Dumb and Dumber on the Railways: Are Smart Cards truly feasible?

Commuting is not fun.  But it is a necessary pain in the arse.  And South Western Railway makes it even worse, though Arriva (Surrey and Kent) recently changed things to make their process of boarding buses just that little bit more inconvenient and terrible.

I’ve mentioned before how absolutely flipping useless the South Western Railway (though at the time South West Trains) smart card system is.  With a new franchise in operation, it does not get much better.

Occasionally I buy daily tickets instead of weekly or monthly – this is because I might be working from home a particular day or days.  Unfortunately, the South Western Railway ticket machines are absolutely bloody useless for this.  Assuming the contactless payment card reader actually works (more often than not it won’t, so one has to put your card in the reader), you then pay for a daily ticket to your destination on your “smart” card.  The transaction completes and you’re asked to put the “smart” card on the contactless reader.

ALAS!

While the system may tell you that everything is hunky dory, and you check that the card has been updated by swiping back on the same ticket machine to confirm all is well – the bloody barriers can’t, won’t or are unable to detect a ticket and flash up the “seek assistance” sign.  You then have to explain everything to the guards about what’s happened because the sodding bloody ticket machines from South Western Railway won’t issue a receipt.  The only thing is if you paid through a contactless system on a phone – there is a trace of the transaction, but it doesn’t tell you the destination or even the source of where you bought the ticket.

So you spend time explaining to the guards on the ticket barrier, then, possibly, any ticket inspectors on the train (though I haven’t come across this yet), and the guards at the ticket barriers at the other end.  Then you have to do all of that in reverse on your journey back home.  It adds delay.  It is inconvenient.  All because there is an I.T. problem somewhere that somebody cannot fix.  Or is unwilling to fix.

I’ve had one issue where the ticket machine (all of this happens at Woking Station,  BTW) has taken my money, attempted to update the smart card and completely failed to update.  I couldn’t do anything.  None of the ticket booths has the ability to handle smart cards!  So for a week, it was absolute hell.

A Smart card rendered completely dumb by SWT HQ.

So, I ask, why doesn’t South Western Railway either upgrade their I.T. system, the barriers, the ticket machines or switch to a whole new system?  Personally, I’d like to see the back of paper tickets AND these smart cards and have an NFC pass on my phone that I can use the contactless terminals on the barriers on passing through – or if the bloody thing breaks down (which it will), at least show the guards as proof of purchase.

Today as I bought a one day ticket, everything looked to be fine on the ticket machine and failed at the barriers. AGAIN, I had to explain to the guard on duty about the problems with these ticket machines and the smart card.

Tomorrow I’ll just buy paper tickets.  I hate to do so, but they usually work and I have proof of purchase.  It’s bloody 2018 for crying out loud.  We’re working on autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and whatnot – yet we still have to rely on paper tickets on the trains and buses outside of London because the I.T. situation on more rural routes is abysmal.

Arriva buses have an app called m-ticket which allows you to buy and load tickets onto your phone.  You then show that to the driver and all is well.

ALAS!

They’ve changed it to include an ever-changing QR code that is read by the ticket machine on the bus.  All good in theory, but..

ALAS!

.. the ticket machine combines a contactless reader at one end and a laser scanner at the other end, forming a single column.  If you’re using an Android phone and don’t disable NFC (near field communication) chip before boarding the bus, the ticket machine gets confused because you have to put it next to the contactless reader in order to give the laser reader enough space to capture the whole QR code.  As good as the Pixel 2 XL is, there is no easy option to disable and re-enable the NFC chip.  Though the app does take you to the right setting to turn it off.   But it’s this hassle to have to do this every bloody time that annoys me.  I use Google Pay now, and NFC has to be switched on before I can start using it.

Also, the positioning of the ticket machine near the driver is such that you have to kind of position the phone at an odd angle.

Showing the bloody app to the driver was quicker, easier and was fully validated by a human being.  Which is almost always faster every single time when it comes to tickets.  Got a SWR smartcard?  You have to wait until the ticket inspector prepares their ticket reader and scans it.  Or if they haven’t got one, has to take you on your word you have a valid ticket.

Smart ticketing, as far as I am concerned, completely knackered.  TFL pretty much got it down to a fine degree – but so few other companies follow their lead.  The result is a complete mess where I.T. management becomes a nightmare for the company and for the consumer.  Until these issues are addressed, there may be mutiny on the buses or trains if these companies don’t make more of an effort to fix their ticketing systems.

Life, the universe, and everything! 42!

A new milestone was reached last Tuesday – the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything!  42!  But I don’t feel a day over 41.

