get the equipment?' moments in the Turing one and opportunities for Cumberbatch to be quite eccentric.

The Hawking story is portrayed with a simple storyline, but somehow elicits a greater emotional response. I hadn't realised it was based upon the book by Hawking's ex-wife, and it made sense to have that (edited) point of view for what was a dramatic and uplifting story. Radmayne's portrayal is extraordinary and sensitively counterpointed by Felicity Jones' portrayal of Jane Wilde.

It's great that these two films arrive in the same year but unfortunate that they will be up against one another for the same awards. Both have merits and are worthy contenders against all the comic book hero movies.

Okay, I'll admit a soft spot for the Lego Movie too, but that's a whole other thing.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Running BT HomeHub 5 with Apple Airport Extreme

A technical post today. I seem to remember that one of the very early uses for blogging was as a sort of technical diary, and that's why I drop occasional posts about technical setups into the flow.

I've already mentioned that I'm now using a BT-installed Home Hub 5, which introduced a couple of challenges to the previous setup. The most obvious was that the master phone socket wasn't the one in the office. It was another one downstairs and close to the front door.

BT's Infinity 2 is actually FTTC VDSL (Fibre to the cabinet, Very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line) - which means it is still delivering the 'last mile' over copper wires.

The change to a filtered master socket meant that the router now needed to be closer to that socket rather than upstairs in the office, which would have needed a, say, 30 metre ethernet cable run along walls etc. The same style police that administer Christmas Tree inspections would have embargoed stapling that to the walls.

So, was the HomeHub wi-fi signal powerful enough to be used alone? Short answer, No. It would work 'downstairs' in the general neighbourhood of the phone line, but didn't reach to the upper floor well enough.

Finding the signal strength
I use the Mac's own wifi tool to check the signal strengths. Simply 'Option-Click' on the wifi signal in the top bar on a Mac and another little App called Wireless Diagnostics starts up.

Go to it's menu list, select Scan, and it will fire up the wifi network scanner. Jolly useful on a laptop for some quick signal strength checking.

The utility will give suggestions about the best wifi channels but, importantly, will also give the signal strengths, specified as RSSI (Received Signal Strength Indicator).

As a guide anything better than -70db is good, although feeble signals will be as poor as -90db. Remember a 10db drop is ten times weaker. The screenshot above is an anonymised replica of part of my indoor scan, which has even more channels listed in the full version, created by overspill from neighbours etc.

I scrolled down to find the BT Hub's own wi-fi signal hovering at -70db (borderline) and -83db (intermittent) when upstairs in the office. Not good enough for reliable service.

Adding the Airport Extremes
I have some Airport Extremes and Time Capsules, so I thought I'd use them to create a stronger wifi signal. I also decided to keep the HomeHub 5 wi-fi signal separate as a kind of backup, especially when setting it up.

The biggest single lesson I remember from using Airport Extremes and Time Capsules is to reset them before creating a new network. Push a paperclip into the reset for about 15 seconds and sure enough we'e back on factory wifi settings (data on the time capsules is preserved, however).

1) Create a network master
I selected an Airport Extreme to have as the master. I connected it to the router via an Ethernet cable, into one of the LAN connectors (i.e. not the WAN connector). This would extend the router's capability into the Airport Extreme.

Then access the Airport Extreme via its temporary wifi network (something like 'Airport Extreme ab123'). It'll ask how you want to configure it, and I followed the step by step guide, which set it up as a master, with its IP address allocated by the BT HomeHub Router. This is important, because I'm using the router as the main DHCP server for the whole network.

2) Extend the network
Then it was a case of plugging in the other Airport Extremes where they were required and performing a similar operation, connect via temporary wifi, follow the configuration instructions but set them up as 'extend network' instead of 'create network'.

3) Measure the difference
The wi-fi signal difference was incredible. In the office it jumped from a best of borderline -70db to -23db, which is generally classified as exceptional. Even on the generally weaker 5Ghz signal jumped from -87db to -33db (also classed as exceptional).

Simplified version of the final configuration
Schematically the configuration is:

Home Hub 5, including DHCP and its own wi-fi
[ethernet connection to]
Airport Extreme 1, set as Create wifi Network - (lounge/dowstairs) nothing else ethernet attached. Used for laptops etc.
Airport Extreme 2, set as Extend wifi Network - (office/upstairs) also includes ethernet attached wired 1Gb ethernet 24 way switch
Airport Extreme 3, set as Extend wifi Network - (entertainment) includes TV related things like Sky+ and Onkyo sound system

There's a few additional airport expresses and apple TVs sprinkled around, but they are set up as 'join' to the main wifi. Everything gets its IP address nominally from the BT HomeHub.

As a useful tip to reduce latency, I added the DNS server addresses to the Extremes and hard coded their IP addresses, as served from the DHCP in the BT HomeHub.

I seem to now have the place bathed in high performance wifi, as well as a 24-way gigabit switch for the office and its various bits and pieces.

Excuse me if I glow a bit from all the Gigahertz.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

all your base are belong to us

I'm back in business after the great switch of the broadband. Here's the before speed...

And here's the after...

I wish I could say it was a smooth transition.

After the engineer left, it worked well for a few hours.

Then, suddenly a big orange light started flashing.

I knew the big orange light could only mean trouble. Although, come to think of it, the similar sized blue light that meant everything was fine was a bit counterintuitive.

I'd have checked the help diagnostics, but they were only accessible with an internet connection, which now wasn't working.

Then a kind of space invaders sensation as I battled through various devices not working.

Now it's approaching 3 o'clock in the morning and I'm again bathed in the good blue light.


Friday, 9 January 2015

creating a hard hat zone for engineering work

I'll be trapped indoors on Monday waiting for The Engineer to Fix The Internet.

They will be doing a broadband update and have to do things indoors between 0800 and 1300 (but please allow an additional four hours after 1300, in case the engineer arrives at the end of the allotted time period).

At some time I'll tell the story of the broadband update, which started in about last August. This should be the final iteration, but I won't tempt fate and say too much until it has been completed.

The engineering connection with today's picture is tenuous, except that I may use some of the waiting-in time to collect a few pictures of politicians wearing hard hats. I've decided that there should be some sort of scoring in the run up to the election. Some starter categories:

- Economy : politicians in Hard Hats (5 points)
- Workforce : politicians in High Visibility jackets talking to workers (5 points)
- Education : politicians in classrooms with school children (5 points)
- Health Service : Politicians in a medical setting (5 points)
- Healthcare : Politicians with a patient/patients (5 points)
- Rural : Wellington boots (green 3, black 5)

- Banking and related : Politicians with bankers, in suits and ties in office setting (-3 points)
- Well heeled people : Politicians playing golf, drinking red wine or champagne (white wine not included) (- 3 points)
- Expected : Politicians drinking cocktails, explaining sleaze or expenses problems (-10 points)
- Everyman : Politicians drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, or eating chips/fast food (-1 point)
- Sporting : Politicians in lycra, with knee pads, at rugby, polo or similar events (-5 points)

All scoring can be cumulative, except when in bad taste (smoking in a hospital for example).

I may need a tumblr site for this...

Thursday, 8 January 2015

unusually quiet in these parts of town?

It's supposed to be back to normal this week, with full commuter trains, busy tubes and plenty of traffic jams. I'm slightly suspicious that there's a stillness in some of the central area.

There's space on usually busy platforms, and even parts of the normally bustling areas around the South Bank and the London Eye are surprisingly quiet.

These are parts of London that don't usually have seasonal effects, but maybe, just for once, everyone is over-travelled and shopped- out?