Friday, August 29, 2008

The wonders of e-ticketing

If you go to Rail Europe and purchase a ticket, chances are you won't actually be sent real tickets. Instead you'll be sent an itinerary with some reference numbers. Then when you get to the station, you go to a machine and pick up the real tickets. So I was trying to get to Basel In Switzerland and chose the train since I had too much baggage to go on the plane and also felt like going on the train was the right thing, environmentally, to do.

So I got to St Pancras and started typing in my reference numbers. My Eurostar tickets popped out but I was unable to get the tickets for the rest of the journey. I thought perhaps this was because I needed to pick them up from the station in Paris so didn't worry too much.

I arrived in Paris, dragged my stuff to Gare d'Est and tried to type in my reference numbers again and got nowhere. The touch screen computer helpfully had an English option with a button so small that it was almost impossible to hit the screen in the correct place to get it working. Nice touch, SNCF. So I started queuing up in the ticket office but time was running out, so I headed for the train. After all, I had an itinerary that included my seat number, so it was obvious that it was my seat. Unfortunately, the ticket inspector didn't see it that way. I didn't have a ticket. Yes, the train was fully booked and nobody was demanding to sit in my seat but I didn't have a ticket. With the man next to me translating, I tried to argue my case, but got nowhere and ended up paying for my ticket again. Ho hum. The ticket inspector did assure me I could get my money back if I went to the ticket office when I got off.

But at least I managed to get to Basel. So the next thing to do was get my ticket refund and get my ticket for the return leg of my journey. Unfortunately the ticket office in Basel informed me I was now in the wrong country to pick up my tickets for the return journey and would have to go to France. Fortunately Basel is only eight minutes from the border so this wasn't too time consuming or expensive. When I got to St Louis, the lady in the ticket office was very nice and her English wasn't too good (although clearly much better than my French) so after getting my return ticket I thought better of trying to explain why she needed to give me some money due to her jobs worth co-worker.

So lesson learned, trains may be more environmentally friendly but train companies don't seem to be in any rush to actually compete with airlines. They cost more, take longer and make life difficult for their customers. To solve one of these problems, here's a suggestion for you, how about sending the tickets along with the itinerary and then I might be tempted to use the train again in Europe?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Babysitting laptops

PCs are so fecking demanding. I've got a few laptops at home ready for some training I'll be doing and every time I switch one of them on I'm assaulted by a bunch of popups telling me I need to update this or that, Windows Update, Java, Macafee, some other crapware installed with Dell. After half an hour of updates, I can finally get round to doing whatever I need to do, which I've forgotten about by now of course.

So how can this be solved? Here's some suggestions

Windows Update - OK, this is probably a necessary evil, although I'm dubious about some of the updates pushed my way. Are they all really necessary?

Macafee - I haven't run a scan for two weeks because the laptop hasn't been switched on at all, I'm not likely to have acquired a virus in that time am I?

Sun Java - Do you really have to keep bugging me to install the Google Toolbar? And what the feck has that got do with Java anyway?

Dell - Stop installing all this crap on your PCs. Offer an option of installing a clean OS, even if it costs a little more. The problem is that all that extra crap you install hits performance and half of it is badly written trash so people start to think Windows is crap and go off and buy a Mac, even though it's actually Dell that's the problem. The irony is that the thing that made PCs successful, open hardware meaning anybody can build them and install whatever they feel like, is the thing that may well kill them off, replaced by the closed Mac...

The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class

This video may be about the US but I'm guessing it also applies to the UK. We may think we are richer than previous generations, but in fact we are spending more on housing, healthcare and have more debt, even though we generally have two parents in work. The problem with having two parents in work is we have no slack in the system. If one parent falls ill or loses their job, we pretty quickly run out of money, since the other parent can't go out to earn extra, they are already in the workforce.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Connecting two PCs with a network cable

Wireless networks are great for home networks, unless you need to copy large amounts of data around. OK, 802.11g is probably pretty fast, but I've got 802.11b here and when I tried to copy 4Gb of data around, things got a bit slow. I had no blank DVDs and my USB drive is only 1Gb so I had to figure out another way to get the data from one machine to the other. So I figured I'd network them the old way, with wires. And here, mostly so I remember how to do it next time, is what's required. This may not all be required but I'm a software man, not hardware, and you know how many software engineers it takes to change a light-bulb right? But given that most of the information I've found on t'internet seems to be "use a cross-over cable", it might be helpful to someone.

First, make sure the two computers are part of the same workgroup. Right click on 'My Computer' and view the computer's properties to see what workgroup the PCs are a member of. If they are on a domain, I guess they need to part of the same domain.

Next, the cable needs to be a cross-over cable. I think I, er, borrowed my cross-over cable from a former employer but they are available from all good computer equipment shops.

Next, make sure TCP/IP is configured to use fixed IP addresses. More often than not TCP/IP is set up to obtain an IP address automatically since they'll get assigned by your ISP or router or some little gremlin who sits in a box on the internet somewhere - look I dunnow how it works. Here your TCP/IP connection is just between two computers, so there is no little gremlin to assign IP addresses. So look at the properties of your network connection and from there look at the properties of the TCP/IP stack. I think you can pretty much choose whatever IP address you like, so long as the two PCs have different IP addresses. I chose and and that worked fine.

Finally, disable your wireless connection on one PC at least. This may well make no difference at all, but it seemed like a good thing to do. If your PC can see another computer via two network connections, how does it choose which connection to use when copying files? Again I don't know, so figured disabling the slow wireless connection would be a good idea.

Friday, August 01, 2008

SonicWall VPN client and wireless networks

I've had this problem for a while. I have a couple of computers connected on my home wireless network which generally can see each other to share files. But sometimes I'm unable to connect to the other machine. I'd always put this down to some weirdness going on in my wireless network and dealt with it by copying files onto a USB drive. But I finally figured it out today. It would appear if I have the SonicWall VPN client running on one of the machines this causes the wireless network to go funny. Shutting SonicWall down fixes the issue.  No idea if this is a bug or if it is required behaviour but now I know why it happens I don't really care.