Scargill – Deal of the Century – the Orange Racoon 35 package

As a constant user of technology, demanding a decent connection pretty much wherever I go, I use one of the popular (in the UK) Vodafone dongles, flate rate, unlimited connectivity (except it never is, in Vodafone’s case it’s a 3 gigabyte monthly limit – but as long as you’re careful that’s quite reasonable).

There are times when the Vodafone broadband signal is no good because Vodafone don’t have a transmitter nearby.. so I occasionally use my Orange phone to get a connection. As you know, this can get relatively expensive as the normal setup with Orange and others is a pay-per-megabyte deal. Such deals are becoming increasingly useless in a wired world.

I was recently at a friend’s house and he showed me a piece of software that lets the Orange mobile phone look like a WIFI router (wmwifirouter) – very handy if there are a few people trying to use laptops in an area, say a hotel room with no WIFI. I queried the data cost of using this with my pal and he informed me that he got a deal with Orange to allow “unlimited broadband”.

Very sceptically I rang up Orange… the first lady of course said “no, we don’t do anything like that” – but when I got insistent – she put me onto an Indian fellow who immediately retorted “certainly – we can do a flat-rate job, no problem”.

Turns out this is newish with Orange – the package is called RACOON 35 if I’m not mistaken – the basic deal on the surface of it, at £35 you get “unlimited broadband” – by which they mean a similar cap to Vodafone plus unlimited calls to landline calls – plus 900 minutes to any mobile phone – plus a load of text messages. Not at all bad at that price.

As if that wasn’t good enough – if you order online you can have this same deal for £30 a month. My wife rang up and got the same deal to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

So far, so good….

I signed up, starting the contract from fresh at that point…. and that was that. 2 weeks ago I was due to get a new phone – the new HTC Touch Diamond. I checked and the first person said I could have it for free – but no stock.

A few days ago I rang up to complain about the delay – in stock this time – but £39 for the phone. I got annoyed and said I’d ring back – no way was I paying for that phone – and rang back on the assumption I’d get another operator – I did. This fellow also tried to get £39 – and I simply asked whatever happened to the bull that Orange show on TV about customer loyalty… so he went away – and came back with an offer of the phone for FREE – and £5.

I didn’t quite follow the £5 bit, but I was happy to get the phone for free – except by now there was no stock.

2 days ago they SMS’d me – phones were in stock and I could have it the next day – and the guy said he’d like to clarify the deal I’m on – £35 a month – minus £5 for ordering online – MINUS THE FIVER – not just one-off but PER MONTH – for being a regular customer… i.e. for £25 a month all-in, I’ve now got a hot new phone (typical price well over £400), (essentially) unlimited broadband, unlimited landline calls and 800 cross-network minutes as well as enough texts to keep me going (I’m not a fanatical texter – I find it just as easy to send an email).

The phone comes complete with 4 gigabytes of memory, easily enough for sat-nav and audio recording software with room to spare for the odd movie etc. Like the iPhone it has an accelerometer so it knows which way is up, not to mention making possible a game that could not exist without it. The phone also easily handles YouTube videos and the user interface makes everything I’ve used up to now look, well, historical.

It’s always a challenge with Orange to get from A to B – but I think this sets a benchmark as to what represents good value for money with phone providers.

Things I have working and tested up to now on the phone include: phone, web, youtube video, FM radio, internet radio (get Core Player for this), photo album. The sat nav works a treat (and with the broadband deal works a great with google maps). Is it an alternative to the iPhone – well, including the package – the overall deal… yes, IMHO most definitely.

Peter Scargill

Scargill – the Continuing Solar Lamp Experiment and the B&Q specials

garden lightsI’ve spent quite a bit of time now collecting information on solar lamps – it’s become something of a hobby – and I’ve come to a conclusion – most of them are not worth a light – as it were!

The lights you see in the image are part of a testbed I ran last winter – and now the sun’s out their getting a good test. Why buy in the winter? To see how they stand up to the weather of course – and some don’t stand up AT ALL.

The far distant lamps you see are fairly typical of the £25-a-pack-of-10 types from B&Q and elsewhere (these came from a shop in Southern France, others from B&Q) and I’ve tried many other types – the reason you don’t see them all here is they’re in the bin. Almost to the last man the cheaper ones with plastic tops degrade very quickly and become frosty – all but stopping the light getting through. Given that in winter we don’t really have enough light to charge these lamps anyway that’s really not acceptable. I’ve just been outside now with a brillo pad cleaning up some which had gone completely white.

The lamps at the rear in fact have resin covers and up to now a year after buying them – they looked as good as new – but 6 months later – the white powdery look was getting them as well.

Now, take a look at the lamps at the front. You’ll notice they are hinged (and the solar cells have a thin piece of what appears to be glass in front of them – and none so far have shown any sign of ageing) and so you can direct the light anywhere you want – and they are a floodlamp which means the light is focussed in one direction, while pointing the solar cell to be exactly pointing to where the sun will be at mid-day.

