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.

How many viewing cards does it take to determine a Sky Q box has died?

Two.

My Sky Q box has given up the ghost.  It is an ex-Sky Q box.  It has gone to Silicon Heaven.  Or at least I think it has.  Maybe it’s merely pining for decent TV programming.  Whatever has happened, I need a Sky engineer to come out.

I came home from work last week to the message that I needed to insert a valid viewing card into the box.  There was a valid viewing card in the box.  I took it out and put it in several times.  I gave the box a reboot or twelve.  But no, it wasn’t having it.  Having gone through Sky’s horrendous automatic telephone service (which make me very angry), I was put through to an operator who took me through all the steps I’ve already been through and we came to the conclusion it may be the viewing card.  So a new card was dispatched via Special Delivery and arrived on Saturday last week.

ALAS!

It did not work.  The Sky Q box doesn’t want to know.  The big problem is that without a valid viewing card, one cannot view any recordings or watch anything outside of the main terrestrial channels.  But Westworld and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver was going to be on – as well as having to catch up with Britain’s Got Talent semi-finals and the final itself!  I had to catch up!  But how?

So the first thing I did was to call Sky and tell them that the new viewing card did not work.  After a while, it was decided an engineer has to come out.  What day of the working week would I like?  None of them.  I work.  Sky charges for weekend visits.  I said I wasn’t particularly keen on their policy, given that it’s just me living here.  Thankfully the operator was kind enough to waive the charge in this instance and also processed a credit for the time that I’d be without Sky Q.

Will Sky Q be available this weekend?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, I’ve taken out a month’s worth of NOW TV Entertainment package (I do wish Sky would offer a free week/month  for folk who have smart TVs or smart dongles/boxes that offer NOW TV)  as a backup.  I was able to watch Westworld and John Oliver and all sorts just fine on my Apple TV.  I took out a free trial of ITV Hub+ to catch up on Britain’s Got Talent and all is well.  Channel 4, however, still have not got a tvOS app for All 4.  As a public broadcaster, this is inexcusable.  If the BBC can put iPlayer on as many platforms as wide as possible, so can Channel 4.

Escaping Apple’s Luxury Prison part 443,211: Google Pixel 2 XL and Fitbit Versa

So, this happened:

Great Googly moogly..

The biggest problem with Apple’s ecosystem (aka the luxury prison) is that it doesn’t tend to work well with others.  I’ve been scratching my head over how to integrate iCloud Photo Library with Windows properly, but it is slow and a pain in the arse to use under Windows.  I don’t want to use iTunes to connect my phone to the computer – a straightforward USB to use-as-a-disk is fine.  The iPhone X did not let me do that.

The Google Pixel 2 XL has been receiving many rave reviews over the past few months.  It’s stock Android which means that there is no bloat from the phone manufacturer or telecoms company, and it receives the very latest security updates ASAP as well as the latest feature updates too.  And you know where you stand with their update policy – this phone is supported up until late 2020.  Apple seems to keep moving things forwards and backwards and forwards with their support lifecycle for various products.

Now, I picked up my Google Pixel 2 XL at a bargain price.  Carphone Warehouse had knocked off a good £170 off the RRP, so I decided to go with them.  I also bought a Google Home Mini to replace the Apple Homepod.  I’ve got to say, Google has absolutely nailed it with the home assistant.  Not only is she responsive, but the response is natural and quick.  For example, when I ask how best to get to Woking, she tells me the correct bus number to take, when the next bus is, and the nearest stop.  And as it integrates with various smart related technologies around the home, it Just Works(TM).  I always found the Apple HomeKit system to be far too overly complex to operate.  The UI is a mess, and Siri has to think about things before responding.

The Pixel 2 XL itself is great.  The images it takes are the sharpest of any smartphone I’ve ever used, and even some compact cameras.

Everything’s peachy with the Google Pixel 2 XL camera
Dog keeping me company while I eat a ham sandwich.

The device is larger than the iPhone X, and also offers a greater number of app icons to be shown on screen at once.  All apps I’ve had on the iPhone are available under Android.  It took about 2 hours to transfer everything and set-up the phone as new (never trusted these transfer processes).  Instead of Apple Pay, there is now Google Pay.   Again, same support from the banks and credit card companies.