I took myself off to the movies to watch Deadpool 2.

ALAS!

I’d forgotten quite how uncomfortable the seats at Ambassadors Cinema Woking were.  They kind of force you to slouch in a reclining position which makes it difficult to support the lower back.  After about an hour, I had to keep twisting and turning to remain comfortable.   Why didn’t I go to the Odeon?  Long story.

I cancelled my Odeon Limitless pass earlier in May before the next payment was due.  There’s no way to cancel the Odeon Limitless pass online.  Doesn’t even tell you if/when it’s going to renew.  But from previous experiences, it just expired.

ALAS!

It doesn’t expire, it turns out.  It just moves onto a 30-day rollover.   So, having cancelled the direct debit thinking I’d be safe and they’d just cancel the Limitless pass, I was immediately contacted by Odeon’s payment processor (Harlands Group) who threw down a £10 administration charge.  Here’s the letter (delivered by email):

“It may be a mistake, but we’re going to add a £9.99 penalty anyway”

Spot the mistake (clue – I have to email Energie Fitness Club?!).  After a couple of phone calls, it was resolved – yet they told me that I’d receive confirmation of the cancellation with 5-6 days.  It’s now been nearly two weeks.  Also never received any GDPR information from Odeon either.

As for “harlands-cloud.co.uk”, it’s leaking the version of PHP being used and also tells me which version of Ubuntu Linux is being used too.  Both very out of date.  CloudFlare will do so much.  This is terrible for any company dealing with financial data.  So I’m not at all impressed with Harlands Group.

Given the mess that Odeon Limitless has given me as a member, I’d rather not go back to an Odeon cinema again for a very long time.

Another tale of woe from using Odeon Limitless:

So that’s the reason why I decided to pay the Ambassadors Cinema in Woking a go.  Having bought my drink and made my way into the cinema, I was trying to get comfy when the film started.

ALAS!

The curtain on the screen didn’t open properly, resulting in a 4:3 aspect ratio presentation of Deadpool 2.  I waited a couple of minutes before I left the auditorium to find somebody to fix it.  Somebody went up to the projection room and shortly after the film stopped.  The curtains drew back properly, and the film began from the beginning again.  Except the lights remained on.  After another 2 minutes, somebody else went outside to complain.  Another 2 minutes later, the lights dimmed.

Cramped seating and poor presentation made me regret my decision.  Though I had to go back as I had also booked to see Avengers: Infinity War the next day (no spoilers: it was excellent).  Deadpool 2 was a good film, but the marketing team appear to have done a better job than the filmmakers.

In other news: sold the Apple Homepod.  Siri was truly a massive pile of donkey manure and thing just would just get confused when other Siri devices were about.  Sold it for a decent price – and replaced it with a webcam, since as I use a desktop now, and that I work from home on a semi-regular basis, Google Hangouts is a thing for me these days.

I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble..

.. except there’s a decent amount of treble in Apple’s new HomePod “smart” speaker.  But that bass!

The press has certainly not been wrong in stating that this is perhaps the best quality of speaker of the current generation of “smart” speakers.  The bass and response of the sound emanating from this tiny, yet tubby speaker definitely has put my now redundant Alexa-enabled Echo Plus to shame.

The fibre mesh is lovely to touch, it’s almost difficult not to walk past and give it a bit of a stroke..

Set-up was extremely easy – just plug it into the mains and then hold your iPhone (it must be an iOS device – forget buying one of these if you’re not heavily tied into the Apple iOS ecosystem) near the speaker.  Set-up begins on your iPhone and ends when Siri fires up and prompts you to try her out.

The biggest weakness of this speaker aside from no physical inputs or outputs, plus no Bluetooth support?  Siri.  It has yet to get any of my requests of songs or playlists right (I’m an Apple Music subscriber – albeit using the 6 months free subscription with EE at the moment – I’ll have to start paying again in April) – but I can AirPlay stuff directly from the phone without any bother.

However, what Siri can do is interact with my Philips Hue lights far more quickly via Apple’s HomeKit than Amazon’s Alexa ever could.  I have been extremely impressed with HomeKit’s performance on iOS and Siri so far.  While HomeKit support is still fairly limited within the “smart” devices industry – for example, British Gas’ Hive could REALLY benefit from such support – it does mean that for many devices would have to be refreshed in order support a specific chipset that HomeKit requires.  So we may not see Hive support for quite some time.

If you’re curious to know what’s going on inside the HomePod, this iFixit teardown will show you that it’s next to impossible for the average consumer to fix.

