Jack of All Trades

Jack Of All TradesThere is an old saying, “Jack of all trades. Master of none.” It is often said in a derogatory way, but I actually see it as a necessary and positive part of working in a small team. Everyone has to get stuck in and pull their weight. This can mean branching out into unfamiliar territory, but you retain control, and get to learn something new along the way. Variation keeps things interesting and as a result you feel less like a cog in a machine and can directly see the fruits of your labour.

One of the best parts of my job is when I can speak to a client at an initial phone call, and then see the job right through to the end from start to finish, instead of passing it from department to department. This would be impossible in a large organisation so we should celebrate being the multi skilled workers we are. Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to service.

It does mean there’s little chance to sit back and relax, because there is always some office admin to do, or a PC to fix, but it really makes the day go faster.

iPhone Passcode Weakness

iPhone slide to unlock
iPhone slide to unlock

Whilst researching for a new iPhone data recovery service I found some surprising weaknesses in the default iPhone passcode system. Although nothing new, I’d never really considered the implications in much detail before.

It is common knowledge that iPhones are a valuable target for thieves. The phones are worth hundreds on the black market, but have you considered how much more valuable your data could be to criminals?

There are e-mail accounts, social media accounts and phone numbers, all of which add up to your online identity. If somebody had access to it all then at the very least they could work their way through your address book attempting to rip off your friends and family. Other more elaborate scams would also be possible.

Lots of people use a passcode to prevent unauthorised use of their iPhone. The problem is that the simple 4 digit passcode which Apple offers by default is really only worthwhile to stop friends and family using your phone. Anyone more determined to access your data can download software which can figure out the iPhone passcode within minutes.

I had heard about this, but didn’t expect it to be quite so easy. I tested it out on my own iPhone and within 2-3 minutes my passcode was displayed on the screen.

I won’t go into any great detail about how to do it. It’s all there online, but fortunately there are a few things you can do to protect yourself from this sort of attack.

The first thing is to turn off the “Simple Passcode” option under Settings > General.

Then you should use a longer passcode. Every extra digit adds thousands or millions more potential codes that would need to be tried, similar to the Exponential Wheat and Chessboard Problem.

  • 4 digits (0-9) – 0000 = 10,000 possibilities
  • 6 digits (0-9) – 000000 = 1,000,000 possibilities (9,900% Increase)
  • 8 digits (0-9) – 00000000 = 100,000,000 possibilities (999,900% Increase)

To really make things difficult for a would-be hacker you should use an alphanumeric code, mixing numbers and letters.

  • 4 character (A-Z, a-z, 0-9) – AAAA – 14,776,336 possibilities (147,663% Increase)
  • 6 character (A-Z, a-z, 0-9) – AAAAAA – 56,800,235,584 possibilities (568,000,000% Increase)
  • 8 character (A-Z, a-z, 0-9) – AAAAAAAA – 218,340,105,584,896 possibilities* (2,183,000,000,000% Increase)
    *11 times the number of red blood cells in the human body apparently

There is no way somebody could reasonably attempt all 218 trillion possible passwords, so they would use what’s known as a dictionary attack. A dictionary attack uses a modified dictionary of known words, so instead of trying all potential codes, they only try likely passcodes. Make sure your password is not a dictionary word to get the most benefit from your passcode. Add in some punctuation and then you’ve really got a decent code.

Who carved the Paulsgrove Skull?

Paulsgrove Skull Sign
Paulsgrove Skull Sign

There’s a skull in Portsdown Hill. I don’t know how long it’s been there, but carved on the wall of an old cave there is a spooky face. It is mentioned and pictured by the great local resource Portsdown Tunnels. There is also a sign outside which shows a painting of the skull along with a falling rocks sign.

Does anyone know anything about this strange thing?

*** Update 24-1-2013
I just got this tweet with a bit more info:

@PortsdownHill#paulsgrove_skull update – apparently carved by pupils from King Richards school after the Paulsgrove estate was built (1940s)

I’d love it if anyone involved could contact me either here or via twitter (@straywasp)

5:2 Diet Experiment

I started to hear about the 5:2 diet and other variants toward the end of 2012. A Horizon program explored the subject of intermittent fasting (IF), which I heard about by word of mouth. The program is no longer available on iPlayer so I’ve yet to see it.

Disclaimer: This is not dietary advice. Speak to a doctor before trying crazy diets you read about on the internet.

Anyway, I approach this from a strange position. I’ve never dieted before, and I’ve always been able to eat whatever junk I want without any fear of putting on weight. Assuming I was just one of the lucky ones, I just ate anything I fancied.

Then I hit my mid-twenties and things started to change. I didn’t suddenly pile on the pounds but sure enough, as every year passed I was getting slightly heavier. Maybe this was natural, maybe my sloppy eating habits were catching up on me. I don’t know. All I know is that I decided to do something about it. I didn’t fancy ignoring it into my forties and then struggling to shift a huge load of weight.

Enter the 5:2 Diet

In its simplest form, the 5:2 diet involves two fasting days and 5 normal (non-fasting) days. I chose Monday and Wednesday as fast days as they fit in well with work. I think you’re meant to leave a gap of at least a day between fasts to recover.

