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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Retail versus the Web

Never let it be said I don’t try to shop retail….

After a tip-off that Asda have a Bluetooth keyboard the same width as the iPad, I put my Apple keypad on eBay and planned a trip to Gateshead for the weekend to get the new keypad – along with a replacement soldering iron bit for my bog-standard Antex soldering iron. In addition, the backlight went on my keyboard and so I decided it was time, after several years, to go buy a new one.

First stop Maplin in Gateshead, one of very few places left where you can buy electronic stuff locally (there is always RS Components but they close on Sundays and as for so many others, Sunday is my best day for shopping). The guy showed me a pack of generic soldering iron tips that weren’t even remotely suitable – that was it, our main electronics component shop and they had one set of soldering iron tips. Fail. While I was there I had a look at keyboards – nothing but low-end rubbish.

Next stop Asda. After a thorough look around the relevant section of the store I finally asked an assistant who clearly didn’t know what a Bluetooth keyboard was – she rang up the store manager who obviously didn’t know either. You would think they’d simply get on the computer and check stock, but no.

Last stop PC-world. You would imagine as a shop that sells games, they’d have a range of top-end keyboards – but no, just one vastly over-priced Logitech gaming keyboard and the rest were your average run of the mill.

So.. when I got home I spent 5 minutes on the web and ordered everything I need, wondering why on earth I ventured out in the first place.  I did manage to buy an excellent stand for the iPad from Poundland but that hardly justified the fiver or so in petrol for the wasted morning trip.

Peter Scargill

Solar Panels–worth it or not?

All that effort for £70 a year?

Back in October 2010, a company visited my home village of Wark  in Northumberland, offering free solar panels for anyone who wanted them – while offering to sell said panels for those who were keen to pay and take advantage of the “generous feed-in tariffs”. By solar panels I mean photovoltaic panels, the ones that generate electricity, not the ones that heat up water.

I was originally very cynical but decided to “give it a go”. I missed the original meeting at the town hall where the benefits were discussed but called up the company who then came to visit me. The plan was to fit panels to our flat roof here in Wark but also to our more standard roof up in nearby Bellingham.  Both are south-facing and therefore able to make best use of the sun. We opted for the free version. We received paperwork suggesting that we could make a saving of around £220 a year.

To explain, when the companies fit free panels to your home, they make money not only on solar power you use, but also solar power you don’t, via the frankly ludicrous “feed-in tariff”. The government used to give grants for buying solar panels but in 2010 changed that to one in which they pay you for all the solar electricity you produce – whether you use it yourself or “feed it back into the grid”.

This quickly became big business – but it was always entirely artificial – making money for those who provide these systems for free – or for those who buy them outright, NOT because it is green or in any way an alternative to other forms of power, but because of the taxpayer-funded highly-inflated feed-in tariff described above… so when you’re told that someone has “gone green” – they can be as inefficient as they like – and you, the taxpayer, are paying them an economically unsustainable amount per kilowatt that they generate – even if they use it for their own purposes – how stupid is that?

After much conversation and receiving brochures of suitable panels, the company finally admitted that the flat roof on our house in WARK was a non-starter which left us with the property in Bellingham. We signed up for the panels but then heard nothing for months. I rang up and was told that due to changes in funding, for the pitched roof in Bellingham we’d have to re-do the paperwork.

I then read this which is suitable for a UK audience (and has been updated January 2017, the grant situation in the UK having recently gone downhill)…

http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/utilities/free-solar-panels

American audiences might find this one more interesting – https://understandsolar.com/much-can-solar-save-time/

It would appear from the former that if you take the free option you could be looking at savings of around £70 a year, a figure significantly LESS than was originally suggested to us… the company on the other hand stood at the time to make £1,030 a year, no doubt less today. Assuming the panels last £25 years (that is a big assumption) and the tariff lasts that long, that’s not a bad rate of return on their investment – which according to Money Saving Expert is typically around £12,000.   That profit is coming presumably from the tax-payer. George Monbiot of the Guardian called the whole thing a rip-off – read his blog here. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/solar-panel-feed-in-tariff

And what happens if you sell your house? Best check the fine print on that one…. would potential buyers of your home be wary of getting involved with a house where the roof is leased out? What if your roof gets damaged underneath the panels? Who pays for repairs and refitting panels?

