Space is Deep

When I first bought my satellite dish over seven years ago, it was a motorized system. You see, television satellites form a ring around the Earth, and the dish must point to the right satellite to receive its broadcasts.

I can’t quite get my head around the excact geometry of it, but my house is attached to the Earth’s surface at a latitude of 53.549 degrees. The satellites are in a ring over the equator, which is zero degrees, while the Earth’s axis of spin is 90.

Anyway, I think how it works out is that the motor has to be aligned at (90 – 53.549) to the horizontal, and then by rotating left or right, it can pick out a satellite.

Well, I got it to work. The wall of the house points a bit West of South, and I could use the motor to point the dish across an arc of satellites. I thought that the Western end might get me some North or South American channels, but that end seemed to be equitorial Africa. In fact, the satellites which serve a particular region don’t sit directly above them. For example, the UK’s Sky and Freesat come from a group of satellites directly overhead 28 degrees East, which is somewhere in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But I got the channels I wanted. Freesat for British television, and turning a bit East, Hotbird for Italian, both the state broadcaster RAI and the Berlusconi empire on Mediaset. Going further East, I could get all the way to Khazakstan. Oh, and there were loads of middle-Eastern channels in there, most of them about Allah.

After a year or two though, I became dissatisfied. It took about twenty seconds to turn from UK to Italy, which is a long time in TV. And I hardly ever watched Khazakh television. I took the motor on the dish out of circuit, and put a multiple-LNB bracket on instead.

The LNB is essentially the “receiver” facing a satellite dish. In theory, the dish focusses the beam to one point, which is where you place your LNB, but in reality, it’s not that simple. The beam from a satellite that’s a bit to the left gets focussed, sloppily, more-or-less, to a spot on the right, and vice-versa. If the signal is stong enough or the dish large enough, you can get working television off more than one LNB.

The standard switch for multiple LNBs can handle four. I put up three. One for Freesat, which is a strong signal over the British Isles, and would work even off-centre. About centre, I pointed another at Astra, which has a load of German-language channels (I understand a bit of German) and a few French (my French is a little better than my German). Although the majority of French television seems to be encrypted on the proprietary Canal Plus system, and I can’t receive it. A little bit East, one LNB got Hotbird, with the Italian channels I wanted.

Unfortunately (maybe), after a couple of years, the Italian Mediaset channels on Hotbird went encrypted onto the Tivusat system. If you live in Italy, and have a tax code, you can get a free decoder card. Outside Italy, there are ways and means, but they all cost money. I shrugged and carried on.

Then, some months ago, I noticed that there is lots of Italian television on a different satellite, one that is physically above the British Isles at 5 degrees West, but points East to Italy. There is a host of regional RAI stations, and even the Mediaset channels are broadcast unencrypted. But my dish has to be pointing the other direction to see Freesat. (In fact, the Freesat sat is overhead Italy and the Eutelsat one is above the UK. What’s going on?)
tuscan_passion
There was a slight chance that a fourth LNB could receieve Eutelsat 5 if stuck far enough off centre. They’re only a fiver, so I bought one. And… it didn’t work. After a couple of hours up the ladder (I don’t like heights) I couldn’t get anything, and gave up. I slid the LNB along the bracket until I got a strong signal from an other satellite, any satellite.

This turned out to be Eurobird 9A, with about fifty free television channels on it. Hungarian and Swiss in the majority, but also some Chinese. The People’s Republic of China broadcasts across the world in different languages. I have English, French, Russian and Arabic.

As it happens, there’s an Italian drama tonight on Hungarian television, dubbed into Hungarian, and I don’t understand a word. I can’t even make anything of the programme info. There’s a priest in it but he’s not Don Matteo. Oh wait, I searched on-line for the title — “Rózsák Harca” — and it says “Tuscan Passion”. IMDB reveals: “A story of murder, conspiracy and secrets but above all about a great love story; Tuscan Passion tells the story of an impossible love between Aurora Taviani and Alessandro Monforte. Both belong to enemy families and both are divided by a history of blood and mystery. ”

So just another day in Tuscany. It went out on Mediaset in Italy, and I don’t see that any more.