On fasting days I get a measly 600 calories to keep me going (500 for girls). I’m sure there are a million different ways of arranging that but I can’t skip a meal without feeling ill so I arrange my fast day like so:

Breakfast – Banana. (100 Cals)
Lunch – Soup. (Cuppa soup is fine and helps keep the portion small. (100 cals))
Dinner – Small meal of Rice, Chicken, and Veg or something similar. (400 cals)

Now that sounds like a savage diet and I would guess that if you ate like that every day you wouldn’t last very long. The best thing for me is that however hard this diet seems on fasting days, you can eat a normal amount of food on the other days. This suits me fine. It means I can still go out and eat, still have takeaways & chocolate (in moderation of course), and still lose some weight.

History

Many religions involve some sort of fasting, so this is nothing new. Even going back to hunter-gatherer days, if you didn’t catch an animal then you’d have to make do with some low calorie roots, berries or plants for dinner.

Side Effects

There are apparently some interesting (but not bad) side effects to this type of diet. Reduced cholesterol and other dangerous markers are the main benefit aside from the actual weight loss.

I found that on the day after a fast, I usually get extra hungry about an hour before lunch, but would not actually eat any more than usual. Overall I find that I seem to eat slightly less on the day after a fast than I usually would. On normal (non-fasting) days I don’t count calories at all.

Results

After a four week trial of the 5:2 diet I lost half a stone (~3 Kilos / 7 Pounds). That doesn’t seem dangerously fast to me, and I don’t feel like I suffered any ill effects from doing so.

I hope there is some proper research published about this type of diet, as it actually sounds too good to be true. It sounds exactly like the kind of trash you get in glossy magazines, but so far my experiment has proven to me that it works.

Kindle 4 Review Non-Touch

I’ve finally got on the ebook bandwagon, and as usual I’m wondering why I resisted for so long. I have just been e-mailed by Argos to write a product review for the Kindle, but decided to write it here rather than give them rights to use my words:

…For any content that you submit, you grant Home Retail Group a perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, transferable right and license to use, copy, modify, delete in its entirety, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from and/or sell and/or distribute such content and/or incorporate such content into any form, medium or technology throughout the world without compensation to you. – Argos T&Cs

Nice.

What I Think

The Kindle has totally revolutionised the way I read. I find I’m reading far more than I used to, and finally getting round to reading some of the many books which are freely available and out of copyright.

The Kindle is extremely small and light, and feels surprisingly well made. There are physical buttons on both sides to allow page turning for either left or right handers.

Looking up words, highlighting and marking sections is simple and intuitive. I no longer skim over words I don’t know.

Issues

A minor gripe is the choice of on-screen keyboard, which is A-Z rather than QWERTY. Some non-technical users will struggle to type on any keyboard arrangement, however most people are familiar with the standard keyboard layout. In practice I find I hardly ever have to use it anyway, so it’s hardly a deal breaker. I would still recommend the Kindle to anyone.

Some free eBooks have some strange formatting issues, but the excellent Calibre software handles conversion from almost any format into something I can read on the Kindle. I see no logic in complaining about free books!

Dispatches: Watching The Detectives – Solution

Like anyone else watching Dispatches on Channel 4 tonight, I was absolutely shocked at the ease in which anyone can get hold of my personal and private information. Information such as National Insurance Number, bank account details, itemised phone bills, medical history; details which I would struggle to get access to myself.

I won’t rehash what was covered in the show, as it makes quite shocking viewing, and I wouldn’t do it justice. You should watch it for yourself. What I will offer is a solution.

The Fix

It’s simple really, and should only cost a few pennies to implement:

Send me an e-mail alert whenever my personal data is accessed on a private database. Simple.

An example: I’m on the phone to the bank. As they pull up my info, my phone will ping to let me know my data’s been accessed. If however I’m sat in Starbucks sipping coffee and my phone goes off, I can instantly see who has requested which info, and make my own mind up if I need to look into it.

Here’s some pseudo code for it:

if data requested -> send e-mail alert with date & time of access, recipient of data & details of the data requested

This wouldn’t need to change any current workflow or database access rights, and would simply ping away in the background whenever personal details are requested. I’m sure there would be loads of new job vacancies created, when those getting backhanders for handing out our private data are kicked out or jailed for misconduct.

We could even go one step further, where requests for information would be held back until you give it the all clear, but I can see how that could be more troublesome to legitimate users.

As long as there are databases full of our personal information, there will be people trying to access that information for profit. If we bring that out into the open, then nobody can lose. The data is still accessible when required, but nobody can access it without being tracked and accountable. 

How To Get Ahead? Content Is Not King

Cat Zipped

I work in a niche industry, which has 312 million results in google. We are a small company, and don’t feature prominently amongst those 312 million pages. When researching some of our competition, I have noticed something strange in the results.

Forums & Review Sites

It seems that one tactic these sites are using to generate links is to simply create them for themselves. Some start up industry review sites, with their own sites featuring prominently (read exclusively) in the results, links and adverts. Others create and administer forums which moderate and edit the information, again making sure all roads lead to their own door.