The government says the feed-in tariff payments will run for 25 years – but then this is a government so broke it is reducing public sector pensions after it’s predecessor took every cent they could out of businesses and still left us in the lurch. What if tomorrow there is a major breakthrough in solar or wave power, dwarfing current efficiencies and finally making a practical alternative to coal and oil and reducing the cost of electricity– does anyone believe that a broke government will keep to that 25-year commitment for the older technologies – and trust me – as things stand in the UK the government is not going to have a lot of spending money in the next decade.

So, £70 a year real saving on the one hand and “earn up to £1,500 a year tax-free” thanks to publicly-funded payments on the other (http://solardirectsavings-px.rtrk.co.uk/?utm_source=Reach%2BLocal&utm_medium=PPC&utm_campaign=Reach%2BLocal)

How green is this? Doesn’t seem very green to me.  How else could you save £70 a year?

Well, it’s been suggested that unplugging your mobile chargers could save you money – personally I think (I KNOW) that is rubbish. I went out and bought an inline meter to check electricity use – not one of those units which tells you how many kilowatts you’re using (though they are great) but one you put between the wall socket and an individual appliance. The amount of electricity used by modern “switched” chargers is insignificant. The amount used by your SKY box on the other hand, in my case is 23 watts and not much less on standby – that is all day, every day.

Let’s look at that, 23w, 24/7 totals 200kw/h a year. At 15p a kw/h that’s £30+ a year.  It does not therefore take too much thinking about to realise where you can start to make savings. Put the Sky unit on a timer 9check the power consumption of the timer) so that it is OFF during times you’re unlikely to be making recordings or watching TV – which for some of us is 75% of the day.

Let’s take lighting – I recall some time ago listening to two women in Tescos supermarket as they were looking at the lighting section and one, rather horrifyingly ignorantly said “Oh, we don’t use those in our house” referring to compact fluorescent lighting… well, at the time I did and today (2017) I’ve moved on and use LED lighting. High power incandescent lamps have been taken off the shelves and rightly so – if it were up to me I would ban ALL of them – especially the new “trendy” filament lamps as there are LED equivalents which are just as authentic looking. I’m working under powerful, warm LED lighting right now and it is wonderful. I have 3 LED spots, using 3w each  and replacing what would have been at least 20w halogens though I suspect the output is half way between the 20w and 50w halogens. Compact  fluorescents were cheap a while ago (subsidised) but are no longer so and simply are past their time. For now LED is the future and if you can avoid getting ripped off on purchase cost (which means don’t buy them at B&Q) they will repay the investment quickly.

So the saving by converting to low-current LED lighting and perhaps putting that Sky box on a timer could match the total savings you make with a complex and risky solar panel installation – and you can still opt for solar panels in the future when they make them a lot more efficient – or as is likely to happen ultimately, a large second hand market appears?

So what of solar hot water? Isn’t that a better bet? According to the energy savings trust you’re looking at anticipated savings of between £50 and £85 a year… a mere drop in the ocean.  http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/Generate-your-own-energy/Solar-water-heating

The Future’s Bright, the Future’s THREE

As regular readers will know I’ve been struggling with Orange incompetence for years now, if it’s not been poor customer service, it’s been lack of signal (there is no Orange signal in my village, hasn’t been for the last decade and now I understand they have no plans to do anything about this – despite claiming they put applications in on more than one occasion for masts – I just don’t buy this).

Anyway having discovered that someone has already successfully won a legal case to get out of their contract because of lack of signal, I convinced Orange to let me go without a penalty.

Armed with that freedom I headed off to the THREE store. Why THREE? Well, I already use (and recommend) their MIFI units and perhaps contrary to what you might think, they have quite an impressive coverage in the UK, at least everywhere I’ve tried up to now. They are also FAR more realistic with data, offering up to 15GIG a month data on their MIFI units. Better, on their iPhone deals, the offer a flat-rate package at £35 a month that gives “all-you-can-eat” data.

Now, we’ve all heard that from the other operators who until recently claimed “unlimited” broadband then when you read the fine print it’s a con – they have “fair use” policies which means the claim of unlimited is really a downright lie.

