Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Commercial Interests vs New Technology

I often wonder what the world of computers and technology would be like were it not for commercial companies making sure their user's choices are restricted to their own products, and were it not for all the law suits due to infringing patents that defy common sense.

Competing techinical products are great - if only the winner was the one that proved to be technically superior as opposed to the one whose inventor had the biggest pockets.

It is an ongoing joke in the web programmer circles as to how Amazon managed to get a patent for a One-Click shopping service. Most shopping websites allow customers to create a profile holding their address and payment details to make repeat shopping easier. So I am browsing a shopping site, I have logged into the site so they know my identity. If such a site allows me to click a 'Buy' button and my order is created this infringes an Amazon patent.

Another example is the iPod. On it I store music - each track having properties such as Genre, Artist, Album and Track name. The obvious way for me to choose what to play is to select the property I wish to use, then to look through a list of all music sorted by said property. This is patented by Creative Labs. How else am I meant to choose my music? Any 10 year old asked this question will come up with the same answer. How can a commercial company patent something that is not a serious invention?

These patents causes competing products that cannot afford to pay for a patent license to deliberately design some inferior interface. How is this good for the user?

Quite often a company has a successful product that people like. It gets an established user base. As the product and technology evolves this company makes some bad decisions that lead to a worse product. Users are then stuck with a dilema and have to choose to put up with the new inferior product, or deal with the upheaval and problems of switching to an alternate and incompatible product.

I get so annoyed when features are removed as products evolve and users are forced to buy a second add-on product or upgrade to get the features back.

A final issue is when companies set rules and restrictions that govern how other companies can create products to integrate with their products. So often these are designed to prevent integration and cause users inconvenience to limit the user base that embrace the competitors product.

Havn't I done well not mentioning Microsft and Apple in the above article??

Maybe this is one area where I should be grateful to the regulation fanatics that run the EU? They have taken on Microsoft for uncompetitive practicses. The problem with fining a company for bad practices is that they simple pass the cost of the fine on to the end user. When you buy your next Windows think how nice it is that some of that price paid the record breaking EU fine they incurred! I await to see if the EU ruling actually improves the user experience.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Review of iPhone UK

Today I have had my first experience with an iPhone. It is definitely in the Bleading Edge Technology category because it has plenty of serious shortcomings.

To summarise the only reason I would buy one is pose value - everyone who sees it will notice you have got the latest and greatest gadget to hit the phone market for ages. In my opinion it is a very nice gadget that will really raise the bar in terms of mobile handset design. Let it do its job and see what the competition release in response.

There is no such thing as a perfect mobile phone. I am of the opinion designers deliberatly leave features out so they can add them to the next version and you will part with more cash to upgrade. If the iPhone really did everything you would only buy one. The range will evolve and features will be enhanced.

The first problem with it is that it is not a 3G handset. If all you want to do is make voice calls this phone will do that perfectly on the 2G networks. In such an allegedly advanced phone this is unforgivable!

3G networks enable 3 very important enhancements.
1. Video Calling. 3G phones normally have a camera on the front of the phone so when you are in a call you can see your other party and they can see you.
2. Mobile TV. This is basically up to 15 special only-for-mobile channels from Sky including News Sport Music and Soaps. The channels are broadcast on demand to your handset - which would look great on the iPhone with its massive screen and with it being built for video.
3. Broadband speed Internet. The maximum speed internet connection possible over 2G is called GPRS. This is the same speed as an old fashioned dial-up modem: 56k. 3G enables 10x faster Internet access.

The touchscreen interface system is not as revolutionary as the hype makes out. It was actually annoying. I could speculate as to why, but I won't. About 1 in 4 times I touched a link or an icon the phone ignored my request and I had to try again - touching for longer or pressing more gently and more specifically on the link or icon. On a couple of occasions I would touch one place and the phone would sense my touch about an inch away from where I pressed.

I sampled all the ring tones in the shop and found myself having to move the phone nearer to my ear so I could hear them. If the phone was in my pocket there is no way the ring is loud enough for normal use - even on maximum volume. Fortunately there is a vibrate mode.

You must have heard all the hype about 'Cover Flow'. When browsing your music you tilt the phone 90 degrees and it shows all the cover artwork for your music. You can flick left and right through these to pick the album you want. When you find a track there was no way to do a 'add to playlist' feature, like holding the button on the normal iPod would. If you go through to the special screen for editing playlists the cover flow feature does not work. Common sense would also say if you were browsing your contacts and turned the phone round you could look through all the photos of your friends to find the picture of who you wanted to call. This does not happen. Cover flow cannot be used to pick between the photos and videos on your device. I am positive this will be added soon. It is such a serious short-sight. You cannot use good quality headphones with the iPhone - you have to use the supplied Apple in-ear headphones.

And there is more....... The camera is like a cheap point and shoot - reviews say the 2MP photos are poor quality. The ones I saw in the shop looked OK on the iPhone screen. There are no options at all. Most now have options like white balance, shoot mode, night settings etc. It also cannot shoot video. The iPhone does not support multi-media messaging. It cannot send MMS multi-media text messages with photos and videos etc. It only receives MMS as links which you have to open in the internet browser.

The devices come with 8Gb internal memory - which is very poor for a video device. I have outgrown my 15Gb iPod with just music! The memory cannot be replaced or upgraded for example with a memory stick as seen on most other phones and digital cameras. The battery cannot be removed - if you are on the move and it goes flat, you are goosed. You can't even get your SIM card out to put in another phone without the special tool.

Next - most gadget lovers that have high monthly phone bills travel around and need internet access anywhere. When you buy your iPhone the 18 month contract you have to sign to activate your phone includes internet data. Say I am on a customer site or in a hotel with my work laptop. It is not possible for your laptop to connect to the internet through your iPhone and the O2 network.