Trading As…

Another strange thing is to have loads of different company names, each with their own websites. These websites are so different that potential customers are likely to be comparing the services of what are essentially loads of the same company. For example, three of the top ten results are the same company using different names, but you wouldn’t necessarily realise that.

Is It Wrong?

I don’t actually know. I’m not sure they are actually doing much wrong here. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with it myself, but I’m an honest sort of guy. What they are definitely not doing is creating good content. Whenever I write something on our website or blog, I make sure that it is first accurate, and second useful. If there is an opportunity to suggest one of our services, I will do so, but the content needs to stand up alone. I’m sure this means I’m missing out on some hard sell stuff here, but overall I think it keeps us trustworthy, and helps us stand out from the crowd of shouty fear mongers.

By not playing these games we often lurk around near the back of the search results, feeding from long-tail searches, where most people will never find us. Don’t worry, It’s not a problem, just an observation. I already mentioned that we are small so the long tail stuff is plenty. We already have a great service & reputation, so I don’t want to sacrifice it by chasing rankings.

This Time Last Year

So my blog project has now come to an end after 32 days. I have decided to stop now, before I go mad. I will probably finish off writing up the whole trip at some point, but the pressure of writing daily was just too much.

Some of my favourite days:

 

Local Bus & Annoying British Business Owner

Day 32 – Chumporn  – Saturday 2nd April 2011

View From Our Room In Chumporn
View From Our Room In Chumporn

We have booked a tour of the local national park for tomorrow, which is combined with a snorkelling trip and fresh seafood. In the meantime we are making the most of this good weather and heading for another beach.

Hat Sai Ri (another beach) was also in the guide book, which recommended the local bus service to get there. The local bus is actually a giant wooden pickup truck, which we eventually found after a lot of walking.

Language barrier

The driver said 125B each, which we knew was too much. We went back to Fame Guesthouse and they explained that it was actually 1 x 25B each, not 125B. It was the way the driver said it that made it sound wrong.

After wasting so long, we decided to get a taxi there, and then use the bus to get back. Sai Ri was very different to yesterdays beach. Fish stalls lined the road, with strange looking dried seafood looking like aliens hanging from hooks. There was a short strip of stony sand and then the sea. A beautiful island, Koh Mantra/Maprao, almost felt within walking distance.

Later in the afternoon we waited at the local bus stop, where a bunch of people were already waiting. As we waited, a taxi turned up and offered to take us into town, but he was a lot more expensive than the bus. Luckily a local family helped us, told us we were in the right place, and showed when we reached town. All this without any English spoken. I love the helpful people you find when you need them.

Sitting in Fame restaurant, I was listening to a British woman, who runs a dive school on Koh Tao. She was trying to say that Koh Tao was fine, and that it was business as usual. She had lobbied the Thai met office to remove the weather warning, and talked of some sort of conspiracy theory about the evacuation. It really wound me up that a business owner was more worried about getting people onto the island than their welfare. When we left the island there were food shortages, power failures, no internet, landslides, buildings collapsing and no running water. Not most people’s idea of fine. Bloody British business people.

Looking forward to the National Park and Snorkelling tomorrow. Not looking forward to the seafood so much.

Going South? Not Today!

Day 31 – Chumporn  – Friday 1st April 2011

Nic and I were up early, so we went for a walk to check at the Railway Station and TAT office. We thought it was an April Fools prank when they said no trains south for 4-5 days.

Despite the weather improving where we are, there are still large parts of Southern Thailand underwater. Roads and train tracks have been washed away, there are landslides, and buildings are collapsing due to structural damage. The death toll is still rising, and some areas have been entirely cut off to outside communications for days.

Although shocked by this new revelation, we still had plenty of time on our side. We found a brochure in the TAT office, “Chumphon Tourist’s Attraction,” which lists loads of things to see nearby.

We decided to stay put for a few days and explore this area. First on the list is a beach day to make up for the washout Koh Tao trip.

Finally a beach

We got a Songthaew to Hat Thung Wua Laen beach, which was highly recommended in the brochure. The Wikipedia page for Chumporn says this about the beach:

Hat Thung Wua Laen (??????????????) is perhaps Chumphon’s most popular beach. Both native swimmers and experts will enjoy this beach as its fine white sands slope gently into the sea. Sea fans, marine flowers sponges and a tremendous variety of reef fish make the scenery below the surface of the water every bit as spectacular as the beach itself.

 It didn’t disappoint. 25 minutes from our Guesthouse and we were frolicking gayly in the surf of a white sandy beach. The sun was shining, palm trees swaying, and mountains providing a beautiful backdrop to it all.
I Christened the day “Fuck Koh Tao Day.” I love Chumporn.
Note: Chumporn is frequently spelled differently, like many words in Thai, there are no exact English translations. Some versions we saw were Chumporn, Chumphon and Chumpon. There are probably more, but I chose to standardise on the Lomprayah Catamaran spelling, “Chumporn”.