Advertisements

Groovy Baby

The past seems less complicated than today. I think that’s part of the appeal of “period” dramas. Or just outright old ones.

A couple of years ago, the low-budget television channel True Entertainment acquired the rights to the sixties television series The Avengers, and being low-budget, they’ve been broadcasting all the episodes in a constant cycle ever since.

This is not the whole of The Avengers: it’s the middle set, starting from the first with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, up to the last one with Linda Thorson as Tara King. Previously, John Steed’s partner had been Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, and then, seven years after Tara, Steed re-appeared in The New Avengers, with Gareth Hunt as action man Mike Gambit, and Joanna Lumley as action woman Purdy. It wasn’t absolutely fabulous.

I’ve now seen all the Emma and Tara episodes several times, which is probably sufficient exposure to the sixties for the present. It’s a strange sixties though: underpopulated and lacking in swinging. A comic book caricature of the sixties, let’s say.

steed-emmaI do like Emma Peel. Everyone agrees that Diana Rigg is one of the acting greats of her generation, and whether she’s crushing a criminal, infiltrating and impersonating or titrating a test tube, she plays the part with a vivid intelligence and humour. Her eventual replacement, Linda Thorson, is less highly-regarded, but it’s hardly fair to criticize her for not being Diana Rigg. Nobody is; except Diana Rigg.

After the last Emma Peel episode, the television company behind it, ABC, assumed that no further programmes would be made. Cast and crew were “let go”. However, it emerged that the was American money forthcoming for a new series, leading ABC to revive The Avengers. Patrick Macnee was willing to return as John Steed, but Diana Rigg wasn’t interested in coming back, and nor were producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell.

The company appointed a new producer, John Bryce, and began extensive auditions (some say 200 were tried out) for a new female partner for Steed. By an incredible coincidence, the actress who got the job was Bryce’s girlfriend, Linda Thorson. The story goes that Bryce required her to go blonde for the part, but the process went badly wrong, requiring Thorson to wear wigs to cover up the damage for the first six months of filming. How creepy is that? “Now I’m your boss, I can tell you to change your hair colour.”

Bryce shot three episodes before being sacked. Clemens and Fennell were brought back to clean up the mess. (Only one of Bryce’s productions was broadcast, and even that only after Clemens and Fennell had extensively reworked it.)

steed-taraLinda Thorson stayed. I’ve always felt that her character of Tara King was hobbled by the writers at the start, rather than by any problem with Thorson’s acting abilities. Whereas Emma Peel had an independent backstory (pulled out of chemistry grad school to run her late father’s business empire, sold it for a fortune, married a test pilot) Tara King was introduced as a naive trainee secret agent, assigned to work for Steed as her first job after qualifying. Tara was supposedly besotted with Steed, in contrast to the ambiguous relationship between Steed and Peel, leaving less room for emotional complexity in the scenes. (I know, “emotional complexity”. Talking about The Avengers.)

It was only in the later Tara King episodes that the character developed Peel-like independence, but overall I still think that Thorson did a perfectly good job. I like her. After about thirty episodes, the money ran out again, meaning the end of the old Avengers.

Faster, Pussycat

babbageWhen a Linux system starts up, it calculates the processor speed. (I don’t know why. I can’t imagine timing loops going on in the kernel.)

In the early days of ‘mini’ computers, manufacturers invented the term “MIPS” — “million instructions per second” — for marketing purposes. “Or processor does more MIPS than yours, nyaah nyaah nyaah.”

Commentators pointed out that the number of instructions per second meant different things on different processors. One company’s machine could easily be faster doing real work than another’s which had a higher MIPS rating. One response was to try to compare speed to a specific standard, for example “VAX MIPS” after Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX mini.

More cynical observers simply redefined MIPS to mean “meaningless indication of processor speed”.

Another feature of that heady period of computer innovation was the language. I don’t mean Pascal and Ada; I refer to the spoken language of nerds as documented in the “Hacker’s Dictionary“. There were useful terms. For example, software might not be working because it is “broken” — contains a bug — or it might not be working because it is “brain-damaged” — designed wrongly from the start.

I still tend to use some of the words (in my head, at least), one of which is “bogus”. In normal English, it means counterfeit or fake, but in Hacker there’s a wider meaning, including useless or incorrect. “Man, your hashing algorithm is totally bogus.”

