Why I want to encrypt everything

When I suggest to people that we should communicate using encryption, I get the impression they don’t take me seriously.

Am I paranoid? Do I think I’m interesting enough to be the subject of surveillance? Maybe I want to play at being a spy? OK, maybe the last one is partly true, but seriously, I think there are good reasons to encrypt all information by default.

To be completely clear, when I suggest we use encrypted communication:-

  • I don’t have any classified information to share
  • I’m not buying or selling anything illegal
  • I am not planning to have an affair with anyone
  • I’ve got no intention of overthrowing any governments or hacking anything

I don’t think I have anything to hide. However, I don’t want to have to think, every time I send a message to a friend, family member or whoever, about who might see it, now or in the future and what the consequences might be. Maybe one day one of us will be famous and our embarrassing utterances may be of interest to the masses.

I’d just like every message between us to be between us. It’s easy to unthinkingly assume that the messages we send are only read by the intended person or persons. I want that assumption to be reasonable.

Email is not usually encrypted and is easy to fake

For a popular example, email has often been described as about as secure as a postcard. In practice I think it’s a bit worse than that. Firstly, because it’s easy to intercept and read millions of emails automatically. Secondly, with a postcard you can probably recognise the sender’s handwriting which would take some effort to fake. Email senders can easily be spoofed. By default there’s no way to verify that the address in the “From:” field is the person who sent the email.

It shouldn’t take too much imagination to see how the insecurity of email could lead to problems. It’s already been exploited via a simple scam in the UK.

To summarise the link above… A couple had some building work done and had agreed with the builder to pay via bank transfer as many people, myself included, do regularly. They received an invoice from the builder via email which included his bank details. They duly transferred £25k to the account, but the builder never received it. The email appeared to come from the builder’s email address, but was in fact from a scammer who had sent their own bank account details in place of the originals.

This would not have been possible if the email sender’s identity could be verified and the email encrypted. Another solution would be to share the bank account details in person or, if you recognise the person’s voice and know their number already, over the phone. A phone number in an email could also be faked.

There are ways to improve on email security, in fact it’s fairly simple if both parties can use the same service. Other solutions get a bit more complicated.

Encryption is getting easier

The good news is that it’s getting easier to encrypt everything by default. Google are now encouraging all websites to be delivered via HTTPS (the S standing for SSL or Secure), making websites harder to fake and adding to the reliability of online data.

Many email services now offer some level of encryption and verification within their service. So a GMail user writing to another GMail user can expect their communications to be encrypted. Facebook messages are encrypted, as are WhatsApp. In some cases it may be possible for employees of those organisations to access clients’ communications, or to change the application for a user so that their data can be read.

For a higher standard of encryption people look to “zero-knowledge” solutions in which the service providers don’t have the ability to read user data or access their private encryption keys, even if they wanted to or were forced by law, blackmail, bribery, etc. Zero-knowledge email systems include Tutanota and ProtonMail. They’re not perfect. I won’t go into all the pros and cons here except to say that at the time of writing neither are securely interoperable with other email services, but can still be used for unencrypted plaintext emails to/from any address. Of course all this is pointless unless you have a good password.

For text messaging the most respected zero-knowledge solution is Signal, which is available for free on iOS and Android. WhatsApp also offers “end-to-end” encryption, but unlike Signal the code is not open source, so not subject to public scrutiny. Researchers have already shown that WhatsApp can allow Facebook and possibly others to read private messages. Furthermore there’s some controversy over the sharing of user data with Facebook.

Secure messaging is not paranoia, it’s good practice.

The Rough Diamond Rough Statistics

Mark Rigby’s Rough Diamond is described as a “fast 300” on good roads and, being in July, the weather is usually better than 300s in the Spring. Ideal for those attempting this distance for the first time, like my wife Erica, so we did the ride together on the tandem. It’s a great ride and I’d recommend it to anyone doing this distance for the first time.

Many cyclists, myself included, track their rides on GPS analysis sites such as Strava. After the ride you can pore over the statistics to find out how your speed varied and, with additional sensors, where your power output dipped, your heart rate shot up or your cadence was sub-optimal. Besides a thorough approach to training, I think there’s a lot to be said for using these sites for nostalgic reliving or sharing rides, adding photos or planning future routes. It can be motivational too. Trying to beat my personal records on Strava was what got me back into cycling properly some five years ago. But, liking gadgets as I do, I know I’m at risk of being sucked into obsessing over performance data. Erica teases me about uploading my rides before I’ve even had a shower. So whenever I’m on an audax I defiantly tell myself I’m “out for a good time, not a fast time”, taking in the scenery, chatting to people I meet on the way and enjoying the adventure.

Those at the very front or back of the field may have more reason to scrutinise their average speeds. Indeed, it’s prudent even for those of us normally in the bulgy bit of the bell curve to keep one eye on the clock as I know from my failure to complete PBP last year. But, for many audaxers, the additional data is not of much interest and might even be considered a distraction from the enjoyment of the ride.

I enjoy looking at visual data, like that presented in the book Information Is Beautiful. So I produced a graph tracking what I thought was interesting on the ride. The result may not be exactly beautiful, but I thought it was interesting. Everyone will have their own opinions about what makes a great ride; the variables I’ve described with the graph are the ones which Erica and I thought were important. They’re also not very precise because we tried to reconstruct them later. I guess we could’ve carefully noted each one every fifteen minutes to get accurate results, but we didn’t want any distractions from navigation, chatting and looking at the view. Besides, that would probably be more annoying than constantly checking our cadence. Maybe one day someone will make sensors to measure some of this directly!

Thin green: Elevation profile. The only variable I’ve taken from the GPS track. It helps to work out where we are on the route and you can see how the climbs and descents affected the other lines. It includes the short ride to and from our accommodation.

