Coralita as bought May 2017

Seren Goes to Crick


Coralita as bought May 2017
Coralita as bought May 2017

Seren is an 8m long 40 year old Trentcraft canal/river cruiser. We bought Coralita as she then was in Pershore about a year ago and brought her back to Great Ouse. She wasn’t in great condition and the previous owner had tried to change the layout then given up and tried to re-instate the original plan so he could off-load it and buy something better. But we bought it anyway because DIY work is nearly as much fun as cruising and it was the best thing we could afford.


I’ve done some DIY this spring but avoided the boat owner trap of completely gutting the interior and having an unusuable boat that takes so long to fix one runs out of time/money/energy. One of the bodges performed by a previous owner was to remove a window (with a jigsaw, roughly) and fill the gap with plywood and car body filler in order to make a private WC cubicle. I’ve replaced the bodge with a GRP panel and extended the compartment to make room for a shower and washbasin. No hot water yet, blog that when it works.

Recycled kitchen units for clothes storage and improved WC in the background
Recycled kitchen units for clothes storage and improved WC in the background

I’ve moved the leisure battery to make it easier to connect to the engine charging system so now both batteries are charged by the engine when the boat is in use, and kept charged by the solar panel when not in use. Put a fridge and an inverter to power it in the galley too, though long term that’s all going to get re-done.

So it’s nearly ready to go. The Crick Boat Show is held over the May Bank hols(26-28th May) but Crick is a long way from Tempsford Bridge by water so I plan to set off on Tuesday 15th. I also plan to blog the trip but you’ll have to wait and see how that goes.

Telcoms, Bah Humbug!

Copy of email sent to O2
I live about a mile from the Sandy Heath radio mast and can see it from my bedroom window. Most if not all telecos have gear installed on it, including EE, my current provider, and O2. Despite that the EE signal often goes off, sometimes for a whole day. So I ordered an O2 PAYG SIM which came today.
I inserted it in the phone, switched it on and… no signal. The instructions say to activate I have to top up, by calling 4444 from the phone. But there’s no signal. There’s also the option to activate online, but do I really want to activate a SIM that doesn’t work and waste a minimum of £10?
So I went to the ‘Contact’ page. No phone number. I mean why would a phone company list a phone contact?
I clicked the contact button and got a message, something like Hang on while we check if there’s an agent free… Obviously there wasn’t because the message stayed there for ever.
I went to the Complaints page and there I found contact number I should try first before making a complaint.
I called and got the usual menu options, but none for Pay As You Go. There was Pay’n’go but I ‘d never heard of that so I ignored it. Eventually someone in the Pay Monthly team told me Pay’n’go was the same as Pay As You Go. He offered to put me through. He couldn’t explain why the phone options are different from the website options.
Long Wait.
Then, ‘The Pay’n’go team need your mobile number.’
‘Haven’t got one because I can’t get a signal therefore can’t authorise the SIM.’
Long wait.
‘Can I have the SIM number?’
It’s printed very small in pale grey for some reason but I read it eventually.
Long wait.
Eventually I get through and tell the guy the problem. He asks for the phone number. I explain. He asks for the SIM number. I read it again. Why is it grey and tiny? There’s plenty of room on the surrounding plastic. He tells me to authorise the SIM. I explain it again.
I ask him to check if there is a signal in my area. He checks. There isn’t.
I ask when it will be restored. He tells me tomorrow ‘evening’. After 11pm. So in effect I can’t use the SIM until Friday.
Is this typical O2 service? Does the Sandy mast fail often? Should I look elsewhere?

Phil Thane

Amber Rudd – 3

Apparently MPs, even cabinet ministers, will/can/do not reply to mere members of the public unless they are constituents, so eventually I made contact with my MP’s office and they contacted the Home Office which  replied to my MP whose office sent it to me. This is progress, in my previous constituency my MP replied to every email by letter. When I queried this I was told that it was essential for record keeping as paper letters were always copied before sending and the copy filed. Apparently this is not possible with email.

On the actual matter in hand, the reply is as bad as I feared.

(From Alastair Burt MP)

Further to previous correspondence, I attached for you a response from the Home Office.

I do understand the points you make about end to end encryption, but the technology companies offering these services, must work with the Government to ensure they are not abused.

Thank you for taking the time to outline your concerns in this matter, which I can assure you have been noted by the Minister.

He obviously missed or failed to understand my point that it doesn’t have to be ‘companies offering these services’ any muppet can set up encrypted email.

