» November 30th, 2013
Most of you don’t care about this. Testing a widget. More details at http://bluf.com/api/calplugin.html
» October 18th, 2013
The diligent reader will have noticed I’ve been a little lazy when it comes to blogging lately, occupying my mind with various other things. One of those was the production work on the Computer Active Ultimate Guide to Raspberry Pi, which was a fun little computer to play with, and as Tony Smith astutely comments over at The Register, is probably being used by a lot more grown-up hobbyists than schoolchildren.
It’s not a popular opinion in some quarters, but I do believe that this is not going to be the year of Linux on the desktop. Nor is next year. And nor have been many of the other years heralded as a great breakthrough. While some big companies may use it, or even whole city councils, when it comes to home computing, Linux remains an also-ran.
You, dear reader, might be quite happy using it. But if you’re even thinking of posting a comment pouring scorn, on a small blog, because someone doesn’t think Linux is about to take over the world then, I have to say, you’re not a typical computer user. Typical users want the thing they’re familiar with; they want to plug in their camcorders and music players, and play their DVDs and hook up their printers, with the minimum of fuss, probably following the instructions in the box, and maybe even the CD that came with it.
That doesn’t make them “sheeple” or some other insulting nonsense. It makes them people for whom getting the job done is more important than evangelising. Whether it’s Windows or Mac, a huge majority of people are happy with what they have and what they know. Pointing out the lock-ins of proprietary systems, and how they can do so much more with Linux doesn’t cut any ice. They want to do the things they want to do, and for the most part, they can do that with a standard system with less hassle, and more readily available friendly help than then can with Linux as their desktop operating system, even despite the tremendous advances it’s made in user friendliness in recent years.
Small is beautiful
What that doesn’t mean is that I think Linux is pointless; I’ve been a long term user of Linux/UNIX systems of one sort of another. Back in the 1990s, most of my freelance writing was done using a Wyse50 serial terminal connected to a PC running SCO OpenDesktop, with WordPerfect 5.1 for UNIX. I did my spreadsheets using Wingz, too. Sitting in my office equipment rack at the moment is an ancient Cobalt RaQ, and above that is my home-built mail server, running OpenBSD. A huge amount of my time, I seem to end up with a terminal window open, either to do something odd on my Mac, or to tinker with a setting on one of the servers.
In short, I think Linux/UNIX systems are great; I just don’t happen to think that, for an average user, the desktop is where the action is.
Regular readers of the UK edition of Computer Shopper will have seen at least one of the Linux Expert columns that I’m now writing for the magazine, and in those, I’m following this philosophy. Home users very probably won’t be using Linux full time on their main PC. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for it in the home. I’d argue that, for a lot of people, it can be a much more useful employed in a secondary role, rather than as the main PC.
What sort of role would that be? Well, there are loads; in the first of my columns, I’ve looked at a device that many people may have already, a Synology NAS. Not only are these jolly good bits of kit in their own right, but it’s extremely easy to add additional software to them, via the desktop management interface. So why not take advantage of that, and add a mail server, putting all your emails in house, where it’s easy for you to find what you want, and rather less so the NSA?
Synology’s not the only game in town, but other NAS platforms can similarly be tweaked and expanded, and so too can many other devices. In the third column, I’ll be looking at a £50 router, the TP-Link TL-WDR3600, which is arguably even a better bet than the Raspberry Pi for some people who want to tinker. For your money, you not only get a cable router, but a Gigabit ethernet switch, wireless access points, and a flexible computer in a case with a power supply. It’s capable of running media servers, mail servers, and as I explain in the magazine, the Asterisk phone system too, thanks to the OpenWRT firmware.
I’m going to blog more about that separately, but I think this is pretty damn cool; much more so than desktop Linux. With many people having smart phone that are capable of running a VoIP client, it’s simple to set up a phone system, whether it’s for your home or even a small office. Add a VoIP service that costs a few pounds a month to provide real phone numbers, free SIP software for the phones, and a few hours spend on configuration, and you have something that, not so long ago, would have cost hundreds of pounds, and quite possibly involved expensive maintenance contracts too.
So, I really do believe that when it comes to Linux, small is more fun. Whether it’s the Raspberry Pi – ideal for projects where you need a TV display, or want to play with the IO ports – or something like a router with a Linux-based firmware, for providing network services, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and a lot of uses that these small systems can be put to, without having to teach everyone else in your house how to get to grips with a completely new desktop.