Light blue: Social interaction. You’re never alone on a tandem, but we still enjoyed chatting with other riders, or just cruising along with them on the flatter sections.

Dark blue: Clothing dampness. This was affected not only by the morning’s rain but by riding up hill a bit too quickly without shedding layers.

Purple: Hunger. A rough average between myself and Erica as we seemed to get hungry at about the same time on this ride.

Brown: Scenery. Plenty of interest along the route, but some definite highlights including lakes, rivers and architecture.

Red: Morale/confidence. Again an average between the two of us. This was greatly affected by everything else we tracked and some particular events which I’ve marked on the graph.

rough_diamond_in_graphs

Side view of B&M Linetec light bodge-mounted on Carrdice rack

Rear bike lights round-up comparison review thing

As LEDs have become cheaper and brighter in recent years, there’s been a proliferation of bike lights, which makes choosing one difficult. Many of them can be had for under ten pounds but there are also plenty of premium super-bright rear lights available. For those with a particular obsession with gadgets, Garmin have created a light which uses radar to detect approaching cars, adjusting the light and warning you via your GPS display. Sounds fun, but I find it hard to believe it would make me any safer than listening for approaching cars. For deaf cyclists, I imagine it would be very helpful.

My search for the perfect rear light

I try to keep it simple. I need a reliable light that will keep me safe on long rides including audaxes in all kinds of conditions. There are other, more comprehensive bike light comparisons out there. This article is limited to the few (OK, quite a few now I list them) that I’ve tried. So far I’ve not quite found the perfect light for every situation, but I’ve tried some really good ones, each with different drawbacks.

Criteria

My preferences may differ from others, but here’s an explanation of what I’m looking for and my thinking behind it. I tend to carry a rear light on every ride in case I’m delayed by a mechanical problem or just want extra daylight visibility. I do use a dynamo front light for longer rides, but I’ve not got around to rigging a rear light up to this as well. Even if I did, I’m sure if want a spare in case it failed for any reason.

AA/AAA batteries: I always use lights with rechargeable AA or AAA batteries. The main reason is that, in an emergency, spares can be bought anywhere. Pretty much any corner shop or late-night service station will stock AA and AAA, albeit the non-rechargeable kind. I prefer rechargeable batteries (usually Eneloops) as I feel like less of an environmental criminal. Obviously, if I get caught out, I’m not going to put myself at risk and ride illegally, I’ll hold my nose and buy some Duracell. Plenty of USB-rechargeable lithium-ion lights claim to last 20+ hours, which should be enough, but lithium ion batteries tend to wear out after a few years and usually can’t be replaced. If I forget to charge it or find the cell is losing its mojo, I don’t want to discover that on a Welsh mountain pass at 11pm. Sure, I could take a USB charger with me, but it’s quicker and easier to simply swap the batteries. Most of the electronics I have on the bike, including my GPS, takes AA batteries and they’ll typically last well, though this depends on the light. As they’re all the same type, I can carry fewer spares.

Night time visibility: In the UK it’s a legal requirement to have lights and reflectors after dark. A rear light for riding in the dark doesn’t need to be especially bright, but the illuminated area (the height and width of the light itself) should be large or there should be several lights separated by some distance. This can help drivers to judge your position and speed. This is harder with flashing lights, but they are more easily noticed, especially in busy urban environments. So a combination of different lights seems the best approach to me. Also, bright flashing lights can be dazzling to other road users, especially when riding in groups, so any way to reduce this is a good thing.

Daylight visibility: Being seen by road traffic during the day is just as important and there’s some research which shows a reduction in accident rates for bicycles with daytime running lights. These lights are about getting you noticed. Once you’ve been noticed, it should be easy for driver with the benefit of daylight to judge your location and speed. With all that daylight to compete with, a daytime running light should be small and bright, possibly flashing. Many lights include a lens which focuses the light into a narrower cone within which it can be seen over a long distance. However, if used at night, unless these are adjusted carefully, which isn’t always possible, they can be unpleasant for following cyclists and even drivers. Drivers who are part-blinded or infuriated are not much better than those who haven’t seen you.

Smart light with broken clip

Above: broken clip – it looks like the newer models are more robust in this area.

Robustness: Aside from the obvious frustration of having a light fail, longer rides mean a potentially long stretch in the dark without a light if one should fail. The vast majority of rear lights with replaceable batteries have a battery compartment which is kept shut with stiff plastic clips. These are often opened by wedging a coin into a slot and twisting. This bends the clips a little, popping the case open. There are several problems with this. First is that the clips often break, especially in cold weather which can make the plastic brittle.

Secondly, sometimes they’re too loose and the light falls apart when you ride over a bump, dropping half of it in the road, often unnoticed.  CatEye Omni mounted on saddle bag with lens and batteries missingThere are various bodges to work around this, including elastic bands and tape, but they make changing the batteries more of a faff. The better solution is a battery compartment that is closed with a screw.

The other aspect of robustness is waterproofing. When it’s raining you need the light more than ever and I’ve heard plenty of reports of leaky lights. Luckily, all the ones I’ve tried have kept the water out so far but there are numerous reports of otherwise good lights malfunctioning in rain.

Lights I’ve tried

Smart Superflash mounted on seatstay showing tape holding it together.Smart Superflash 0.5W, 2xAAA

http://www.chainreactioncycles.com/smart-superflash-1-2-watt-rear-light/rp-prod56546

A basic and popular light. Two modes, flashing and constant. Above average battery life. Bright enough main LED for daylight use. Can be dazzling. Plastic clips can come undone when bumped. Others have reported water ingress issues. Overal: 6/10

Smart rl321r held in fingers, showing broken clipSmart Rl321r – 2 Red 0.5w Superflash, 2xAAA

http://www.halfords.com/cycling/bike-lights/bike-lights/smart-rl321r-0-5w-0-5w-2-red-0-5w-superflash-leds

Features two very bright LEDs, lots of modes, including a slowly pulsing one which I guess may be less annoying to other riders. Plastic clips broke when opened at about 2 deg C. In the photos of recent models the clips look a bit sturdier, so maybe that has been improved.

