Zen and the art of the Internet


It was back in 2002 when I first got ADSL. Back then it was all the rage to have an Alcatel USB ADSL modem that ran under Windows. And it ran at 512k/sec and we were happy with that, coming from a time when dialup Internet was normal. Although I also used to use GSM 9600BPS dialup at one point too…

Then I got an upgrade to a 2Mbit line when stuff just naturally improved with the technology. There was then the improvement of ADSL2+ which gave me about 8Meg. Then I moved house and got 10Meg, apart from the incident where my phoneline fell off the house.

And now, thanks to Fibre To The Cabinet, VDSL and a suspiciously cheap looking OpenReach branded router downstairs I get the rather silly figures you see above. Oh hello future me, what are we on now? Gigabit? Through our mobile phones?

I know there’s faster, but that involves either having cable Internet and no static IP, or living in a place where you can have fibre to your house. I don’t, the fibre stops at the green cabinet at the end of the street. I can see it from my front door and don’t think my line is the limiting factor in my speed any more.

It’s unlimited too, just like I used to have with Be Internet.

Ripping a phonebook in two just got easier

Fear my immense strength!

Once upon a time the BT Phonebook was a great thick publication – there’s an English phrase “as thick as a phonebook” that was invented because of the weighty nature of these books.

Pages and pages of people’s names and their addresses and phone numbers.

The current one for where I live plopped through my letterbox this morning and it’s a bit of a disappointment really. Either the population of this area has suddenly succumb to some form of horrific disease… or people don’t want listing in a book any more.

The 2011 BT Phonebook for Doncaster is 272 pages long. The first 9 pages are BT internal numbers and semi useful local council numbers. Then some adverts. P13-127 are classified adverts.P128-180 are business listings. Pages 181-265 are residential numbers – the whole point of the book originally.

So the whole point of the phonebook has been reduced to 84 pages. I think they should save a few trees and not bother printing it any more, I can’t remember the last time I wanted to look up a phone number.

It reminds me of the last dying few years of my favourite ZX Spectrum and Atari ST magazines, watching them wither away to tiny pamphlets no more than 30-40 pages long. Except I don’t read the phonebook, I drop it into the paper recycling bin instead.

Google Communication

I’ve got a Google Voice invite…

You are invited to open a free Google Voice account. To accept this invitation and create your account, visit https://www.google.com/voice/

If you haven’t already heard about it, Google Voice is a service that makes using your current phones much better!

Here’s what it offers:

  • A personal phone number that rings all of your existing phones when people call
  • All of your voicemail in one inbox with unlimited online storage and free voicemail transcripts sent to your phone and email
  • Low-priced international calling to over 200 countries and free SMS
  • Other powerful features like the first phone spam filter to protect you from unwanted callers, the ability to ListenInTM on your voicemail messages while they are being left, conference calling and more
  • Which is great, except…

    Google Voice is US only at the moment
    Google Voice is US only at the moment

    So I suppose I have to wait until they make it work in the UK. It sounds like a great idea, having one number for everything that you can divert to any phone you like. I just wonder how reliable and ‘permanent’ it will turn out to be; what if I become reliant on it and then Google decide to discontinue it. I quite liked Google Notebook and Google Browser Sync was a great piece of software, but they’re now discontinued.

    Anyway, I’m more interested in what Google Wave will be like. Over the past few days I’ve been arranging a trip to the US with my cousin, we’ve been using Google Talk’s IM feature to arrange things, and then continuing the conversation via email, using GMail’s ability to archive chat logs in the ‘Sent’ items box. I’ve also been able to sit at a friend’s house chatting on my G1 and reading the same emails. My cousin, as it happens, is in Sweden at the moment using someone’s laptop.

    It’s really good that I can communicate with people in these mixed ways, without having to install a specific client on my own personal computer. All I need is an Internet connection and a web browser, or a signal on my mobile phone.