(I think I remember Bill and Ted using “bogus” in the Hacker sense. This and other Hacker terms leaked into Californian slacker culture. Excellent!)

The Linux indication of processor speed, printed out on startup, is “bogomips”.

(I’m trying to resurrect a tiny laptop I pulled out of a skip a number of years ago. A 300MHz Mobile Pentium MMX processor, coming in at 600.84 bogomips. In comparison, my everyday computer has two processor cores, each rated at 4991.12 bogomips.)

A Whiter Shade of Pale

I don’t much like Google’s data-slurping, and have set my default search engine to DuckDuckGo, but I’ve continued to use Google’s maps. (I do also use Openstreetmap, and even Bing Maps sometimes.)

But, maybe it’s my old eyes, but Google’s map colour scheme is now so washed out that I find it almost unusable. Road edges are light grey on a white background, for example. I’d imagine that someone who is genuinely vision-impaired would find the product totally useless.

firefox-google-maps

To check that the problem wasn’t with some “feature” of Firefox, I tried Chromium (the slightly-less snooping-enabled version of Google’s Chrome) but the maps looked the same. However, my internet searches revealed that there is a High Contrast extension for Chrome, and it works perfectly.

chromium-google-maps

I couldn’t find a similar add-on for Firefox. There are configuration settings for Accessibility, but they affect all sites, and only work if you have a high-contrast desktop theme. Firefox is adopting a new framework for extensions, supposedly compatible with Chrome, so maybe High Contrast will become available.

But the question remains: what do the Google map developers think they’re playing at?

Floating Voter

stormont

I’ve voted in every election I’ve been eligible for since I came of age. I don’t quite know how many that would have been, but maybe twenty to thirty.

And I’ve NEVER voted for a candidate who was elected. I think that’s because I genuinely vote by conscience in that I choose the candidate whose views or whose party policies most closely coincide with my own. My own opinions obviously are very unpopular: democracy, justice and equality.

Well, to be honest, once I voted “tactically”. I voted for David Trimble, UUP First Minister of Northern Ireland, who was at risk of losing his Westminster seat to the more extreme DUP. I had some sympathy for Trimble, who had struggled to get his party to vote to give him a mandate for negotiating power-sharing in Northern Ireland. (In contrast, the DUP — like their opponents/partners Sinn Féin — don’t have to bother getting formal membership approval. The party leaders do what they like.) Trimble was defeated and lost his seat as MP.

One one other occasion, I “spoiled” my ballot paper by drawing on an extra box at the bottom and writing “None of the above” in it. That was when the only candidates in my constituency were from the four main sectarian parties (SF, SDLP, DUP & UUP) in Northern Ireland.

I call those parties “sectarian” and won’t be voting for them based on the fact that each has a non-negotiable policy on the future status of Northern Ireland. I realise that, technically, that isn’t the same as being sectarian, but in the context of Northern Ireland, it certainly is, and the parties gleefully exploit it. Hence the previous election pacts between the UUP and DUP, pursuing sectarianism and relegating actual policy differences to insignificance. SF wanted similar pacts with the SDLP, which rejected the approaches, to the party’s credit.

I could vote for the non-sectarian Alliance Party, but I find their economic and social values too right-wing. They also allow members to vote against party policy by “conscience” without sanction, and these issues tend to be about gay rights and other equality matters which mean something to me.

In the upcoming election, that leaves me with Greens, the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee, and Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol. While the last is undoubtedly true, I don’t think a single-issue party is for me. Even if they remember to turn up.

I’d probably vote for a Corbynista Labour candidate if one was allowed to stand, and hence the “Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee” — candidates who support Labour, but want the party’s Northern Ireland ban to be abolished. Is that also a single-issue party? Although they do come out against Tory “austerity” (“austerity” means “economic illiteracy”.)

I agree with the Green Party about a lot. They’re anti-austerity, pro-democracy, pro-people, pro-choice, pro-queer and pro-environment. Though I think the party’s opposition to fracking is childish and uninformed, based largely on shit off the internet. I oppose fracking too, but because it’s a fossil fuel, even if it’s a far less harmful fossil fuel than coal or oil. Lurid fears of contamination are not something I share, but regardless, the investment should be in renewables instead.

