A Driving Instructor's Blog

Computers & Tech

1 2 3 16

Maplin logoBack in the day, when I first got into technology, the go-to place for all your bits and pieces was Maplin Electronics.

Back then, pretty much all they supplied was electronic components, and it was all done through mail order using order forms, with items being selected from a catalogue which rivalled the old-style phone directories in size. When I was very young, the Dandy or Beano annuals were the most eagerly anticipated publications of the year. If you were into electronics, the new Maplin catalogue was the thing.

Maplin was the cheapest source of small quantities of components to the hobbyist. It also had the most extensive range.

I built my first AM radio receiver from a Maplin circuit (making my own printed circuit board). I also built my first modem from a Maplin kit – a 300 baud device in a large blue box (I might still have it somewhere). I also built or repaired dozens of other things thanks to them, and learned a lot, too.

As I got older, and computers appeared on the scene, I spent less time building varied circuits and began to focus on computer-specific ones. As more time passed, there was an ever-declining need to build anything at all. This shift affected Maplin, and they branched out into retail consumer electronics. In those early days of supplying components, I think they only had two actual shops, and I dreamed of one opening near me. Nottingham has two Maplin stores now, and there are 217 around the country.

In my opinion, a large part of the problem was that most of the stuff they began selling was overpriced and non-branded. You could get better for much less money online. Electronic components were still available, but hidden in the back of the store, and the range was drastically reduced – even more so if you wanted it to be in stock right now for an emergency. And the staff were not always as helpful as you’d expect. I remember one time not that long ago waiting to be served at the click-and-collect in one branch, and the staff repeatedly walked past me, looked at me, and ignored me as they congregated in a group on the other side of the shop floor (until I yelled across that I was waiting to be served). Don’t get me wrong – other times they were great… but not always.

But if only for the sake of nostalgia, it was a shame to hear that they have gone into administration.

Irrespective of my own potted history linking to their current situation, Maplin as a retailer has been hit hard by the fall in the value of the GBP due to Brexit. Indeed, Brexit is cited as a significant factor in their collapse.

Share

Places in the UK where broadband is slowExtensive government research has identified several areas in the UK where broadband is quite slow.

Note that the population density in the UK as a whole is over 270 people per square kilometre. The population density in the areas identified as having the slowest broadband – mainly the extremities of Scotland and rural Wales – is as low as 3-4 people per square kilometre (and in one area, 3-4 probably represents the average IQ of the population there as well).

MPs are apparently planning next to spend a lot more money on identifying that it is darker at night than it is during the daytime, and that ice melts when it warms up.

Share

Microsoft OutlookI use Office and always have done. I like Microsoft, and see no reason to resort to using a hammer and small chisel to make cuneiform tablets for the purposes of communication just because I’m jealous of how big Microsoft is.

Anyway, yesterday I came home and discovered that a new Windows Insider update had come through, but the installation had failed. After re-booting, my system restored itself to the previous build, and I made a note to try the update later that evening. In the meantime, I checked my email, and deleted the stuff I didn’t want. It was then I discovered a stupid, drawn-out quacking sound each time I deleted a message. The problem – well, the change – was too recent for there to be any coherent information on Google.

In Outlook’s settings, there is nothing associated with sounds other than turning off the one you get when an email arrives. I’ve lived through the hell of that annoying chime every time an email arrives, and switched it off long ago. So I was stumped.

But then, the following day, and to add insult to injury, I found out that when I opened Excel and launched a spreadsheet, a new and very annoying sound had been added to that action, too.

Long story short. I disabled “Provide feedback with sound” in Excel’s Options >> Ease of Access panel, and that stopped Excel making noises. The big benefit was that this stopped Outlook doing it, too.

Share

I originally wrote this in 2015 and updated it in mid-2016. It has been popular again recently as a result of the Wannacry and Petya/NotPetya outbreaks.