Gives a good daylight flash for about ten hours on rechargeables. Overall: 7/10

Mars 1.1 with rubber strapBlackburn Mars 1.1, 2xAAA

http://www.blackburndesign.com/en_eu/mars-1-1-rear.html

Not especially bright, so perhaps not the best daytime choice, but the 3 LEDs offer good all round visibility for longer than average. Haven’t had any trouble with the plastic clips and basic rubber washer, but not really tested this in extreme conditions. Cost well under ten pounds. Overall: 6/10

Two LED light with button between the LEDsMetro flash Dangerzone, 2xAAA

http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/NEW-MetroFlash-Danger-Zone-Tail-Light-/171708741341

Probably the brightest light that runs on 2 AAAs at the time of writing. Really unpleasant to be behind. Despite the claims on the box (usually for alkaline batteries), I found it barely lasted two hours with rechargeables on constant mode.

Could be good for a busy commute or in rain or fog.

The plastic clips holding the battery compartment shut broke so I used an elastic band to hold it together. Once I forgot to do this and it split apart when I went over a bump losing the light and batteries. The button is easy to press when riding, but can also be accidentally turned on when in a bag or pocket. Overall: 4/10

 

Glowing red stick with two black rubber ends on a dark backgroundFibre flare shorty, 2xAAA

http://fibreflare.com/products/fibre-flare-shorty-red

A rather different design featuring a bar of light with a battery compartment at each end. Can be bent slightly and mounted in all sorts of creative ways and helmets, bags, seat stays, etc. Comes in a few different colours. Not especially bright, but covers more area than most, so may make it easier to locate you at night. However it’s almost useless in daylight. Rechargeable batteries last at least ten hours, more when flashing. Had slight water ingress problems until I smeared some silicon grease under the rubber caps. UPDATE: Bending by an enthusiastic child has stopped the light working. I might be able to fix it. Overall: 7/10

CatEye Omni5 with plastic bracketCateye Omni 5, 2xAAA

http://www.cateye.com/intl/products/detail/TL-LD155-R/

A good all-rounder for about ten pounds. Five moderately bright LEDs and a clear/red plastic body mean it can be seen from every angle. 3 modes, one of which is a bit headache-inducing. Daylight visibility is ok and it runs bright enough on rechargeables when set to flash. The body is rather brittle and can easily fall apart going over a bump, ditching the batteries and half the light on the ground. Overall: 6/10

Side view of B&M Linetec light bodge-mounted on Carrdice rackB&M Linetec senso, 1xAA

http://en.bumm.de/produkte/akku-ruecklicht/toplight-line.html

Probably my favourite rear light. It’s the battery version of a popular dynamo light and can be set to always on or “senso” mode which turns on in the dark if the bike is moving. There’s no flashing mode. When you stop it waits a few minutes before turning off. This prompts helpful people to tell you that you’ve left your light on whenever you park at night, but otherwise it’s a nice feature that means less faff. It’s a large “spatial” light with a wide reflector which glows at night, all of which should make it easy for drivers to work out how far away you are. The light shines evenly across a wide area so is visible from nearly 180 degrees without being dazzling. Daylight visibility is below average, but probably still worth using if you don’t have another light. Amazingly a single rechargeable AA battery will keep it going for over 30 hours; I tested it at home. The main downside is mounting. It has two bolts spaced 80mm or 50mm apart and will fit nicely on most rear racks. If you don’t have a rack there are are various ways to bodge it but, depending on your bike and luggage this may be a showstopper for some. It’s a sensible, grown up light for tourers, commuters or anyone who knows they’ll be riding a fair distance in the dark. Coupled with a small flashing light it is probably the best option. Overall: 9/10

Rear light with silver body, red bezel and clear front with rubber strap behindBlackburn Local 20, 2xAA

http://www.blackburndesign.com/en_eu/local-20-rear-light.html

This is a recent purchase that I’ve only used on a couple of rides so far. However it seems sturdy in spite of the common plastic clips closure. It’s a bit bigger and heavier than most rear lights, but can still be mounted on a seatpost or bag. In a home test I got more than 24 hours of constant light out of it before it started to look a bit dim. There are also two flashing modes. Daylight visibility is poor due to the lack of a focusing lens leaving two tiny pin pricks of light that seem to get lost. At night however, the whole thing glows beautifully and is visible from a wide range of angles without being too dazzling. It fills a similar role to the B&M Linetec above, but is more compact. I may keep it handy as a backup light or place to store spare AA batteries in my bag. The RRP is about twenty pounds, but it can be found for less. UPDATE: This light fell apart, presumably when going over a bump, resulting in the light and batteries being lost. Overall: 8/10 Overall: 7/10

Conclusion

As you can see there are many decent lights out there so it’s all a bit different horses for stroking different blokes’ cats. Or something.

For any long ride I will have my B&M Linetec with me and I’m considering getting another for my commuting hybrid. I would also usually take the Smart Rl321r hooked onto my Carradice bag for daylight visibility or rain or fog. I also often pack the Mars 1.1 as a spare inside the bag, if only as a place to store spare AAA batteries for the Smart Rl321r. If I was travelling light after dark and only had space for one small light, I’d take the Local 20.

Tandem handlebars from flat to drop

Tandem with straight bars

The original handlebar set up.