Typically, solar lamps find themselves along the edge of driveways supposedly lighting up the driveway – well in practice they end up lighting up the grass, the sky -just about anywhere except where you ideally want the light and all from one, white pathetically underpowered LED, there simply isn’t enough light to go around – oh sure, they LOOK bright when you look at them – but that’s not what you want- you don’t WANT them firing light at you – you want them firing light at the driveway or whatever – and that’s just what these newer spotlamps do – from 3 leds, one one. Looking at my gravel path there, 4 or 5 of those lights adequately light up the gravel – on the other hand NO number of the more traditional designs would do this. In Spain, with superior sunlight, there is really no need to use anything other than lamps like these.

So with positionable solar cells, even on a modestly sunny day in winter (as long as there is SOME sun) these floodlights work well – in summer they work amazingly well.. and despite trying two different types – firstly a pair from B&Q and secondly a set from PoundStretcher (around half the cost of the B&Q types but only available when it suits them) these work absolutely marvelously – and the solar cells used look like some kind of modern thin-film jobs – they look nothing like the little strands of silver and blue you normally get with these lamps – the latter ALSO tend to change colour and start to look ill with time.

The units operate incidentally on 2 AA rechargeable and it’s good to see that many manufacturers are now using NIHI batteries as against the totally useless NICADS often found in the very cheapest units. The voltage to drive the white leds comes from a little circuit called a Colpitts oscillator – basically a couple of transistors and a coil to bump the voltage up a little – as white leds need nearer 5 volts than the 2.4v given out by the 2 batteries in series. Such circuits are also used to save on batteries with some manufacturers reducing the circuit down to one battery – that’s to their benefit – not yours.

So, if you’re planning on garden solar lighting – I hope this is useful to you. I’ve taken a boatload over to Spain with me to light up the top of our little mountain – more on our next trip in a week.

The Humble Light Bulb, the Compact Fluorescent the myth of the long-lasting white LED

I’m one of those retentive types that ensures they have low energy lightbulbs all over the house, purely and simply because having a background in electronics I’m very much aware of just how grossly inefficient incandescent (standard) light bulbs are. We generate all that CO2 and heat in order to produce more electricity – to pipe it into your homes – to power bulbs that, by and large, just generate more heat. The amount of actual light compared to heat is tiny.

So it was with great delight when B&Q first started selling low energy compact fluorescents that I bought a couple to try – but due to the absolute rip-off price at the time – I waited until IKEA started selling the 11w versions at about £1.99 before completely kitting the house out. They’re now down to something like £1.00 but even then there are those diehards who aren’t too good at math who say “why would I want to spend £1.50 on a bulb when ordinary ones are less than 30p.

Well, that argument just went straight out of the window folks – I was at Morrisons a couple of weeks ago (this is a UK-based blog for anyone reading outside of the UK – sorry – but I’m sure the USA will have similar bargains) – and I was blown away. They’re selling packs of TWO of these bulbs – for 49p.

Yes, that’s less than 25 pence for an electronic low-current bulb. Needless to say – I bought a few. Even in Spain where they are generally WAY more expensive (we’re talking 6 euros or more) I spotted at Carrefour twin-packs of 20w lamps for a couple of euros which isn’t at all bad. Hopefully now we can see those horrible old filament lamps resigned to history – where they belong. Until the LED housing manufacturers decide to look past the end of their incredibly greedy noses – CFLs it is! (White LED lights themselves are typically under 20p for decent bright diodes – but somehow once 3 or more of them end up in a light fitting – the price seems to go up by many, many times – that will change eventually. There is a building in London near Victoria who’s entire front lighting is in multi-colour LEDS – it is incredibly bright – so it’s only a matter of time before we’re all using them.

Beware however – not ALL modern lamps are a god-send. Current white LED technology simply does not last no matter WHAT the claims are.  Resellers blindly repeat the general claim of LEDS lasting countless thousands of hours – but WHITE leds are not ordinary leds. Make sure you keep the receipt!

Something Smells Fishy

“Minnowing” and “Whaling”… heard of these terms in relation to computing? No? Well, you’re not alone, apparently the majority of SMEs haven’t either. These are new-ish terms to describe variations of “phishing” – the practice of sending out emails with the hope of convincing someone to click on a link and suffer eternal damnation.

In a recent case in the USA, high-ranking executives across the country were sent an email message that appeared to be an official subpoena from the United States district court in San Diago. The emails included the full details of the executive – name, phone etc and commanded them to appear before a grand jury.

On clicking a link in the message, the recipients unwittingly downloaded and installed software that stored their keystrokes and sent them off to a remote computer. Other examples have, for example allowed remote control of the recipient’s computer – and of course that leads to capturing bank details, login details and even full credit card details.

The term “whaling” comes presumeably because the culprits are trying to catch a “big fish” – but at the other end of the scale we have “minnowing” – typically the criminals may target a large company – the type where few members of staff have the “big picture” – getting information about individuals isn’t hard these days with the proliferation of social networks and so a personalised email arrives informing the user of a change of banking details etc… you know the rest, the victim is fooled into entering confidential information to a website.

How to tackle this – well, there really is no other way to put it – education – users at all levels of the organisation need to be aware that it’s a rough old world out there – they need to know what to look out for… and to be VERY CAREFUL when responding to emails or clicking on web links… a lot easier said than done!