It’s funny how the music industry has changed over the past few decades.  When I was a kid growing up in North East London, I was over the moon with the hand-me-down Amstrad tower system which compromised of a turntable, an FM/AM radio/tuner, dual deck tape deck (Amstrad was famous for this).  I didn’t even have a CD player for quite some time.

Now we tend to subscribe (monthly or annually) to music services rather than paying for individual tracks or albums, listen on mobile phones or computers, or stream music to speakers.  While many people who take music seriously will still have an amplifier with built-in equaliser (another thing that the HomePod does away with – it’ll automatically “equalise” the music for you), a great many people will still be using these smart speakers in place of a traditional hi-fi set-up.

I’ve been a big fan of Apple’s audio products over the years.  I started off with a 3rd generation click wheel iPod and have made my way up to the iPhone X.  I’ve also bought three types of Beats headphones – the Beats Solo 3 wireless, the Beats EP and the granddaddy of them all, the Beats Studio 3 wireless – and perhaps my favourite of all – the AirPods.  None of these is cheap, and none are the absolute best in class, but I’ve always found a use for them (the Studio 3 wireless is ideal when the neighbours are doing late evening DIY, the Solo 3 for general computing use, the AirPods for daily commuting, and the EP for anything else (I originally bought it in Edinburgh when the Solo 3 unit suffered a charging problem and I had to send it to Apple for repair).

Porgy and Mess: Star Wars – The Last Jedi

I finally went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi this week after waiting it out and trying very hard to avoid internet spoilers.  My patience was rewarded (of sorts) as I went to see it outside of peak hours at the local Guildford Odeon.

ALAS!

Using my Odeon Limitless pass to book the showing was one of the most difficult things I’ve experienced so far during the time I’ve had the subscription.  I wanted to go to an earlier showing, but for some reason, the Odeon’s website was playing up.  I wasn’t able to book the same slot again, or the later slot.  For some reason, Odeon’s website locked off all uses of the Limitless cad and refused to let me use it.

More error codes then there were stars in heaven.

As the Odeon is now very heavily reliant on the website for bookings, the availability of customer service via telephone is rather limited (9am – 4pm Monday – Thursday, 9am – 5pm Friday at all other times).  I was booking this on Friday evening.

What really got my goat was that Odeon does not publish email addresses.  Internet standards are ignored – an email to [email protected] bounced.  This is extremely bad practice, Odeon.  Let me, as a customer, choose how to contact you.  Web forms aren’t always appropriate.

I had to wait until the following morning to call and try and sort this out – and even then, not much could be done.  The system enabled me to book for the later Monday performance, but there wasn’t confirmation that credit I used from an Odeon Gift card to upgrade seating would be refunded immediately.

I popped along to the Odeon on Monday and found this:

As I didn’t use a debit or credit card for this booking, I usually pick up tickets at the Box Office.  So I had to go to the confectionary counter to figure out what was going on.  I was told that the ATM machines can dispense tickets with a booking reference, but it’s not entirely obvious from the choices on display:

Perhaps Odeon needs to reword that third option – just say that if you have a booking reference, you can pick up tickets using that rather than implying it may only be for Tesco and Business Voucher holders.

The third complaint was that it appears Odeon do not sell Butterkist Toffee Popcorn.  I’m not a fan of the sweet or regular flavoured stuff served in buckets the size of my head.  In the end, I chose Aero mint balls and the smallest Coke Zero at the extortionate price of £6.68.  I’ll pay it, however, because I do like the Odeon and would still like to see cinemas remain in business.  But if I had a family, kids and all, this would definitely bankrupt me if we visited regularly.

As for the film?  It was alright.  I think the sooner the main franchise moves away from the Skywalkers, the better.

Back to basics!

With the news that practically all modern Intel, AMD (though to a lesser extent) and ARM CPU architectures are vulnerable to attack, it’s time we ditched our fancy pants computers and go straight back to the glory days of 80’s computing prowess:

My beloved (and also very crash prone) ZX Spectrum +2A. Notice the mouse in the right hand corner of the photo…

Or pre-Mac Apple:

I was an Apple fan long before it was fashionable to be so…

I’m very glad I don’t work for a hosting company anymore because I’d hate to have to coordinate and apply the forthcoming patches across a big estate.  That’s not to say I won’t have to do something since my work involves the system management of several large sites and as such, will need to work with the hosting partners to ensure that patching is performed correctly.

At least Apple is on the ball as – allegedly – MacOS already contains mitigation patches in place within the latest release of High Sierra.  Still, the news wouldn’t make me feel any better if I had spent up to £12,500 on a new iMac Pro (which contains Intel’s new Xeon W processors – which I’m guessing are also vulnerable).