Service Resumed?

It’s been a while since I last posted here.  Indeed, my SSL certificate expired about six months ago, and I only just updated this server to use the new certificate.  But there’s no point waiting until I’ve got something big to post before posting anywhere — that’s what got me to this point.  So I’m going to post this, and hope that I can post more frequently, if maybe slightly less self-importantly.

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Aylett Family Crumble

When I was growing up, we used to really enjoy Apple Crumble. It wasn’t until I started school that I realised that the crumble topping I thought was normal actually appears to be pretty much unique to the Ayletts.

I’ve had a couple of requests for the recipe, so here it is:

4oz (100g) Margarine
4oz (100g) Golden Syrup (or brown sugar)
6oz (150g) Rolled Oats
2oz (50g) Wholemeal Flour
1½oz (40g) Sunflower Seeds

Melt fat and sugar in pan.  Remove from heat and add everything else.

Cover your fruit and cook for 30 minutes at 190°C, Gas Mark 5.

The recipe doesn’t include it, but we’ll often add cinnamon or ginger (or sometimes both!) depending on the fruit we’re covering.

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Writing to my MP about lawful detention

Following news of the detention of a man at Heathrow, I’ve written this letter to my MP, Sheila Gilmore:

Dear Sheila Gilmore,

It is with alarm that I read the news reports from the last 36 hours about David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow. The idea that it is acceptable for the state to hold someone in detention and require them to answer questions without legal representation, even for a limited period of time, is anathema to a democratic society. I am aware that it is common practice for laws covering border crossings to provide fewer rights for the public; that it is common does not make it correct.

I hope that you will join me in supporting the removal of the powers used in this case, and similar powers, and their replacement with laws that respect the rights of people to receive legal assistance and not to be detained without cause.

Yours sincerely,
Andrew Aylett

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Driving with snow chains

It’s been snowing, and as we were planning to see friends who live in the country and Lidl have been selling snow chains for £20, I decided to buy some.  We used them this afternoon, and as it’s the first time I’ve used chains I learned a few things which I thought I’d share.

I was very glad to have tried putting them on in the driveway before we left — that gave me extra confidence and it really helped as I was under a bit more pressure when actually fitting them for use.  I only practised fitting one tyre, that was enough.

My first lesson was that chains are only useful when you actually use them.  Our friends live at the top of a hill, and the road past their house, up that hill, was the only non-gritted part of our drive.  I looked at it, and thought I’d probably make it up anyway.  Of course, I didn’t — we stopped half-way, and a tractor came the other way while I was trying to put the chains on (both blocking the single-track road for the other).  We reversed back down (with one chain on) and parked at the bottom of the hill.

Later, as we really wanted to avoid having to walk back to the car with the children in the dark, I went to put the other chain on so I could bring the car up to the house.  It was already quite dark by this point, and the second chain was a little twisted.  Lesson two: if your chain is at all tangled, untangle it completely before putting it behind the wheel.  I had to take it back out, untangle it, and try again.  The instructions said to lay it out on the road; I can see why now.  At this point, it’s worth mentioning lesson three: you may need to kneel.  I had waterproof trousers on already and they made it much easier to decide to do that.

Both chains on, I could drive up the hill with no issues at all.  Lesson four is that snow chains actually work.

A concern of mine (which was what prompted me to try the hill without chains) is that you’re not supposed to use chains directly on tarmac.  There wasn’t much ice, so I was worried I’d damage something.  After we left, having come back down the hill and on to the gritted road, I learned lesson five: it’s very obvious when you hit tarmac with chains; you can really hear the noise they make.  This indicates that you don’t actually need much ice (or even slush) on the road to be able to use chains, if it’s a consistent covering.

The last lesson is that removal is, if anything, even easier than putting them on.  Unclipping the chains was easy and this time I providentially has my wheels the right way up first time, so I could undo the clasp at the back of the wheel.  I then ran the car down the road a few metres and went back to pick the chains up.  I suspect that getting the wheels the right way up is the key to easy removal.

I’m glad to have got the chains, and I’m much more confident about using them now.  I doubt they’ll be a regular sight on my tyres, but for the last icy bits of journeys, or if our estate gets frozen up again as it was a couple of years ago, they’ll be very useful.