So maybe the Home Office reply is better?Judge for yourself – HomeOfficeStatement. (PDF)

Atkinson & Miller

Not a comedy double-act, Atkinson and Miller were engineers, one British and one from the US who each invented methods for improving internal combustion engines. Both types were pretty much forgotten until recently when variable valve timing and electronics have made it possible to emulate the operating principle either style of engine in a conventional design. In fact it’s possible to have the same engine operate in conventional (Otto or Diesel) mode then switch to Atkinson or Miller operation to suit the conditions and load.

I’ve written a couple of pieces for Diesel Car, one on the history one on the modern interpretation of Atkinson and Miller’s designs. So if you ever wondered what Toyota are on about when they praise the simulated Atkinson engine used in the Prius, now’s your chance to find out.

Atkinson & Miller Engines (history) (PDF)

Atkinson & Miller Engines (Modern emulations)  (PDF)

Amber Rudd – part 2

No answer to my message to Ms Rudd about internet encryption. It’s possible my email didn’t arrive, and possible it did but her reply got lost in cyberspace. I’ve emailed my MP, Alastair Burt asking him to look into it. We’ll see if he replies. I might have to resort to paper in the snailmail!


Some low-life, or more likely some automated script, hacked my website and scattered so many files around I ran out of disk space and hence people trying to contact me on Oct 16 got a ‘Mailbox full’ message. Sanity has now been restored.

For the techies, using Cpanel file manager I got my password changed by the hosting company, deleted all the dodgy looking files and directories from public_html, downloaded the rest of public_html to my desktop and ran ClamAV on the whole directory. Didn’t find anything. Hope that’s all…

Message to Amber Rudd

Dear Ms Rudd,

A few days ago I read a headline on the Independent “Amber Rudd admits she doesn’t understand WhatsApp technology but intends to ‘combat it’’.


Headline writers do tend to over emphasise stories to get readers’ interest, but the story contains a quote from you, apparently uttered at a party conference event, “I don’t need to understand how encryption works to understand how it’s helping – end-to-end encryption – the criminals. I will engage with the security services to find the best way to combat that”.

Then two more quotes from the Indy,

“It’s so easy to be patronised in this business,” she said. “We will do our best to understand it.”

“We will take advice from other people but I do feel that there is a sea of criticism for any of us who try and legislate in new areas, who will automatically be sneered at and laughed at for not getting it right.”

If I promise not to sneer or laugh, can I help you understand it? Before you say or do anything that will get you both sneered and laughed at, and could have more serious consequences.

Encryption is based on maths and you can’t ban maths. Now the principle is understood any decent mathematician could re-invent a similar system anytime he/she chose. When PGP (

was invented in 1991 the US government tried to classify it as a military secret and prevent its export outside the USA, but by then the inventor had already shared it with friends and colleagues and the secret was out. Even if he hadn’t some other mathematician would have come up with the same idea sooner or later. It’s not the only encryption method but it’s common and it can be used by anyone.

The first thing to note is that encryption of some sort is vital to how much of modern life functions, the little padlock symbol you see in the address bar of your browser shows that encryption is being used when you visit a secure website, your online bank for example, or the site where one pays tax or claims benefits. Banning encryption is impossible unless you want North Korean levels of surveillance and control.

You could of course ban companies that provide encrypted messaging services from operating in the UK. Or you could allow such companies to operate only if they introduced a system whereby messages were recorded unencrypted somewhere before being encrypted and sent, and ensuring that that stash of unencrypted messages could be viewed by law enforcement officers with the right warrants.

There are several snags to this apparently simple plan. Wherever the messages are stored they will sooner or later be hacked. The threat of that happening will deter anyone with something to hide, whether it’s information of use to terrorists or A Level exam questions from using the system, they will look for something more secure. The knowledge that messages can be read by law enforcement officers provides an even stronger deterrent to use by miscreants. That’s nothing new, when criminals realised the police could intercept their letters and steam open the envelopes they stopped planning bank robberies by post. Similarly once wire tapping became standard practice for investigators criminals became careful about what they said on the phone. If you ban Facebook or WhatsApp from using encryption people will find an alternative.

Probably the simplest is to virtually offshore your communications. You might be aware that many British ex-pats like to watch BBC TV, and that BBC output is freely available online in the UK using iPlayer. But not to expats, if you try to access iPlayer from an IP address outside the UK, it is assumed you are not paying a UK TV licence fee and the service is blocked. Unless you use a UK based proxy server, which many, many ex-pats do.