So I checked – according to THREE, “all you can eat” means unlimited data with no fair use policy.  Further, unlike Orange who charge an extra TEN POUNDS a month to share phone data with a laptop, sharing with the laptop is INCLUDED in the deal.

For reasons well beyond me the fellow at the THREE store thought this did not include iPads which would not work – but I remember standing outside the store thinking “But if you share over WIFI how on earth would it distinguish an iPad from a laptop?” and sure enough I was right, the iPhone will take in 3G, spit out WIFI and share it with any device that works on WIFI AND yes it will handle VPNs for those who need to log into work.

So, armed with my new phone and new company I headed off from Hexham for a trip to Blackpool, Internet radio (the American BIG CHEESE radio station) running on the phone…  and in a trip taking over 2 hours, I lost no more than a couple of minutes of radio time. Bye Bye BBC!

UFOs… Load of old ROT?

I’ve been thinking about aliens and UFOs recently – mainly because every time I go channel-hopping on Sky there’s some conspiracy program or other trying to prove the government is covering things up.

I’m afraid after many years of thinking about this subject, I’ve come to the conclusion that UFOs fit into the same categories as gods – i.e. wishful thinking, nothing more.

Why?

Well, that’s not to say I don’t think there ARE UFOs – a long way away minding their own business. I just don’t think there are any here – and I think SETI are wasting their time looking for radio broadcasts from space.

Part of the problem is our inability sometimes to see out of the box.. take UFO sightings for example. It’s absolutely DEAD CERT that UFOs do not come from any planet in our solar system – if that doesn’t make sense to you I’m not going to explain other than to say – go and watch Discovery channel – we’d know if there were any massive factories on these planets creating UFOs. So where does that leave us? Well, other solar systems of course.

There are so many star systems out there with planets that there are BOUND to be advanced civilisations out there and they’d need to be a pretty advanced civilisation to send out a UFO into our star system. Why? Because unless their main goal in life was wasting time, they’d have had to figure out how to go faster than light by some way – and our science says that’s pretty much a non-starter.

That’s not to say that faster-than-light travel is impossible – it’s just to say that if it is both possible and practical we won’t be doing it in the near future – and that’s the point… they would have indeed to be so far ahead of us that we could not possibly hold anything other than novelty value for them. This is real life, not Stargate (much as I like Stargate).  Indeed that’s the central plank of my argument – anyone SO advanced would be very unlikely to accidentally leave the lights on so we could spot them at night.

But more’s the point, we’ve been serious about technology for less than my lifetime – lets face it back in the 50’s we had, what BAKELIGHT and VALVES and most devices were that simple that it was actually possible for one very bright person to know pretty much how everything works. Those days have long gone. In 60 years we’ve transformed this planet and our technologies beyond recognition and we’ve only just STARTED…  We USED to send out Megawatts of easily digested signals which would go off to other worlds in time but today we send highly encrypted digital signals – mostly by methods that don’t involve powerful wide-angled radio waves. In time everything will be a mix of optical and short range radio – so we won’t be sending ANYTHING significant out to space and what we do send out will be so well compressed and encrypted – that it will look just like – well, noise. Background noise in fact.

Any aliens likely to be within range will:

a. likely have no use for us other than as zoo specimens

b. be transmitting data so complex we could never hope to read it – just as someone from the 50s could never hope to do anything useful with a DVD.

c. Be watching us from a safe distance just the military can watch us from satellites so far away you can’t tell them from stars – only much much further away and with much better resolution. they are likely now to be watching us as we decimated each other in WWII. There is no way they can see or hear what we’re doing now because the information won’t have reached them yet. They will know that anything they learn will be so old as to be useless.

And if they do need to pop down to pick up samples – they’re CERTAINLY not going to leave the lights on so we can see them coming!

I trust that knocks aliens on the head!

Peter Scargill

Another eventful day

After an early start (over-enthusiastic alarm going off at 6.30am I headed off for Worcestershire – a leisurely 4-hour drive (for a driver with an attention span of around 2.5 hours).  I made good time until I actually got there – then sat in a traffic jam for half an hour! 

The purpose of the day was to do a video shoot (green screen) and to finalise a PowerPoint for the FSB’s forthcoming conference.