    I hope someone creates a real standard for this sort of seamless communication and then gets it turned into an official RFC or something. It needs to be ‘The Way’, rather than something Google’s invented, or something Microsoft has copied off Google and then ‘added value’ to by making it incompatible. That way we’re protected against companies going bankrupt, or deciding to discontinue services.

    It irritates me that I cannot talk to my MSN friends through my Google Talk account. Why should I have several different logins just to talk to people? This isn’t the 1980s American telephone system, with lots of little companies fighting against each other. The users of these systems don’t care, they just want to chat to their friends. Why can’t I take a FaceBook chat session and continue it via my Google Talk client on my mobile phone, or through Skype?

    Why? It’s because everyone tries to create their own little walled garden, separate from everyone else, with their own particular ‘added value’ to make their generic service appear more interesting. It all seems very short sighted since these services are free, so customers have no real loyalty to particular brands. “What, you’re on ICQ? I don’t have an ICQ… oh my multi-protocol chat client can log in though, I’ll just make an account with them”. Not that multi-protocol chat clients are the solution, they’re just a temporary fix, covering over the underlying problem…

    The underlying protocols of the Internet should be standard, with everyone agreeing to use them, and everyone agreeing not to tweak their HTML implementation so that only their browsers render pages served from their webservers correctly. There should be a standard chat protocol, and a standard website authentication system so that users can be individuals on the Internet, rather than a collection of hundreds of logins for different sites. I like to buy things from places that understand Google Checkout, and I like to use my LiveJournal openID to log into sites that allow it. Not because I am particularly attached to those companies, it’s just it works, and it’s less hassle.

    Your ISP should be an OpenID provider, and your ISP’s login details should be the only ones you need to log into anything.

    Everyone is offering me free phone calls!

    It’s amazing just how cheaply we can talk to each other now. The other day I had a two hour Skype video call with someone, later that same person phoned me using a cheap call service and it cost him zero pence per minute; so after finding out the name of this company and signing up I can also now make free phone calls during the day.

    On Friday I needed to demo some software I’d created, and talk about some design ideas for it. After five minutes of attempting to talk through the stuff over the phone we both gave up and used XP’s Remote Assistance to great effect. I was able to speak on the phone (using the previously mentioned free call service) while waving my mouse around his screen. It was really productive and worked extremely well.

    Today I received a letter from BT telling me my cheap mobile discount plan was due to expire, and unless I phoned them they’d start charging me for it. So I phoned them to cancel the plan as I never really got any benefit from it. While on the phone BT told me that I now have free evening and weekend calls to all BT landlines.

    So now I can ring people for free, which is how it should be.

    I find this all quite interesting since I am ploughing my way through the Best of 2600 book I bought earlier. Right now I’m at the part where the American phone system is being split up, resulting in loads of little phone companies, confusing dialling systems, long distance providers and the general confusion that arises when something like this happens. There’s a lot of articles from the 80s in this chapter of the book where people attempt to guess what the future will be like, and whether it’ll be just as confusing. Well 20-odd years on and it’s not as confusing in general – we can at least direct-dial numbers for most places on the planet now, but choosing just who should carry your calls can be a complicated and time consuming process.


    While sitting downstairs chatting on IRC through my serial terminal, I thought it’d be great if I could also chat to people on Google Talk through it. I had a quick search of the web and came across Bitlbee:

    BitlBee brings IM (instant messaging) to IRC clients. It’s a great solution for people who have an IRC client running all the time and don’t want to run an additional MSN/AIM/whatever client.

    Just install the program and connect to the BitlBee server with your favourite IRC-client. You will be force-joined into the control channel where root (the bot, your assistant, the bee) will try to help you to get the program working.

    A quick apt-get install bitlbee soon had it installed, and after working out I had to type /server +localhost into IRSSI I had a new channel open with me and the ‘root’ user. Telling the bee about Google Talk seemed fairly simple, but it didn’t want to connect, giving an error with the unhelpful “Connection Closed” message. A bit of searching came across a post that had some helpful wisdom on it:

    account add jabber username@gmail.com mypasswd talk.google.com:5223:ssl

    The important bit being :5223:ssl added to the end of the server string. Bitlbee now connects perfectly and I’ve been chatting away to my GTalk contacts as though they were on IRC.