In the last couple of years we’ve started using our tandem for longer rides and are looking at ways to make the bike more comfortable. We did some touring on it years ago, but now we’re riding 200k+ audaxes, where comfort is arguably even more important than when touring due to the time limit and limited time off the bike. As the stoker Erica tells me she’s very comfortable since we had a bike fit and she switched to a wide bullhorn bar with thick tape. With no need to steer she can easily change position on the bars or even let go or hold the saddle for a change when we’re going slowly. The tandem typically gives a very nice ride due to the long wheelbase, steel frame and 35mm tyres.

Flat bar issues

However, on my flat bars I’ve been stuck with a single hand position for an all day ride, which has caused some aches, particularly at the back of my neck and shoulders. I’ve never been able to ride no-handed and I don’t think it would be at all safe to do so on a tandem, as the stoker can shift their weight unexpectedly.

I don’t get this pain on my drop bar road bike even on much longer rides, so I wondered what the difference was. My current theory is the space between my hands. On the road bike this is at most 40cm, but on the tandem it’s always 50cm. I think this means my upper back has to work harder to bridge the gap and support my weight when leaning forward on the tandem. The usual advice for this is:-

Handlebars should be shoulder width apart (measured from acromion to acromion across the anterior chest) and comfortable.  Handlebars that are too wide may cause excessive trapezius and rhomboid strain leading to muscle spasm and pain.
roadcycling.com on Neck and Back pain

The other possibility is that the tandem simply takes more arm and shoulder strength to manoeuvre, but I think narrower bars with more hand positions are worth a try.

Drop bar conversion

With that in mind I’ve picked a drop bar that is 42cm wide. This should give me enough leverage for the heavier bike and plenty of narrower hand positions. It has a very shallow drop and short reach as I figured it wouldn’t make a huge difference to aerodynamics on a tandem. If I tuck down lower at the front it means I won’t be shielding the stoker from the wind quite so well. I imagine there are still gains there, but I assume a 20mm lower front position won’t be noticeably faster.

Hubbub adapter partly pushed into the Rohloff

Hubbub adapter partly pushed into the Rohloff

But there’s an additional complication to this set up. The tandem has a rohloff speedhub which normally needs a twist shifter. This is tricky to get onto drop bars. There have been quite a few ideas to make the rohloff work with drop bars, some of them rather expensive and fiddly to set up. I’ve gone for one of the simplest and cheapest options by putting it on an extension to the left-hand end of the drop. The extension is called a hubbub and has an expanding end so you can tighten it up inside the handlebar with an allen key. The shifter then clamps onto this as it would the bar. Having to reach down for this is another reason I wanted a small drop on the bars. I want to make it as easy as possible to change hand positions. I tried out Thorn’s Mercury a few years ago which, if I remember correctly, had a split bar with a twist shifter on the tops, near the stem clamp. The problem for me was that I don’t spend much time in the tops, preferring the hoods or drops. So reaching up for the shifter took some effort and I was putting a lot of weight on one arm to do it. Even on a short test ride this got annoying; on a longer one I guess it could actually become painful.

Putting it all together

Cutting a bit off the end of the bars so it's not so far back.

Cutting a bit off the end of the bars so it’s not so far back.

I spent a little under a hundred pounds on new kit, including Cinelli drop bars, Tektro RL520 Aero V Brake Levers, the hubbub adapter and SRAM bar tape. Luckily I already had a suitable stem leftover from a previous bike fit tweak to my wife’s hybrid. I held these up to the bike before fitting and did some rough calculations which confirmed that the hoods would be no further away from the saddle than on my audax bike. The bars were a little higher with respect to the saddle, but the only downside to this would be a slight aerodynamic loss and I could easily move them down later as there were still two 10mm headset spacers under the stem.

Rusty brake/shifter cables

Rusty brake/shifter cables

While I was doing the work I realised that the brake cables were getting a bit rusty, which is not surprising after at least twelve years use in all weathers. So I replaced the cables and outers, which was a bit fiddly but, even with the longer frame of the tandem, it cost less than five pounds. After I’d done this the rear brake seemed to have a lot of resistance in it compared to the front one. I can’t quite remember whether this was always the case, so I checked to see if anything was sticking.

Each part seemed fairly free and I could still get plenty of force through to the rear brake, so I decided it was good enough to try out there road.

I also added a small mirror to the opposite end of the bars though, being further inboard than the previous one, I’m not sure it will be worth it.

Test run

We took the bike out for a twenty km spin with a couple of steep hills. At slow speeds, especially starting off, I didn’t have as much leverage and fine control of the steering with the narrower bars, but once above walking pace they felt natural and I could even climb out of the saddle if I was careful. It was possible to hit my knee on the shifter, but didn’t happen often. What was not so good was that the shifter came loose and started rotating in the bar. The rohloff is quite easy to use, but each change does required a bit of force to get it to click. This soon became impossible without putting two hands on the shifter which was totally impractical and unsafe. So we stopped and found a suitable compromise gear to take us home.

Back in the garage I realised that the hubbub adapter wasn’t gripping the inside of the handlebar properly. I thought I’d got it as tight as possible with the shorter end of the allen key, the long end being required to reach down inside the adapter to the nut. If I had to epoxy the thing in it rather defeats the point of the hubbub adapter over a lump of wood or pipe. Online advice suggested that it just needed more torque, so I hunted around the garage for something to extend the small allen key lever. A bit of metal pipe would’ve done, but I was lucky to find an old suspension seat post. Miraculously, this is adjusted with an allen key in the bottom of the same size as the hubbub – 6mm. With a foot-long lever I could apply much more torque and it now shows no signs of moving. We’ve done a three-hour ride since and I’m confident enough to give it a go on a 220km audax at the weekend, which will be a real test of comfort.

New_bars

Finished and cleaned.

EDIT: After riding a 200 and 300km events (including one 1 in 4 climb) with this set up, I’m mostly pleased with it, but getting out of the saddle on a climb can result in  bashing my knee on the shifter unless I’m really careful. A sharp corner of it actually cut my knee on two occasions, so I may think about putting some tape over it or just stay seated.