I upgraded to Windows 10 [2014], and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. The only drawback to Microsoft’s “free upgrade” at that time was that you didn’t get an installation disk (though you can make your own), and it was just that: an upgrade. Hard disk internal view

I have been building my own computers for the last 15 years or so, and I like them running in tip-top condition. Windows has always suffered from what is known as “OS decay” (also called “software rot” and “Windows rot”). The simple fact is that ALL software is liable to degrade over time, and it isn’t just a Windows issue, and what happens is that all the juggling of files, upgrading, installing and uninstalling, software bugs, crashes, and so on, can cause a lot of small changes on a computer. Over time these may accumulate to such a level that the system becomes slow or unstable, and the only sensible way around it is to format your hard drive and do an absolutely clean install of Windows, followed by all your other drivers and software. Absolutely the last thing you want to be doing is upgrading a system which is already in bad shape. But that’s pretty much what you had to do with Windows 10 in order to take up the free offer.

I’ve done clean installs so many times on my own machines (and those of others, including over the phone when I worked in tech support) that I can usually do a format and have a clean machine running in a few hours. I have all my software’s installation files saved along with my software keys, which I just cut and paste as and when I need them. It sounds easy, but even when it’s your own system and you know what you’re doing, it’s still a bloody nuisance. You lose anything you haven’t backed up, and no matter how careful you are there’s always something you forget or misplace. I’ve never been 100% happy with doing it this way. It’s a right pain in the arse.

In the past I’ve toyed with using disk imaging software. The idea behind this is that you can effectively take a snapshot of your hard drive – with Windows and all your software on it – save it, and then copy it back (re-image) on to your disk at some point in the future if you need to. Each time you restore a saved image snapshot, you end up with a system which is in exactly the same condition it was in when you took the snapshot.

For some years I used Paragon software for creating backup images of my Windows installations. On paper, Paragon’s program was very good, but in all honesty it was the absolute pits when it came to doing an actual restore. It wasn’t at all user friendly, which is why I’ve tended to go for clean installs. But with Windows 10 initially being an upgrade rather than a standalone install, I decided that I really did need a proper disk imaging system once and for all.Macrium Reflect

After a bit of research, I found Macrium Reflect. It is available as a free version, and installs in a few seconds. I can’t believe I mucked about with Paragon for so long. I have since upgraded to the Pro version of Reflect.

When you first run Reflect it nags you to create bootable rescue disk (the Pro version also allows you to create a bootable USB stick), which you need in order to restore an image. Creating the rescue disk is very simple, and once you’ve done it you’re free to create your main image.

With my initial Windows 10 upgrade, what I did was this:

  • backed up all my important stuff (photos, documents, emails, etc.) to separate hard drives
  • ran the Windows 10 upgrade in order to activate my free licence
  • did a clean install of Windows 10 (which you can do once you have the licence)
  • installed my drivers
  • created a Reflect image of that system (“clean image”)

Then I installed all my software, activated it, and created another image (“clean working image”).

Periodically, I create a rolling image of my system as it stands at the time. If anything goes wrong in the short term I can restore that, but more serious issues might require me to use one of the previous two images.

A good example of needing to re-image my system stems from my participation in the Windows Insider Program. Due to a couple of cranky Insider builds, I decided I wanted a clean install. All I had to do was export my Outlook files (my other personal files are not stored on the C drive), then run the Macrium restore. It took about 5 minutes and I had a fully operational clean install from the “clean working image”. I then reinstalled any software I’d purchased since that image was made, and that was it.

Macrium Reflect is perfect anyone who wants to create a safe backup of their system. Just remember that you need somewhere to store your image files. My system has 8TB of storage across seven HDDs, but if you only have single HDD you’re going to need at least 20GB free space to create an image.

Doesn’t Windows’ own backup keep my files safe from Wannacry?

No. Windows backs up your personal files, not itself. If you get a virus, this will infect Windows and probably all your backed up files anyway.

Is a disk image safe from Wannacry?

As long as the image is clean (i.e. you didn’t have the virus already on it) then the image itself is safe to use. However, it would not be wise to keep the image on a networked drive where any virus could get at it. In the case of Wannacry, it encrypts everything – and I assume this would include .ISO images and anything else it found.

My images are stored in the cloud, and on spare hard drives and USB devices.

Why is imaging better than a full reinstall?

My own opinion is that it is a pain having to start from scratch with all your software when you do a full reinstall, whereas restoring an image yields a 100% functional system (or one that is close to 100% if you installed software after you made the image).