The TP-Link £50 router than can turn into a phone system
» July 29th, 2013
Yesterday, I came across an interesting scam on a dating/contact site. I received a message from someone that contained this text
Hi! I find your photo on this site:
This is your site ? You looking for new people…
» July 22nd, 2013
In his latest desperate attempt to make it look as if he cares about important issues, David Cameron seems set on ushering in an era of internet censorship in the UK. It sometimes feels like these things come in cycles – a liberal item like gay marriage or the equalisation of the age of consent, followed by a reactionary bone thrown to the anti-sex moral crusaders.
This one is, in that sense, the latest in a pretty long line, including the crackdowns already imposed on “extreme pornography” which have seen the police consider charging someone in relation to photographs of a person wearing a gas mask – yes, kids, it might restrict breathing, so it could be illegal – as well as earlier rulings like the Spanner case regarding BDSM. We now have a situation in which the relatives of victims are deemed to have become experts in areas where all they really have to offer is grief and anger, and people who may enjoy things in the bedroom that, while not perhaps to your taste, are nevertheless legal, risk imprisonment, notoriety in the press, and public shame, should they be found to possess a photograph of acts that themselves are perfectly legal.
And yet, Mr Cameron wants to go further. He wants to impose censorship on every internet connection in the country. Worse, he wishes to bully corporations into doing this on his behalf, threatening laws if they don’t do his will.
Images of child abuse are already illegal; it is, in my view, unlikely that a default block on domestic connections will do anything to curtail that, as those who share such images aren’t searching for them via Google. It’s instructional to remember that when you hear talk of people being arrested for “making indecent images of children” they almost certainly have not done that in the sense that a normal person would imagine. They haven’t taken a camera and filmed or photographed a vile act of child abuse – for which, of course, they would more rightly get a long sentence for assault.
What they have done is downloaded something to their computer, likely taken by another person. The courts, the CPS and the police have a cosy agreement that this is tantamount to “making” an image, because a digital copy is created. People can be charged with a crime for which there is a longer sentence available, and it’s good PR in as much as it makes it sound like the police are actually stopping the abusers.
What would really stop them would be restoring the funding that’s been cut from them by this very same government, and investing time and effort not just in tracking down the consumers of vile material, and trumpeting to the press that you’ve taught someone “making kiddie porn”, but catching those who really are doing so, and thereby really doing something concrete to protect real victims.
But, labelling everyone a maker, and taking police cameras on dawn raids with you, certainly gives an impression of doing something useful, doesn’t it? Much like David Cameron’s new policy of bullying companies to implement a flawed solution.
If there is to be censorship – which Cameron wants – we should not let it be established by private letters between ministers and corporations. ISPs should call the government’s bluff, and refuse to implement any of these proposals until they are passed into law – and that law should explicitly list exactly what is not allowed, so that we can all see clearly which search terms, which sex acts, which types of information are being prohibited “for the good of society.”
Unless we do that, we are allowing the sort of censorship that will creep and extend, without any scrutiny. We shouldn’t, in my view, allow any censorship at all – everyone should register for an uncensored internet feed, to ensure the list can’t simply be used as a “register of perverts” open to the scrutiny of private investigators and tabloid hacks.
This is a horrible idea for freedom and democracy, and for any consenting adult in the UK who’s ever considered doing something out of the ordinary in bed. It must be stopped, or mitigated.
I’ve written on this stupidity in the past, and there are three posts that it’s worth referring to on this site:
I suggest, somewhat tongue in cheek, that given the day on which this announcement was made, we should refer to the filtering system by whatever name is given to the royal baby, to ensure that we never forget.
» July 5th, 2013
Some of you may already know this, but it’s worth remarking on the passing of one of the quirks of the Wireless Telegraphy Act (1967). This was the Act of Parliament that required anyone renting or selling TV receivers to collect name and address details, and pass them on to the TV licensing authorities.
As part of the current government’s desire to streamline things for business, this requirement has been abolished, with effect from the 25th of June this year. So, if you’re buying a TV, video recorder, set top box, or any of the bits of kit that used to prompt a demand for your address in the past, it’s no longer necessary.