Miele washing machine repair

This is following up on my disappointing experience of trying to get our four and a bit year old Miele W5740 washing machine repaired. When I got back to Miele, they offered to send an engineer for a free inspection and let us know what they could then offer us. Nothing to lose, I thought.

I wasn’t sure what they might offer to do and how much they’d charge, but I was weighing possible costs against that of a new machine. I’d previous looked up the cost of the failed part and service, which would be at least £417. Without any further guarantee, that doesn’t compare well to a new machine.

For example, John Lewis sell the Indesit XWD71452W which gets good reviews, for £209. Even if it failed just outside the 2 year guarantee, its cost per year would be around £100.

If the Miele W5740 proves uneconomical to repair it will have cost £203.83 per year (£958/4.7). If the £417 repair worked and it lasted a total of 20 years as implied by Miele’s website, then the cost per year comes down to £68.75, but all the risk of any further repair or replacement is on me, the customer. Consumer rights law suggests that you should be able to insist a machine lasts for a reasonable length of time, based mostly on the cost of the machine. However, enforcing this might require a trip to the small claims court, which isn’t expensive, unless you end up paying the company’s legal costs.

We’d already decided that I’d rather spend less than the full £417 repair cost on a new machine with some kind of guarantee, possibly selling the old Miele one for parts on eBay.

As it turned out the Miele engineer took a look and confirmed our suspicions that the main board had gone. He also said he’d phone his boss, saying we’d likely get a better deal than asking customer services. They offered to provide the £300 part which had broken for free and only charge us the £117 call out charge. Not a great deal, given there’s no guarantee it will work for any length of time, but less hassle than buying a new machine, so we went for it.

In future I won’t be taking much notice of how long a company’s marketing material suggests their products will last. Instead I’ll be looking at long-term reviews and how long the guarantee is.

Life span of a Miele washing machine

I’ve long been annoyed by throwaway culture and things not being built to last or made easy to maintain. So I’ve been trying to buy products which buck this trend and last a decent length of time, or are at least economically repairable.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised in two recent cases. Our Hope Vision One light suffered from water ingress and Hope repaired it free of charge, even though it was bought some 7 years ago for around £70. More recently the 10-year old Rohloff SPEEDHUB on our tandem came apart when the nuts holding the cap on mysteriously undid themselves on a ride. We sent it back to SJS Cycles expecting a bill, but were told that Rohloff had paid for the repair as goodwill. We got it back a couple of days later with a new gasket and thread-locked screws. I recently heard that Brompton did a free repair of an aging frame which had been taken off-road and cracked the rear triangle. Not only did they fix it free of charge, they replaced the worn chain and brakes too. I’ve experienced similar good service from Carradice. The idea that products should last well or be maintained by the manufacturer is not limited to cycling brands; Patagonia encourage customers to repair their clothing or will even do it for you (that might be US-only).

German appliance manufacturer Miele have been trying to market themselves as a reliable brand, boasting that their washing machines are tested for “20 years equivalent usage”. That strongly implies the machine should last better than most. On this basis we bought a Miele W5740 for the princely sum of £958.98 back in 2011. As you can probably guess from the fact I’m writing this, ours didn’t last that long. In fact, after 4 years and 8 months of moderate usage – much less than the 5 washes a week they test for – it refused to turn on. On closer inspection by a local repairman, it seems a chip on the main board had exploded, along with an adjacent resistor.

Miele W5740 exploded chip

Miele W5740 main board with exploded chip and resistor.

We got in touch with the retailer and Miele, explaining the situation. The Co-Op Electrical said some nice things to give the impression that they cared, which sounded rather insincere when they added.

As the item is out of its guarantee period, at this stage you would have to pay and arrange for an engineer call yourself and upon providing evidence that the appliance is faulty due to an inherent manufacturing defect, then we will gladly reimburse you this loss you have suffered getting an item repaired, upon supply of the invoice. This is in line with the Sales of Goods Act 1979 (amended) because the appliance is more than 6 months old the onus unfortunately falls onto the consumer to prove that the fault is inherent. If the engineer cannot confirm that the appliance was faulty at the time of purchase then we will not be able to cover the cost of the call out and repair. I must advise that for us to be able to reimburse any cost to you there must be proof supplied of an inherent manufacturing fault, if this is not supplied or if a report is supplied that remains ambiguous we will not be in a position to assist you further. The report supplied to us must state: what the fault is, what has caused the fault, what is needed to rectify the fault and how much a repair of the item would be. Failure to supply a report with this information will mean we cannot assist you.

Miele themselves were similarly kind, caring and utterly unhelpful.

I can confirm that the quality of the after sales support offered to our customers is of paramount importance to the Miele organisation. Whilst we make every effort to ensure that all of our components are of the highest quality, we cannot guarantee that breakdowns will not occur in individual instances, as even with careful use and regular operator maintenance, parts can fail or wear out from time to time.  However, we are confident that following the repair to your appliance, your machine should give you many years of satisfactory, trouble-free service.

We are constantly reviewing and updating our processes and procedures to offer the best service to our customers and as a result your comments will be used as part of our ongoing service auditing programme.

We wouldn’t be able to do this repair free of charge due to the age of the appliance.

I’ve replied to them with the following:

Apologies taking so long getting back to you.

I’ve pasted the text of my receipt from the Co-Op below. Here is my address and the serial number of the machine as requested.

For your reference I’ve also included a photo of the exploded chip.

You say “the quality of the after sales support offered to our customers is of paramount importance to the Miele organisation”. In the light of my recent experience, I find those nice words rather hollow. Your website boasts that your machines are tested for “20 years equivalent usage”. Failing in less than five years is not something a customer should have to pay for. It seems you’re unwilling to stand by your bold claims of quality and reliability.