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XKCD Click to Drag

If you’re in to this sort of thing, you’ve probably come across today’s XKCD already.  If you’ve not, you should: it’s an insanely large comic, very nicely done.  I’ve taken some of the hacks that have been floating around, and put them together for easy using.  So far, that means full-screen with cursor key navigation.

View the comic.

Thanks to a comment on Explain XKCD for inspiration for the full-screen code and potch on HN for the keyboard control.

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Gone Cycling

As Lizzie and the children were out past Dunbar with friends, I asked Lizzie to take the bike carrier with her and went for a cycle after work.  Lizzie stayed later than expected, so I got further than expected and wound up next to the cement works the other side of Dunbar — 32 miles in 2h40 moving time (3h10 total) with an average moving speed of 12mph and a top speed of 32mph :).

View 2012/07/23 17:56 in a larger map

Notice the correlation between slope and speed

It was wet the whole time, the cycle track from Longniddry to Haddington was quite muddy and I really enjoyed it — not sure I’ll be cycling into work tomorrow, though.

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Telephone “Security” Questions

We don’t get many people phoning our land-line — just my mother-in-law, marketers willing to flout the TPS and the occasional company trying to get hold of me.  Whenever the latter happens, the conversation always seems to take the same trajectory:

“Hello, is that Andrew Aylett?”


“This is Linda from Acme Insurance Services, I’d like to talk to you about your policy”


“Before we start, for security purposes, can I ask you to confirm…”

Well, no, actually.  There are a couple of reasons why I’m not happy with this, but first I’d like to ask a question I’ll come back to later: who would be protected by this security, and for whom should the security have been intended?

If we examine the differences between me calling the company and the company calling me, we see that the security implications are quite different.  When I call a company, using their published phone number, I can be quite sure I’m talking to the right people.  They, on the other hand, have no idea who I am and are quite within their rights to require me to prove my identity — not to do so would open them up to fraud.

When a company calls me, though, the roles are not-quite reversed.  This time, the company has some idea who they have called, but they can’t be entirely sure they are speaking to the right person.  I’ve got no reason to believe they are who they say they are.  That makes them asking me security questions much less attractive to me — it might help them a bit, but it doesn’t help me at all: I know that the only people who might pick up that phone are trustworthy (and in any case, they could probably answer the security questions), and I can’t tell whether I’m talking to a legitimate caller or to a fraudster.

My standard practice in such situations is first to ask whether they can prove their identity — to date, none have even tried — then  to offer to call them back on their published number: that turns the security question back into one where I can have confidence that I’m talking to the right person.  Where that falls down, is when they tell me that I have to phone a different number to talk to them.  That defeats the whole point of the exercise, yet it’s offered as a complete remedy.

I fear that companies don’t care about this sort of issue because they don’t have to: most of their customers don’t object, and if people are taken in by fraudsters, the customer suffers not the company — the security protects only the company, while it should be designed to protect both parties.


As it happens, this post was prompted by a call from someone claiming to be from Aviva. They were quite polite, and I have no real reason to doubt their legitimacy, nor that I’m being singled out as a target.  However, if I were being singled out, that call went almost exactly how I’d expect a call from a fraudster to go — asking for my personal details, refusing to authenticate herself and offering a number I can’t verify for me to call back.

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Zen and the art of selling people things they want to buy

Kill me now: I signed up for a service advertised to me via email.

We’ve been getting our Internet connection from Zen for a few years now, and we’ve been really happy with them.  They are a bit more expensive than some consumer ISPs, but they are much more open about the service they provide, and much happier for us to use that service as a raw pipe, with a sensible bandwidth allowance, rather than claiming “unlimited” then restricting use.  They are also happy for us to run servers, even giving us half-a-dozen useful IP addresses and setting up reverse DNS.  Of course, most people don’t need any of these features, but they are useful for me — and more generally useful, their support is excellent.

Anyway, Zen also provide one of the few email newsletters that I actually find useful, and one month they advertised that they were starting to provide phone service.  Being ADSL, our internet connection goes over BT’s cabling, and Zen’s phone service would do the same too — so the hardware wouldn’t change.  However, I was getting increasingly annoyed with BT, especially at the way they’d started charging us for not using our phone enough, but also at their insistence that we sign up for a year at a time, with punitive cancellation rates.  Zen don’t provide any inclusive minutes, but most months we don’t actually make any calls.  Line rental is cheaper than BT.  No annoying marketing (although BT still sends stuff every few months, which goes straight in the bin).

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