Bear in mind that a Windows installation DVD is about 4.7GB maximum capacity. A clean image of your hard drive following a clean reinstall will typically be about 20GB (over 5 DVDs). My clean working image is about 60GB (15 DVDs). Since DVDs can get scratched and become unreadable (especially ones you burn yourself), that method of storage is unreliable (in my opinion and experience).

You need to allow for these file sizes when you are backing up.

Share

Interconnecting cogs and gearsThe only people likely to not realise the significance of technology in the world today – other than a few isolated tribes in the Amazonian rain forests – are Brexiters. Even if they’re technically capable of understanding, they won’t, because they’re blinded by their obsession to leave the EU no matter what the ultimate cost.

My view on Brexit should be well known by now. It was the stupidest decision this country has ever made, and it was largely made by the stupidest people this country has ever thrown into the gene pool. They should never have been given a direct vote on something they did not understand. And make no bones about it, in spite of what some may claim, the majority of Brexiters haven’t a clue about what they’ve done. All that mattered to most of them was the idea that Britannia would Rule The Waves again without any help from those damned foreigners, and that we would kick out anyone whose skin was not alabaster white by the afternoon of 24 June 2016. It was those two things, coupled with the lie emblazoned across that big red bus about spending £350,000,000 a week on the NHS, that carried the vote.

Since last June, having more or less resigned themselves to not seeing convoys of people being kicked out of the UK (yet – they still live in hope), they’ve spent much of the time accusing the media of “bias” every time it reports simple economic facts. The pound falls in value, reporting it is left-wing bias. Someone mentions the risk of losing access to the single market, it’s “remoaner bias”. Interest rates stay fixed, the BoE is anti-Brexit. There’s talk of interest rates going up, the BoE is anti-Brexit.

They are just too thick to understand that the economy isn’t controlled by a single light switch, but is more akin to a supercomputer, full of logic gates and conditional switches. A better analogy for what I’m going to say next is that it is like some huge steampunk device, composed of myriad interconnecting gears and cogs.

Brexit has been like someone ramming a huge spanner into it.

Most Brexiters will have been completely unaware of Galileo, a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) being developed by the EU. The fact that many Brexiters are probably also unaware (or certainly wary) even of GPS in the first place means that they will have also been unaware of its limitations. Civilian GPS resolution is limited to 4 metres at best, though the military can resolve to less than 10cm. Since it is controlled by the US, the service could be switched off at any time in any significant conflict scenario. Galileo GNSS, on the other hand, would offer the same resolution to all users, and this could be down to a few centimetres once it is operational. The USA has not been happy about this.

Galileo is a combined effort by the ESA and the European GNSS Agency. As a member of the EU, the UK has equal rights to work on EU projects, and SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd) in the UK has so far built navigation payloads for 22 of the estimated 30 satellites needed to form the Galileo system in space. SSTL will retain those equal rights right up until the day the UK officially leaves the EU.

And that’s where the potential shit hits the fan.

On Thursday this week, the contract for a further 8 satellites is to be signed at the Paris Air Show. However, SSTL is unlikely to have delivered all 8 of those by the time Brexit happens on 29 March 2019. At that point, it will become “illegal” for the UK – as a “third country” – to work on certain aspects of the Galileo system. Only a Brexiter could also fail to appreciate that it would kibosh any future involvement, or that the UK’s use of Galileo once it becomes operational would also become questionable.

Each Galileo satellite costs about €30 million (£26.5 million), and SSTL will be earning a significant chunk out of that right now. After Brexit, they probably won’t – not unless this issue is added to the growing list of Things The UK Must Demand From The EU during Brexit talks, and is resolved in our favour.

On a related note, another jingoistic outburst yesterday involving The Queen’s Speech reports that Britain will “shoot for the moon”.

One will focus on growing the space sector and would allow satellites to be launched from the UK for the first time, as well as develop scientific missions and manned vertical rockets.

I can see it now. Once the mandatory “democratic vote” involving school children has taken place to name the new launch system, the Rocky McRocketface Two-stage Payload Deployment System Mk I will eventually have the opportunity to do one of three things:

  • make it into space
  • explode over the North Sea
  • explode over somewhere else. Like Hull

I noticed some Brexiter commenting on Facebook yesterday:

Facebook post - Leslie Chiazzari DuckworthAt the moment, all Brexit supporters can do is try to make silk purses out of sows’ ears. Notice how, after informing everyone that the government wouldn’t be launching the satellites directly (no, really?) he skims over the massive logistical issues, which should be quite clear to any sensible person.