I’m also not impressed by your confidence that, once repaired the machine “should give you many years of satisfactory, trouble-free service”. This presumably does not constitute any kind of guarantee. So if some part of the machine was to fail in the next few years, would I be looking at another sizable bill to repair it?

I’d be interested in what you can offer me in terms of repair, how much it would cost me and how long you’d be willing to guarantee the machine after that.

A new mainboard is about £300 and Miele’s callout charge alone is £117. So if it’s a quick job, I’m looking at well over £400 to fix a machine which has already proven itself to be unreliable, paid to a company who, it seems, are unwilling to stand by their bold claims of quality and reliability. If it fails again in a year’s time I have no confidence that Miele would do the right thing and fix or replace it for free. Miele appliances are usually more expensive than other machines of equivalent function. They certainly feel solid and well-made, but if they fail outside of guarantee it seems you’re no better off than with a cheap and cheerful brand.

Companies looking to establish a reputation as honest and reliable should treat repairs as an opportunity to show how much they care about their customers or at least the duty of a responsible manufacturer. Too often, in spite of boilerplate appeasements, repairing faulty products is considered an additional revenue stream.

I’m hopeful that Miele will see the sense in maintaining their “reliable” brand and differentiation from the competition, but time will tell whether they’re a Brompton or a Volkswagen.

EDIT: See follow-up: Miele repair.

Script for Garmin eTrex 30 barometer

If you use Strava and a Garmin eTrex 30 and care about that the climbing figures you get are accurate, then you may be disappointed that Strava is ignoring the barometric data the eTrex 30 gives you and working it out roughly by itself, presumably through the average elevation of large map tiles or similar.

There is a simple fix for this, as pointed out by tubbycyclist of yacf:-

A generic “with barometer” device is provided to force the system to use the elevation data from TCX and GPX file types. One only needs to add “with barometer” to the end of the creator name.

Easy enough with a text editor, but a bit of a faff to do every time you upload.

So I’ve created some scripts to make it easier. My idea is that these scripts will be kept in the root directory of the GPS so that they’re always accessible at the same relative path to the file(s) they are editing. There are different scripts for different operating systems, so they should work even on unfamiliar computers. So when travelling and using other people’s computers, they should still work.

Windows

This Windows Script uses PowerShell 1.0, so should work on  Windows XP SP2 or later. I’ve tested it on Windows 8 and 10. It’s the first bit of PowerShell I’ve written, so any comments are welcome.

Opening up a powershell window and running this script isn’t a lot quicker than editing the file manually, so I’ve also created a clickable shortcut to the script as described here. This avoids having to change the script execution policy on the machine, making an exception for this script only.

  • In Windows Explorer, create a new shortcut in the root folder of the GPS device (this might be E:\ or F:\).
  • Right-click on the new shortcut, and choose “Properties”.
  • Change the shortcut’s Target to the following:
    %SystemRoot%\system32\WindowsPowerShell\v1.0\powershell.exe -ExecutionPolicy Bypass -File "add_barometer.ps1" 
    
  • You may also want to name the shortcut something like “windows_add_barometer.ps1.link”.
  • Click “OK”.

Linux

This Linux script uses generic linux shell commands and has been tested on Ubuntu 14.04 and 16.04. It can be run from the command line with: sh linux_add_barometer.sh or possibly by double-clicking the file if you use one of the methods described here. I’m certainly not a bash expert, so again, your comments are welcome.

Mac

I’m told that it’s possible to run *nix shell scripts under Mac OS, so the Linux solution may work with some tweaking. I’ll update this post when I’ve tried it.

My experience of the alpha course

Over the last couple of months, I’ve attended a local Alpha Course, organised by a friend I used to work with. I expect some who know me think that is a bit odd, given that I’m a non-believer, philosophical naturalist, agnostic-atheist, secular humanist, etc, etc. I went along as I often find it interesting thinking about what other people believe and why. I also think it’s good to talk with people with whom I disagree, lest I become lazy or narrow-minded. To be fair, the liberal Christians I got to know on the course probably shared many of my opinions about the world, just not the supernatural. If I really wanted to experience an utterly different world view I should probably chat to Britain First or UKIP. Maybe one day. Right now I feel like a rest!

I did miss a couple of the sessions, but I’ve done my best to cover those I did attend in a series of posts, written as I went along – see the list at the bottom.

The alpha course content is in the form of videos and books and much of it is available online for anyone interested. The videos I saw begin with a series of brief street interviews with members of the public, most of whom seemed to be under thirty. Overall, the style is more engaging than a typical church sermon and at times genuinely funny and interesting. However, it is clearly intended to convince the listener that Christianity is true and some of it still feels quite preachy.

More seriously, some of the claims made by the speakers are factually incorrect, something that is apparent after only a few minutes of Internet searching. Another blogger previously pointed out that some of their arguments are so weak that they’re not really arguments at all, just restatements of their opinion. Very uninspiring. In both cases I felt the speakers should have known better. I couldn’t research every claim they made, but was disappointed that some of the ones I did check up on turned out to be false. Maybe everything else they said was true, but for me the videos lost credibility. I couldn’t trust them as they seemed to be more interested in impressing us than with accuracy. I was surprised that others in the group seemed unconcerned. I’m not sure whether they were unaware of the facts and lacked the interest to investigate further or whether lying for Jesus is so commonplace that it goes unnoticed.

On the other hand, when I raised skeptical concerns in the small group discussions, often someone would agree and say that it didn’t make sense to them either. This is one reason I enjoyed this part of the course so much. The openness and honesty. People didn’t tend to recite doctrine so much as relate their experiences. I found this much more engaging as I’ve heard most of the religious ideas before but I’m still curious about the people who believe them. Interestingly, when I found agreement with my objections, it wasn’t always the same person who would share my skepticism. I guess one person’s nonsense is another’s divine mystery. Though it seemed that none of these problems were sufficient for them to reject Christianity, which I guess is the big mystery to me.