In essence it’s very simple. Someone sets up a webserver (or lots of them) in the UK to which ex-pats can subscribe, paying a small fee or being subject to adverts to pay for the service. The server lists BBC programs available from iPlayer. The ex-pat chooses one and the UK-based server connects to iPlayer, receives the stream of data then resends to the cheating ex-pat. I suspect one could quite easily do something similar with other communications systems.

You could try to ban proxy servers in the UK to stop abuse of the BBCs service, but there are legitimate business and privacy reasons for using them, people don’t always want others to know who they are or where they are. In the case of foreign proxies, they are way beyond your jurisdiction. If someone in, say, DePfefflistan set up a website where one could download the .boris version of WhatsApp there would be little you could do.

Then you get into the Whack-a-mole scenario, you ban WhatsApp and within days, if not hours, someone launches Wotzapp, WattsApp and so on. Encryption is easy to use, web developers are two a dollar in most of the world and the internet runs on free software. And then even if you could find a way to stop all these new messaging services springing up, there’s email.

I’m not a mathematician, I’m not a software developer or IT expert, so let me give you the non-maths, low tech version of how PGP can be used with old-fashioned email.

To use PGP you need a piece of software, freely available online (, that creates two encryption keys, known as a keypair. One key is a ‘private key’ the other a ‘public key’. The former you store on your computer (phone, tablet, whatever) the latter you give out to friends, contacts or broadcast on the internet if you wish. The keys are created such that any message encrypted using the public key can only be decrypted using the private key. Anyone can have the public key, but only the person with the private key can read the message. It is impossible to figure out from the public key what the private key looks like.

You need to make sure your email client software is aware of the private key and where you filed it, but this is usually just a point and click affair. When you receive an encrypted message the software uses your private key to decrypt the message.

You can also append your contacts public keys to your addressbook system so that you can encode a message to them.

This system is the basis of secure email as used by governments and commercial organisations everywhere, in most cases the IT department sets it up and user knows nothing about it. Something similar happens when you use a messaging app or online banking, your web browser sends your public key to your contact, bank, whatever and it uses that key to send you an encrypted message with its public key which your browser uses to confirm that you are now securely connected.

PGP it is simple to implement, if I can do it in a few minutes so can terrorists and other criminals. Unlike commercial applications such as WhatsApp, email is universal and operates on standard protocols. Anyone can set up an email server, it doesn’t have to be one of the big IT corporations where you might have some influence, it can be a £20 computer in a shed somewhere.

Don’t despair though. You cannot un-invent encryption, and you can’t stop people using it but the law enforcement and security organisations can and do get a lot of information by simply finding out who is sending messages to whom, where from and how often. And who is responding. On the web that’s hard to hide, though using systems like Tor do make it tricky. There is probably more info to be gleaned from looking at suspects’ use of readily available private messaging systems than there is from trying to gain access to these systems and driving the people of interest into using even harder to trace methods.

Finally, please stop making statements that suggest that you don’t need to understand something in order to combat it. It may win plaudits from a few technophobes but anyone who thinks for a moment will see how stupid it is. You don’t need to be an expert any more than the health secretary needs to be an oncologist to combat cancer, but you do need to have some concept of what you are trying to achieve. Mandating the impossible just leads to disappointment.

I’ve written to a couple of MPs in the past, and in most cases received a standard, ‘Mr/Ms xxx wishes to thank you for your communication…’ from their office. One never knows if the MP actually read it, I assume they didn’t and I suspect you won’t either. I’ll just have to wait and see if you make any more ill informed comments about encryption, or worse still try to enact legislation on the matter.

Writing Magazine

When I’m not writing technical features for money (or DIYing the boat) I try to write fiction. I attend a local writing group and a while ago a publisher, Collette Smith, from Writing Magazine joined us. For her it’s research, trying to get inside the heads of her customers, but it set me thinking. Writers use software and, it often seems to me, pay over the odds for it. I’ve used free software for years and written about it in techie magazines and on industry websites, so why not try a simple guide to free software for writers?

Here it is. (PDF approx 400KB)

And here is a sidebar I wrote to go with it which the magazine put online rather than in the print version.

Script kiddies

It appears some goon has been trying to hack my website, I’ve found several files that don’t seem to belong. But I’m no expert and a bit cautious so I’ve renamed them. If everything works OK after a few days I will assume they are either malware or redundant and delete them.