Satellite launching in Australia and the USA (and Russia, for that matter) is successful for one main reason, which can be demonstrated easily using ruler and a map of the world.World Map

Australia is over 30x bigger than the UK, and it’s population density is over 140x less. Woomera launch site is 4 miles from the nearest road (and there are only two of those in a radius of at least 150 miles), and 8 miles from the nearest town not including Woomera itself (and 35 miles from the only other one after that). The USA is over 40x bigger than the UK, and its population density is just a tenth of the UK’s. Cape Canaveral is at least 4 miles away from the nearest non-military town, and over 12 miles away from the nearest large town. Both of these launch sites have convenient oceans nearby, with nothing for thousands of miles.

In the UK, even in the middle of one of the national parks, you’re lucky if you’re further than a couple of miles away from any place where people are likely to be, even if they’re just passing through on bikes or having a cream tea in a cafe. And that’s especially true near the only coast line with enough sea to minimise the risk of pissing off the neighbours if a launch went titsup. Of course, there’s Scotland – and if we could persuade them to let us screw up some heathland, then there’d only be the matter of the weather, with rain, snow, and gale force winds for 360 days of the year.

Before we gloss over these risks, it’s worth remembering that the last mission we had any significant involvement with (the only one I can think of, actually, where we tried to land something ourselves) created a new crater on the surface of Mars. And we we weren’t even involved with the initial flashy, explodey bit. Launching rockets in the UK carries immense risks, and these never go away, since even with successful launch systems there is a risk of catastrophic failure every single launch. It happens even to people who are quite good at it, and who have a proven track record. We don’t.

If anything goes wrong in Woomera, the sand just gets a bit of browner. In the US, there’s a big splash. Over here, you could lose Cardiff.

And finally, there is the timescale and cost. Considering that the current government will be lucky if it lasts another 6 months with the way things are now, identifying a location, building the facility, developing rockets, testing them, then finally using them will take a decade or more. Assuming everything is a complete success at each stage – which would buck the trend for everyone else who has ever gone into this industry – the entire development sequence will only cost money. It cannot make money until it is successfully launching stuff into space. And even then, the implication is that it’s our stuff.

Each launch of the Ariane system costs about £150m. It cost billions to develop – and it took decades to develop.

Ironically, there’s already a bloody system in place. And it is called Ariane. And we’re walking away from it, to build our own as a result of our suicidal decision to leave the EU.

Share

WannaCry RansomwareEveryone must have heard about the problems this week with an unprecedented attack on Windows computer systems around the world. I understand that there are already reports of further cases as we head into the new week.

I’m not going to do an in-depth report, since you can find them all over the internet, and they’re written by people  much more knowledgeable on the subject than me. However, the one thing you MUST do is install any updates or patches as soon as possible.

Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7, and Windows Vista systems should already have been patched (back in March). If you haven’t done the patch, do it soon. Microsoft no longer officially supports Windows 8 or Windows XP (except by custom arrangements), though the NHS still uses it from what I have read. However, they have released an emergency patch for both Windows 8 and Windows XP that regular users can apply.

Just do it.

Share

Ford Focus oil change messageI got a message on my 2016 Ford Focus TDCi Titanium centre console the other day telling me that it was due for an oil change. I wouldn’t have minded, except that it was only on 5,500 miles and service points are every 12,500 miles.

I spoke with the local dealer and they said just to bring it in so they could reset it. I wasn’t too pleased with that since visits to the dealer inevitably mean at least half a day in lost lesson time. Therefore, my first action after that was to buy an OBD II monitor tool so I could reset it myself. The tool worked fine, except that it didn’t find any faults and so there was nothing to reset – and the oil change warning remained stubbornly visible.

Then I did what I should have done in the first place and Googled it. It turns out Ford has a system which can be set to give an oil change warning at various points, so when it triggers it isn’t an actual fault and therefore doesn’t show up as one.

How to reset the warning

Resetting it turned out to be incredibly simple – though completely undocumented by Ford, of course. All you do is:

  1. Turn on the ignition (or push the start button with the clutch up)
  2. Press the brake and accelerator fully down for about 20-25 seconds

The display tells you when reset is complete, and the warning goes away. From what I understand, this applies to all Focus models from MkII onwards.