Alpha presents a modern and flexible version of the religion, or “relationship with Jesus” as they tend to describe it. The adverts talk about “asking life’s big questions”, but a better subtitle would be “an introduction to Christianity” or “getting to know Jesus” because that is the actual theme of the alpha course. There’s a whole world of interesting philosophical questions which would be unlikely to ever come up on the alpha course.

For anyone interested in what other people believe the small group sessions could be very enjoyable, but this depends entirely on how open, honest and thoughtful the others were. I was lucky to be chatting with a nice bunch of people. I can see how a group could easily be dominated by a particularly talkative attendee, despite the efforts of the facilitator to let everyone have their say.

Which leads me to my next point. The majority of those who attend alpha are already Christians, many of whom rave about how much fun it is, which is why some have done it several times. If you’re not a Christian, you may find it difficult to get your point across. My group was very respectful of my opinion and I was never shouted down or interrupted. The point is, that when everyone is quite rightly given an equal chance to speak, the single dissenting voice can be lost. I found it hard to think on my feet and give good answers to the claims people made without being that guy who won’t stop talking. Still, I enjoyed the challenge.

Although the alpha course is intended for everybody, I’m not sure whether I would recommend it to atheists or non-Christians. Most people in this country are already familiar with Christianity, so might not learn much. Also, conversations with the religious are tricky for atheists (or non-Christians) because atheism is typically a “passive” belief or a lack of a belief. Most atheists don’t study atheism or meet up with other atheists to discuss it or sing songs about it. The same way people don’t meet up to discuss the Earth being round. It’s just a fact about the world that is accepted and mostly ignored. Religious people usually go to church and hence have a bit more practice at justifying their beliefs. So it can be hard to keep up. It seems that it’s the same if you talk to people who think the Earth is flat, who seem to be very thoroughly misinformed and quite capable of bamboozling an unprepared skeptic.

What I would like to do is a similar course for other religions about which I know comparatively little and I was pleasantly surprised that the others liked this idea too. I don’t know if any such thing exists, but I’ll see what I can find.

Here are the links to my experiences of the individual course sessions:-

If you’ve had similar experiences or have any comments, I’d love to hear from you.

Alpha course 7b: Does God heal today?

This post describes the latter part of a single alpha course evening session, the first part was about the church.

God’s healing

Chris now moved onto talking about the supernatural healing that he believes God provides in response to prayers. He said that God healed in the old and new testament and, as God doesn’t change, must be healing today. That is of course if you take the bible as true and historically accurate. He wanted to see more prayer and healing, to the extent that supernatural healing becomes natural or at least commonplace. He and others shared some amazing stories of people who had been prayed for, sometimes by large groups of people, and were cured of meningitis when apparently “a few hours from death” or other ailments both serious and trivial.

I asked Chris what he thought was happening when Christians prayed for healing. He said that God hears the prayer and may choose to intervene to heal that person, although it can’t be expected to work every time because it’s up to God, not us. I asked why the prayer was needed at all. You can’t give an all-knowing god new information – he must know about the sick person. Presumably in his infinite wisdom he has decided not to heal them. So why would the pleadings of an imperfect human change his mind? Chris had already mentioned in his introduction that God doesn’t change. His answer was an unsatisfactory but honest, “I don’t know”. I probed a little further asking why they’d mentioned getting large groups of people to pray at once. Would this make God more likely to hear or respond? Again Chris and Matt pleaded ignorance saying that there wasn’t a particular formula and that they couldn’t expect reliable results as it was out of their hands.

Others chimed in describing both their experiences and opinions on prayer and healing. The consensus seemed to be that, even though prayer might only have an effect less than half the time, it was always worth trying. Someone else commented that although physical healing would be wonderful, they also hope for mental or spiritual healing, which I took to mean the person simply feeling a bit better and more able to cope with their condition. This is no doubt a good thing, but even harder to measure and could easily be brought about by the feeling of love from knowing that a lot of people care about you and really want you to get better. Genuinely nice and worthwhile, but not necessarily supernatural.

It’s interesting that people are willing to ignore all the cases where no effect is observed following a prayer, but become really impressed when there is a change for the better. I didn’t hear anyone say, “It’s a miracle!”, but “Wow, that’s amazing!” was a typical response. This leaves a lot of room for Postdiction or Argument by selective observation. In short, counting the hits and ignoring the misses. If a failed healing can never count as evidence against faith healing, then it’s not reasonable to consider it true based on a few successes. It’s an unfalsifiable belief, making it unscientific and no better than any pseudoscience or conspiracy theory.

When you take the more falsifiable proposition that prayer ought to yield healing results significantly better than chance and prayer is actually tested systematically, in the way that medicine is, there’s no effect.

CONCLUSIONS:Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567

I asked whether people thought there was any risk in praying for someone. The only suggestion anyone made was that others might think they were crazy. I think there are other, more serious risks. I started to explain the tragic case of Kara Neumann who died from undiagnosed diabetes when her parents prayed for her instead of seeking medical attention. When her condition worsened, they thought it was a test of their faith. I didn’t have all the details memorised and as I paused to recall them other people started speaking. Another frustrating failure to get what I thought was an important point across. I guess I need to practise debating.