All went well for once – which was nice, apart from a little high  blood pressure. It turns out that the venue the conference is at, has a rather interesting restrictive policy regarding broadband. Not content with making a whopping charge for actually supplying broadband for 2 days (that’s not unusual – in the past we’ve had to order a BT line in and pay 3 months rent- though in recent years we’ve usually paid a lump sum and then used our own routers to share out the signal) this lot really take the cake – they want paying for every single computer or device that’s plugged into their networks – and they REFUSE to allow you to use your own routers – even down to refusing (if it’s even legally and technically possible) use of the like of MIFI units.  God knows how they’ll handle the public using WIFI sharing (tethering) to their iPads.

I’m keeping mum for now, but when this is all over I intend to detail charges and the name of the venue to alert others to this utterly unacceptable practice. Unbelievable. The venue is in Liverpool incidentally!  But apart from that, the day was pleasant enough and now… a local Indian I think…

Peter Scargill

You could not make this stuff up….

I can’t honestly remember a more stressful or more comical day than today… you couldn’t dream this stuff up…

After 2 days of struggling with dodgy broadband, I got up this morning, the plan being to hold a video conference at 11am. We use a package called ooVoo as it handle multiple video locations (Skype does that but not that well). All was ready. All I had to do was remind everyone to check the videos early. No matter what happened I was prepared – ORANGE broadband on one telephone line, FSBTELECOM on the other – what could possibly go wrong?

I should have known when I could not get through to the right people that it was all going to go wrong. So, with minutes to spare, people started coming into the video – all but the most important who could not get through.  It turns out that for various reasons my request for the fully commercial ooVoo had not gone through – and the free use of multi-video that ooVoo offered earlier this year was no longer an option. The program started asking for money and eventually we gave up and reverted to that old standby – the TELEPHONE CONFERENCE.

Can’t go wrong with that can you..  of course as I don’t even own a normal phone, it was SKYPE for me – but I have an account where I can make calls for a penny a minute – I NEVER run out of credit.

Only a couple of minutes later we were JUST about the start the conference when my wife Maureen came into my office with a message “the telephone guys are dismantling the post!!!!” -  I rushed outside and sure enough the crane is outside and they’re starting to take the post apart.  “What about the telephone lines” I asked. “Oh they’ll be disconnected for a few hours” came the reply.

I’ll miss out the bit about soaring blood pressure and profanities etc but needless to say, shortly thereafter the telephone guys went back off in their van, the pole intact.  I went back to my meeting, amazed. No doubt they’ll return at another inconvenient time to rob me of the chance to do my job. Between that and 2 days of no electricity only a couple of weeks ago – which led me to fit uninterruptable power supplies all over… so the broadband would work no matter what (well, who would expect the pole to disappear!!??)

And of course I’m doing all this running back and forth in the mud as our garden’s still not recovered from the farmer’s field overflows.

I wasn’t back in the meeting for 5 minutes and the phone went dead – no SKYPE credit. I’d neglected to think about the fact that it was an 0844 number and they don’t come into the normal cheap pricing bundle – I was getting hammered by the minute and my credit, enough to last weeks normally, evaporates in minutes.

This then, was the start of MY day today and it’s been like this all day – one episode after another. If I don’t have a heart attack today I’m good for another 20 years.

How was YOUR day….

(relax… deep breaths….)

A Pleasant Welcome to the New Year

For the first time in living memory, we didn’t overdo things on New Year’s Eve this year, instead we had a quiet night out with friends in a nearby restaurant. The parting came January the first, as is the way in the village of Wark, folks tend to go first-footing and taking a piece of coal with you is an old tradition that many follow! In our case, a couple of bottles of wine went with us and for someone who  never drinks during the day I have to say we had a good time.. of couse there’s a reason why I never drink during the day… by 7pm I was out cold 🙂

Since then I’ve been working – it’s pretty hard to ignore work when there are issues to resolve and people can get hold of you by a variety of electronic methods… but at least we’ve been able to get out and do some shopping and I’ve been hard at work on a new plan I have for the FSB… and working on my pet website at Hollyberry Cottage.

Tomorrow I start in earnest, car has to go in to get the transmission fluid checked and I’m expecting a huge backlog of incoming emails.