How soon should I get my oil changed when the warning message comes on?

For a Focus, if your car is under the manufacturer’s warranty then I think they allow 1,000 miles on top of the normal service points at every 12,500 miles. After that your warranty might be affected.

Of course, if the oil change warning message appears before 12,500 miles then you can safely ignore it (or reset it, as explained above). It isn’t a sensor warning, just a timer based one.

If the oil warning dashboard light comes on, though, you mustn’t ignore it.

Share

Three Wise MonkeysThis is funny. You’ve probably come across the various ‘assistants’ which respond to your voice on today’s computers and smartphones. One of the biggest at the moment is Alexa, Amazon’s assistant, and it comes with the Amazon Echo – a device that personally I can’t see the point of, but it appears quite a few other people can.

The Echo is a smart speaker system which listens continuously and responds to your voice commands. It does apparently useful things like play music, create ‘to-do’ lists, sets alarms, and provide weather and travel information. The same stuff you can do with a few mouse clicks or thumb twiddles. Except that it costs about £150.

This story from America tells how a San Diego news station was reporting on how a six-year old child had cost her parents a lot of money by accidentally ordering things via the family’s Echo device. She apparently said “can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?” and shortly a $160 dollhouse and 4 lbs of biscuits arrived in the post.

During the report, the reporter said “I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse’.”

The first problem is that in order to trigger the Echo – specifically, Alexa, which is the assistant running on it – you have to address it by name – Alexa – and then it listens. The second problem is that it turns out voice-controlled online ordering is activated by default on the Echo account. The third problem is that anyone who is prepared to pay £150 for a small mono-speaker employing technology that tries to be human but isn’t is not going to be the sharpest blade in the knife drawer, and will not have changed any of the default settings.

So when the reporter uttered the words “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse”, Echo devices all over San Diego, which were also listening to the show, immediately ignored the grammatical tense and began ordering dollhouses for their owners. CW-6 News said “plenty” of viewers’ boxes had placed orders.

Which is another reason I don’t want one. Mind you, I did look into it a few months ago before I knew how much they cost.

Share

This is a big story in the tech world. Samsung, which recently launched its Galaxy Note 7 phone in a blaze of publicity, has halted all sales.Galaxy Note 7

Many people will be aware that they had to do a recall after a number of devices caught fire or exploded either during or after charging. Samsung said that they’d traced the fault back to a faulty batch of batteries, and began replacing recalled devices with ones which were apparently safe to use. However, a number of these “safe” phones have also caught fire.

There were around 100 cases in America with the original version, and at least seven incidents have been reported so far with the replacement versions.

This is really going to hurt Samsung. It is quite likely that the Galaxy Note 7 will now never be (re)launched, which could cost them billions. They’ll lose around $10 billion in sales from the US alone. And that’s even before you consider the costs associated with the mass recalls – which are among the largest in history – and the damage to their reputation.

Anyone who bought one is advised to contact the place they got it from to initiate the return process.

Even before this latest announcement, Note 7s were gradually being banned from flights after at least two instances of smoking units on board causing flights to be abandoned.

Share

Just regarding that last post about Rosetta, and one of the images I have shown again here:ESA - 67P from 16km

If you get the full sized image here, in the black sky to the middle left there is a small white dot that might be a star, a data glitch, or just an aberration on the optics. But look what happens when you blow it up:The anomaly - expanded

It’s a disk shape with several lobes around it. Here’s what happens when you adjust the contrast:The anomaly - processed

Is that strange or what? I’d have never spotted it if I hadn’t seen the comments under that photo.

No one else seems to have picked up on a possible UFO in this latest Rosetta image.


There’s bound to be a logical explanation. On the list of possible logical explanations, it being a real out-of-this-world UFO comes in somewhere at around the gazillionth position.

Mind you, it doesn’t half look like that photo in Independence Day when they first detect the aliens approaching.


Actually, it is definitely some sort of exposure artefact. Every time a star appears in any Rosetta image you see some sort of streaking and those lobe-like structures. In another image from the final descent you can see multiple stars and they all show the same features.

Share
1 2 3 16