Chris and others repeatedly said that they always tell people who’ve been healed to go and get themselves checked out by a doctor. That’s obviously the responsible thing to do. I forgot to ask whether this policy was a result of someone having neglected medical treatment, or whether anyone made any record of the results of these medical examinations. Secondly, I suppose that thinking there’s a less than 50% chance it will work should encourage everyone to seek proper medical advice. Another thing which they thought was important was that the faith healing they do is all about Jesus and God – they’re not trying to take the credit themselves. He contrasted this with televangelists who garner a great following for themselves and a lot of money to go with it. But to be fair to televangelists, if you can bear to watch them for more than a few seconds, they do mention Jesus and God about as often as possible!

Chris asked whether anyone wanted to be prayed for or had a friend or family member who was ailing. I think they were hoping I’d say something, but soon someone suggested the two members of the group who were absent due to sickness as well as the homeless man who had been shivering on the street outside the coffee shop. Then Matt started rubbing his left shoulder and suggested this might be a sign that someone needed help with a similar complaint. After a long pause, Jeff indicated that both his shoulders were sore. So Matt prayed for him for a few moments and asked Jeff if he was feeling any better. I think he said, “About the same”. I’ve seen this kind of guess-the-illness game before and it seems like a great way to get mini miracle claims if the guesses are right or someone wants to play along. Presumably if no one, nor any of their friends or relatives, has the specified pain or ailment it’s quietly dropped and assumed the person voicing the prayer was mistaken.

We chatted a bit more and in response to the suggestions that I “might as well try prayer healing”, “What have you got to lose?”,  I made some comparisons to the beliefs of Buddhists I know who chant for healing and also have similar miraculous stories of success. I challenged Matt to go along and try that, but I doubted that he would. This reminds me of the following quote,

“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
– Stephen F Roberts

Time was runnning out, so they decided to finish the session with some music and a kind of free prayer session. Danni started the music on her phone and Matt voiced the first of the prayers giving thanks for the friendly alpha course we’d all experienced. We sat listening to the music for a bit longer and someone gave emotional thanks to God for her child, who despite early struggles with health is now doing well. After a while Matt started another prayer. I can’t remember the exact words he used, but I’ll paraphrase as follows:

“Lord, I pray that you might help those who might be struggling to know you and maybe if anyone has been hurt by church previously, or maybe not hurt, but turned off by church. I hope that they may come to experience your love, sometime in the next few weeks.”

Seeing as I was the only atheist in the room, this seems to be pretty transparently aimed at me. I don’t think I’ve been particularly hurt or turned off by church, except that church and Christians made me think it through a bit more carefully. I guess they’re speculating and trying to make sense of my reluctance to accept their beliefs. This praying out loud thing seems to be a strange way to speak indirectly to people. If they actually wanted to communicate with God, why speak out loud? I suppose it’s a way to share things with the group that people might not otherwise feel comfortable about. Like a support group, I suppose.

Once we’d all got up and started to move the chairs back, Chris came over to chat with me to check whether he had understood my questions correctly. During our discussions, lots of people had been talking at once which caused some confusion. He didn’t need to do this, so I thought it was nice of him to make the effort. We had a brief chat and Chris suggested that the Buddhists I mentioned may also be experiencing genuine supernatural healing, because we don’t know everything about spirits and how they work. I admit I was not expecting that! Christians admitting that other religions may have something supernatural and good going on. That raises a whole lot of interesting questions.

He also told me about a healing he’d witnessed where someone with unequal leg lengths had the shorter leg grow as people looked on. I’ve heard that this can be done as a magician’s trick. Derren Brown shows one way it can be done and it’s discussed further here. I said I wasn’t saying that what Chris saw was definitely a trick, but that it can be done that way. To be honest, it seems like the more plausible explanation.

Before we left, a couple of books were pressed into my hands. We ended on friendly terms and we were all invited for an informal reunion at Jeff and Kim’s place in a few weeks’ time. I’m looking forward to it.

Alpha course 7a: The church

The final session of the alpha course had two themes, the role of the church and asking whether God heals today. I think it was a bit of a shame that the two sessions were crammed into one as I think there was a lot to discuss here.

I arrived to find a smaller than usual group as a result of a couple of illnesses and the students heading home for Easter. This meant the two diminished groups formed one, slightly larger group. I was introduced to tonight’s guest speaker, Chris.

The church

After some informal chat, Chris began his talk about the role of the church. He defined it rather broadly, not as a building or clergy or organisation, but more like a family, school, hospital and community. I don’t think he was speaking particularly about their church, but about the idea of Christians meeting up to worship together. People shared stories about the wonderful feeling of being in church singing or enjoying others’ company. They described it better than I do, but I understand these feelings and I think they’re genuine. I don’t think that there is anything supernatural attached to them, though. In fact I think the effect of a supportive community on an individual is much more significant than most people, including the religious, would believe. For one thing, I’d guess that a group of people such as in a church or other social organisation could enable people to believe pretty much anything. If that sounds like an exaggeration, try looking into Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses or any apocalyptic cult and see what they believe. It’s a moot point whether their beliefs are more or less far-fetched than mainstream Christianity, but plenty of people do believe them. However outlandish a set of beliefs may seem to outsiders, for those whose entire family, colleagues and friends believe the same thing, I imagine it’s easy to agree. In that situation, it takes a real oddball not to follow the herd. In fact, if I remember rightly, Chris mentioned that church is meant to strengthen people’s faith and encourage them to believe.

Interestingly, there’s also plenty of evidence that community and social relationships have a huge positive effect on people’s health.

…social relationships affect a range of health outcomes, including mental health, physical health, health habits, and mortality risk.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3150158/

I did try to make this point and that this might explain many of the life-changing stories of people whose lives are changed for the better by joining a church. Before I could really get it across clearly, Matt quickly responded that the holy spirit and Jesus were a really important part of it. Then someone else started speaking. I didn’t want to dominate the conversation but, as the only atheist in a slightly larger group, the dialogue felt a bit one-sided.

I’m going to discuss the healing talk in a second post, as it’s getting rather long.