Gone is Face ID and replaced with a fingerprint scanner again.  This time around the back.  Its placement feels natural enough and makes looking at the phone at 3am in the morning much easier than trying to get Face ID to recognise you with your face against the pillow.

Another change Apple made without telling anybody is Wi-Fi calling.  Thanks to the hoo-hah over batterygate and Apple slowing down older phones whose battery is wearing out, they made a change to Wi-Fi Calling which meant that Wi-Fi Calling on iPhones will use cellular if it’s strong enough and fallback to Wi-Fi Calling if not.  There is no way of overriding this.  On the Google Pixel 2 XL, this works full time if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network regardless of cellular signal strength and you enable Wi-Fi Calling.

The G-Team

But what about the Apple Watch?  I’ve replaced it with a Fitbit Versa.  This looks to be a device formed from the assimilation of the Pebble watch team.  It’s a lightweight watch that incorporates the usual fitness tracking.  But it works with both Android and iOS, and unlike the Apple Watch has a battery life of up to 4 days between charges.  So far it’s been great – though the Fitbit app is rather confusing.  The GPS connection warning started up immediately even though I wasn’t exercising, and I couldn’t figure it out, though it seems that it has something to do with the Always Connected versus All-Day Sync option.

The Fitbit Versa’s wrist straps are relatively straight forward to change.  I had to swap out the smaller strap for the included larger one, but to do this requires fiddling about with pins in the straps.  I managed to cause my fingernails to bleed when applying pressure to the pin heads.

My one concern is that of how tough the front glass is – there are many reports of the face getting scratched easily, though so far I haven’t managed to ding mine and I’m quite rough with it.

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.

A month later: The 2018 Windows 10 experience isn’t that bad..

.. except if you add an Active Directory into the mix – but that’s a whole different blog post.

So now I’m fully committed to Windows 10 – like I was back in 2016.  But that failed because Windows 10 just wasn’t right for me back then.  But my, how things have changed considerably!  I no longer use a Mac at work due to circumstances beyond my (or my employers) control – a long story.  One of biggest challenges for the move has been the ability to connect to remote computers via SSH.  Thankfully back in 2016, I renewed a maintenance contract for SecureCRT/SecureFX – a superb terminal emulator for Windows and Mac.  I actually used it on the Mac as its site manager feature was easier to manage substantial numbers of servers than a series of command aliases.

The next challenge was performing Linux style commands locally.  While Windows has its Command Prompt, it isn’t really good enough for my day to day tasks.  So thank goodness Microsoft invested in the Windows Linux Subsystem for Windows 10.  It’s still quite early days, and you can’t really use stuff like “mtr” that requires privilege escalation between the subsystem and Windows (amongst other things), it still gets stuff done 95% of the time.  Combine this with Chocolatey, a Windows package manager,  and you’ve got yourself a very nice platform on which to develop and maintain systems.

My only complaint is with Rackspace’s AWS service.  It uses ScaleFT as a method of connecting to AWS EC2 instances through a special client.  And it’s a bit of a pain in the arse.  I do wish third-party terminal emulators such as SecureCRT could integrate with it.  It’s not a terribly elegant solution in my view, and I’d wish both Rackspace and ScaleFT would do more to support Windows-client based SSH sessions.  It feels very rough right now.  I’d go as far as saying that I’d much rather just have a VPN instead.

Otherwise, Windows 10 has been pretty good.  The April 2018 update went smoothly, though we have now discovered why several laptops were locking up – there’s a bug which affects Chrome and Microsoft’s own Cortana. I’ve not experienced it myself across two (now three) machines, but it is definitely there.

Of course, the Alienware desktop is nothing short of remarkable when it comes to games thanks to its Geforce 1080 Ti.  He’s me in Fortnite getting one of my very rare first kills.  It’s a bit like a horror movie version of Mary Poppins.

So Windows 10 – it’s come a long way in the 2 years that I last used it in anger.  I will never rule out switching back to Mac, but for now, I’m happy, and the cost of ownership is significantly cheaper than Mac, even if you were to factor in any repairs (I have three onsite warranty for my desktop).