Oh, I did get a nice Christmas present this year… an SO32 Metal Series Remote controlled Helicoptor. I definitely recommend this as a stress-buster for anyone with more than 40 sq ft of clear living room space! Wonderful.

One of Those Days

I thought yesterday was bad enough… the twin car batteries I use for handling mains drop-outs here in Wark had been acting up for some time and I’d been getting unexplained drop-outs where our broadband router would just drop out for no reason – but it wasn’t until yesterday I put it all together – the batteries were dry as a BONE. I’ve refilled them but I’m thinking it may be too late for them. But today has been FAR more interesting.

It certainly has been one of those days. The Merc collapsed last night – front legs gave up altogether. Maureen woke me up to announce that it was sitting on the front driveway with the front wheels buried in the wheel arches. Merc in their usual “make a mountain out of a molehill” manner managed to come up with a bill of around a grand to fix this. Can you imagine… you could buy a brand new motor scooter in Carrefour for that amount of money.

tmp6C97Fortunately they’ve come up with a loaner – I say fortunate as I have 3 days of meetings ahead of me and I desperately need a car. I’m sitting here late at night writing because I was just enjoying a superb episode of FRINGE on Sky (if you’ve not watched this excellent sci-fi, you are missing out) and I noted some upgrades for the iPad (not, sadly the eagerly awaited 4.2 operating system upgrade which is now looking like Friday depending on who’s rumour-mill you read) but an upgrade for a long-forgotten program called SharePlus.  If you’re familiar with office systems, I’ll just say that this seamlessly handles SharePoint – no matter what kind of authentication you use. I’ll leave it at that as this is not really a technical blog.

So an expensive start but at least an interesting end. And now I think a book. I’m trying to see if the iPad will really work for reading books so I have one of the few Arthur C Clarke books I’ve not yet read ready and waiting. Now here’s the trick… had I bought a Kindle – I’d have been stuffed because Maureen is already asleep and turning the light on is not an option. Stanza on the iPad on the other hand is backlit and a simple slide of the finger turns the brilliance up and down – a soft glow is all I need to read with (practiced as a kid, my mother always wanted my light turned off so I must’ve read thousands of DC comics by streetlight).

I’ve been getting to grips with Apple TV having bought one of their miraculous new black units this week. Essentially you plug the black box into your TV and Bob’s your uncle – streaming videos for rent, streaming video, sound and pictures from any of your PCs which have iTunes on them and from this weekend, fingers crosses, streaming directly from your iPod/iPhone/iPad to the TV… I can’t wait. May as well relax how, I have 3 very busy days ahead – and at the weekend it’s upgrade time for the gadgets. Add the Apps called StreamToMe into the mix which lets me watch my PC-based movies etc. on the iPhone or iPad… and I’m just about all set… been trying to get a setup like this for years with the PC and never quite made it. Marvellous.

(Update – car’s all sorted…. can’t use Apple TV until Apple get their finger out with the iOS 4.2 updates.

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Free Solar Panels Anyone?

Around a month ago, I noticed a pamphlet dropped through the door. “Save More Than Money” said the recycled-cardboard ad. “Free electricity from Free Solar Panels” said the tickertape plastered across the front.

The basic idea is you get free installation and supply of a bunch of photoelectric solar panels for your roof – you get the electricity, the company (Norton Energy Solutions) get the kickbacks from the government for electricity returned to the grid – and presumably all sorts of other benefits.

There was a meeting at Wark town hall on Thursday 30th September and apparently this went very well with several people signing up there and then.  I’ve since spoken to the suppliers who say they can also handle flat roofs! Of course, they’ll be generating the most electricity when you are LEAST likely to use it –ie mid-day on  sunny day… and so most of this will presumably end up going back into the grid hence providing the company with subsidised payback – Perhaps I should be less cynical – but I’ve played with lots of different kinds of photovoltaic cells and the difference between direct 90 degree sunlight and anything else… is outstanding..

How well  the PUNTER benefits out of all of this has yet to be seen however they’ve promised to contact me tomorrow with a view to arranging something when I get back from holiday.

Project Natal – Milo

This just blew me out of the water – enjoy…