Where does that leave me? 1 & 2 preference votes are going to have to be the two parties last-mentioned. I’ll see on Thursday how I feel.

Trust Us, We’re the Government

The Transportation Security Administration in the USA licenses two companies to design luggage locks which can be opened without damage by TSA agents if they need to search a case. The TSA has a set of master keys — the correct one to use should be indicated on the lock, for example, saying “TSA002”. If the agents need to open a case which has an unapproved lock, they will break in.

I have no idea how many master keys have been issued, but they are in use at 450 airports, so the number must be in the thousands. And are all TSA employees so well-rewarded and motivated that they are incorruptible? No.

TSA-lockTherefore, I imagine that professional criminals got copies of the keys as soon as they were issued, if not before. But then the Washington Post innocently published a photo of the master keys, which allowed smart amateurs to code up a 3-D printer file. You can now download it and print your own, working, master keys.

Now, anyone with an interest in security would have predicted this exact outcome when the idea of a “secret” key for everyone’s baggage was suggested. A security mechanism with a “back door” which can be opened by officials can always be opened by criminals too.

And guess what the security agencies are always asking for? A “back door” into secure computer products. Of course, they say, access would only be granted to highly-trusted officials. Nobody else would know the secret codes. Absolutely not.

The lock on your luggage is supposed to prevent the contents being stolen, or at least, to keep them private. (One TSA agent was sacked after he left a note in a passenger’s suitcase, congratulating her on her ‘sexy” underwear.) The little lock icon in your browser’s address bar indicates the same purpose: you can reduce the risk of criminals stealing from you, and you can keep your browsing private.

For some people, it’s more than that, a matter of life and death. If you lived in, say, Saudi Arabia, you would really, really want your communications to be secure. They crucify or behead bloggers there.

Every time the CIA or GCHQ or the like try to lobby politicians, asking for back doors to be made legally compulsory, security experts point out the stupidity of the idea, and the weakness of the argument in favour of them, which usually amounts to “Wooo! Terrorists!”. Just the other day, the French government responded to their spooks to say that back doors were out of the question. But they always come back.

In the UK, there’s a new government-approved standard — Secure Chorus — for voice encryption. And guess what: it doesn’t so much have a back door as a gigantic back hangar door that you could fly a jumbo jet through. It’s not compulsory though. Yet.

Traditional intelligence and policing work is hard. It can work, but it needs time, manpower and loads of money. The intelligence agencies will keep asking for back doors because they think it would make their job easier. Collateral damage to citizens is not a consideration. Just look at the tens of thousands of thefts per year in American airport baggage handling.

Who Am I?

I wanted on line access to my income tax records, so I had to register with a commercial identity verification service. Of the ones in the scheme, I chose the good old Post Office, because Prime Minister Corbyn is going to re-nationalise it, as in civilized countries like France and Germany.

The Post Office web-based process is simplest, because you only need to prove you have a mobile phone (for two-factor authentication); a credit or debit card in your own name; a passport; and a UK driving licence. For the banking bit, they charge 0p to the card to ensure that it exists, but for the passport and driving licence, they can look them up in the government databases.

Except they can’t. The system doesn’t accept a licence issued in Northern Ireland, although it looks as though they might have thought about it: there’s an “Issuer” field, but it’s disabled.

qrcode.annaghvarnPlan B, then, was to use the Post Office Android app. It worked, but it all seemed… odd. First, you use the app to read a QR code which the website shows you. Then, the app brings up a camera window, which you use to photograph your passport. Finally, another camera with a head-and-shoulders outline, which you use to frame a selfie. Or two, rather, because it wants you to move in a three-dimensional manner between shots to prove you aren’t a flat photograph.

Then it uploads the results, and some humans (probably) in an office somewhere try to read your passport details and compare the selfie with the passport photo. Mine failed the first time because the passport image wasn’t good enough. Passports won’t sit flat, so the next time I put it under a sheet of glass.

With the app, you only need the passport, not the driving licence, because it’s a “more secure” process. Hmmm. Maybe.