I’d be interested to hear if stores are up to speed on this; I’m sure some are. And I’m equally sure that if some could get away with it, they would try and use this requirement to harvest your data for their own reasons too.
The Impact Assessment for this decision is worth a read; one curious thing – to me at least – is that in the cost implications, because the BBC isn’t a business or a ‘civil society organisation’, whatever that is, then costs it incurs don’t count, whereas savings to retailers do. A brief announcement of the change is on the TV Licensing web site.
» June 3rd, 2013
More fun with Orange and their utterly insane billing system. This time, it’s not the amounts that they’ve got wrong. But the sheer stupidity of the way they present information on their online billing system, which makes it incredibly hard to work out exactly what this month’s bill is.
I have two Orange account numbers; one is my phone, on a normal tarrif. That’s all paid up to date, and the other is my mother’s phone, on the old ‘Virgin Mobile’ tariff, which means it costs next to nothing. I forgot to pay the bill for her phone last month, so wanted to see how much I should be paying now. It’s not easy!
First, I signed in to the billing system; my account was correctly shown, with the number (I’ve removed account numbers and bill reference numbers from these screens.) The amount on my own bill for this month is £20.78. But what do I owe on the other? Should be simple to find out, no? From the account drop down in the centre of the screen, I selected the other account. And this is what I saw:
According to this screen, when I select the account for my mother’s mobile, “your current balance” is “£20.78 – 3.35″
I honestly don’t know quite what that means; I could take a stab that the actual amount on the bill for this second account is 3.35 – the small print below says that’s the overdue amount, because I forgot to pay last month’s bill on time. So, let’s click “view your bills” and see if I’m right.
OK, this is weird. I’m still looking at the second account. But the “your current balance” screen now shows me just “£20.78″ which is the amount on the other account, not this one. There’s no mention of the overdue amount, though I can see that it was the bill total for the 1st May bill, further down.
Under “Your latest bill” it says the bill total is £1.86, though. So maybe I did pay last month, and forgot? I can’t view this month’s bill online yet, though, because this is the 3rd of June and it was created on the 1st. That makes sense, doesn’t it? I can download a PDF, though. So let’s click on that.
Of course, clicking the link for the PDF doesn’t actually get me the PDF. It gets me this screen, still showing the balance from my other account at the top, with a link for the PDF.
Have you worked out what I have to pay yet? According to the PDF, it’s £5.21.
That’s not a number that’s appeared on any of the web pages. It’s certainly not the “bill total” the website says represents the bill for June. In fact – and you might have figured this out – it’s the total of the amounts billed in May and June. But the actual PDF invoice – what most people would, surely, consider the “bill” is £5.21. Not £1.86. Not “£20.78-3.35″ or the £20.78 that the “current balance” figure suggests.
It’s a figure that you only actually get to see if you click through extra screens to download a PDF and open that on your computer, or get out a calculator to add up the numbers on the screen.
Orange’s billing system remains not fit for purpose, in my view. By misrepresenting information and not properly calculating what you’re supposed to pay, you run the risk of either paying extra – someone in a hurry could easily send that £20.78 to settle a bill, leaving a credit of £15.57 sitting on the account – or pay the £1.86 that the site says is the “bill total” for June, leaving arrears remaining on the account.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pointed out to Orange customer service that there are problems like this with their site. No one ever does anything – though the Twitter team have asked for my password and account number to be DMd to them, which is not something I’m prepared to do.
» May 21st, 2013
IPTV service Acetrax – one of the first to appear on smart TV sets from the likes of Panasonic – is to wind down across all the territories in which it operates.
Unlike LoveFilm, Netflix and Sky’s NowTV, Acetrax was a pay as you go service, so users could dip in and out as little as they liked. It had a moderate range of films, something also offered by Tesco’s Blinkbox.
Back in January I wondered ‘what now for Acetrax‘, which is owned by Sky, and this seems to be the answer. According the the PR, Acetrax is shutting in all territories. If you were hoping that this might presage the return of PPV movies to NowTV, which was something I previously wondered about, you’re out of luck – I’m told there are no plans to do that, so if you want the material that’s on offer from Sky, you’ll have to pay a monthly charge.
That leaves Blinkbox as the only significant UK IPTV service where you can dip in and out without any committment at all.
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