    Blue Arsed Fly Mode *Engaged*

    Amy went off to visit some people in Doncaster today, leaving me at home to do some tedious school planning. We almost missed the train to Doncaster, me dropping her off at the station and saying “I’ll ring you in five minutes to see if you made it” and her running into the station.

    I went for an amble around Maplin for a bit, coming out with a new A/V switcher for my various consoles. I rang her and got no answer, and a quick check at the station confirmed she must have made the train. Still, bit odd not being able to ring her. I continued home…

    And when I went into the front room I found her phone on the settee… with 17 missed calls from the people she was going to visit. It rang another six times before a Doncaster number came up which I answered and discovered a slightly pissed off Amy on the other end. I was instructed to text the people she was meeting, explain the situation and get them to collect her from Doncaster station.

    This I did, and she called back about ten minutes later asking me to ring them and ask where they were, she having now been stood there for at least half an hour in the cold and rain. So I did and received the news that the other people were “lost” and couldn’t find the station. This was duly relayed to Amy and was greeted with a certain amount of swearing 😉

    She said she’d ring me when she was coming home and I continued about my afternoon slightly bemused and wondering what was happening.

    Later that afternoon I got a call from Amy saying she was at Doncaster station and about to get on a train back home. I made plans to leave after half an hour to meet her. Ten minutes later I got another call saying she was there, it seems trains go a bit quicker on Sundays.

    After the day’s ordeal we sat down for some tea and watched Resident Evil before making a trip to my parents’ to drop off the dog.

    The Internet is a wonderful thing

    I am currently listening to CB radio over it using the really cool WebSDR. I am listening to two people in Norwich talking to each other, and someone from Hanover. However I have no receiver, but am using the Internet and a receiver in Holland. Cleverly my computer is running a software radio receiver and doing all the frequency tuning and decoding. The system is really cool.

    It’s like IRC, but the chatter mostly seems to consist of people talking about their kit, where they’re from and announcing their callsigns.

    I want to buy a radio scanner now and hear what the locals are saying.

    Serial over CAT5 working

    I spent a few hours this evening perfecting my soldering skills. I’ve created two ‘Y’ cables that split Cat5 cable into both ethernet and serial comms. I have one end plugged into my server and the other end is currently in my office. Between the two locations is the normal Cat5 wiring with no modifications. The serial connection is removed before the cable hits the switch and nobody notices.

    Once I’ve tidied it all up I’ll do a writeup. I’m also trying to connect my Mac Classic to the rest of my house using a serial cable. Cleverly I’ve made a Mini-DIN 8 to DB9 cable and wired it backwards. It spews junk to my terminal and that’s about it. I’ll be fixing that tomorrow then.

    Serial Comms over Cat5

    I came across a really interesting hack to power, control and run a wireless access point, all from one piece of Cat5 cable. It relies on the way 100 meg ethernet only uses two pairs in the cable, leaving two other pairs unused (a fact exploited by some network admins who need to run more machines than they have cable runs for by using a splitter).

    I don’t have a wireless access point on my roof that needs power, serial and data comms. However it got me thinking. Currently my serial terminal is sat on a table next to my server, which is a bit pointless. It’d be much more useful downstairs. I don’t want to run a long serial cable around my house though, the place has enough wire creatively hidden as it is.

    So what I plan on doing is creating two ‘splitter’ boxes; one end will have a standard RJ45 socket for a long piece of ethernet cable, the other end will have a short ethernet cable with plug, and a short serial cable with plug. Two of these devices, one on each end of a regular ethernet cable, will allow me to squirt serial and ethernet down a single cable run.

    I’ll have to use software flow control though, and probably lower the baud rate to overcome any interference, but it should be good enough for a text terminal. If it works, I may build another pair to send serial comms into my office to hook my A1500 up to my server for file transfers.