That's all my gripes after 2 hours with the unit in the shop - thanks to the guys at O2 in the Arndale Manchester for not throwing me out!

Last I have to mention the cost. £269 for the handset. Cheapest contract is 18 month @ £35 with 200 inclusive minutes. Total Cost of Ownership over 18 months £899 plus insurance.

My advice: Buy a PSP for games and videos @ £130. Buy an 80Gb (iPhone is 8Gb) Ipod Classic for music (can do videos but screen is a bit small) @ £150. For calls, email, internet, laptop connectivity and photography buy a Sony Ericsson W880i free on Vodafone 18 month contract @ £25 with 225 inclusive minutes. Oh and you don't really need the ipod anymore too - this is an amazing MP3 player. Total Cost over 18 months £730.

But I still came away from the store thinking I like the iPhone and it has potential - I will wait for a couple of evolutions like the addition of 3G and hope for one on a cheaper contract.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Reforming Europe

Mr Brown is still resisting calls for a referendum on the latest EU Constitution - oops I meant minor reform treaty!

I really thought when he came to power he was refusing so he could eventually make a U-turn and call the referundum telling everyone he had listened to them and subsequently improving his popularity. We were promised a referendum, and his case against one is extremely thin. I can't see any harm by calling one. And by the electorate saying no.

I feel a couple of everyday analogies will best illustrate my opinion about the governance of the EU.

First I will use Object Oriented Programming. The programmer is given a complete set of standard libraries to perform operations such as creating windows and making them function. Say for example in one application you need to change the appearance of your window by putting the popup menu on the bottom instead of the top. You can then write your own routines for displaying the popup menu. There are now two procedures for the same operation - the one that came with the computer by Microsoft and the custom one you wrote for your own application. It is my application and I am responsible for writing it so my own version will override the Microsoft one. But the parts of the default Window library that I am happy with and have not overridden will still apply. I only have to re-write the parts I wish to customise.

As a second example I refer to the structure of any company. The top boss and the board of directors will determine general company policy - for example the normal working day is 9AM to 5PM. However the IT department may have 24 hour operators so the standard working day for this team is different from the rest of the company. There is a specific policy for one department because the standard policy would not be suitable. That department manager has authority to deviate from the company standard when appropriate, and I don't know of many CEOs that would object to this scenario.

What our government is going to do within Europe is the opposite of the above. I approve of the single market so our companies can easily trade with customers in Europe. The argument for Europe having a single larger voice in international affairs is great. Having a united front is fine if it is united. Unfortunately discussions at every European summit come across as anything but united. What benefit to us is a larger voice if it doesn't say what our electorate thinks it should? But common sense has gone out the window in allowing Brussels the last say on British policies and laws.

What I strongly disagree with is our country being governed in the same way as all the other countries in Europe. The UK is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. The majority of members in Europe are developing countries. France is a socialist state. Governing a third world country or a socialist country is very different to governing an advanced capitalist country. One size fits all never works. Did we not learn anything from the collapse of the ERM in 1992? I also note even with Maggie's rebate that financially we gain nothing as we are one of the main net contributors to EU finances. It is daft that 40% of the EU money is wasted subsidising French farmers.

Lastly the government in Brussels is not elected by or accountable to the UK electorate in any way. They know very little about the operation of our country. Some European figureheads have even specifically been rejected (Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson, William Hague). The UK government that is elected and that understands the operation of the UK will become completely powerless. This is dangerous.

At present we have plenty of EU laws imposed on us. I question the benefit of many of these. After this treaty things will be much worse.

As this current treaty stands we would be better staying away and forming similar agreements with the Europe that is created as benefits us. I would rather be a United State of America with whom we have far more in common. There have been too many times over the last few years where Tony Blair has taken a different stance internationally to Europe and I have agreed with him on most of them.

I have written to my MP for an explanation exactly what the benefits are of being in Europe and adding my voice to the calling for the referendum. Will post here when/if I get a comprehensive reply.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Vista again!

I still enjoy a good laugh every time I think of Microsoft's launch campaign for Vista! Remember that "The Wow starts now"! What wow? Looking back it wasn't even a pop. Or a squeaky bit of wind. (Sorry for being a bit rude!)

Do you know anyone who is using Vista? I don't. I have considered switching to it a few times but within a couple of days come running back to XP. One of the main issues I have with Vista is it regularly re-writes its boot program to my boot sector. I think it is triggered by Microsoft Updates. But becuase I am evaluating Vista I am multi-booting and using a third party boot manager. The fact Vista always screws this up and I have to restore it from CD to get back to my XP installation puts me off trying it!

I havn't mentioned my Dad on here before. He is very clever and is the fountain of all knowledge. But he really struggles with computers. He believes a computer should do what he wants, how he wants. And it never does. The reasoning for pressing the Start button to stop the computer still beats him.

Because he is a computer amateur he is probably one of the most vulnerable users to all the virus and phishing scams. I have set up all his computer security as high as I can. I have explained to him to watch for anything suspicious and tell me if anything changes on his computer. I have also explained to be extremely warey of pop-ups telling him of a problem and telling him to click somewhere or install something. This is how he has been caught in the past by a trojan.

He has a new digital camera and enjoys checking his emails. Someone at work had told him you can put your photos onto a DVD as a movie and play it on your friends televisions and he wants to do this. I can't find any simple software to do this on XP but Vista does it natively. The Vista interfaces for photos and videos are significantly enhanced over XP. I have asked him to try and upgrade. Though it is noticably slower, his PC can run it. He hasn't switched yet.

I have waffled a bit above, but I have two serious points to make:

1) A learning computer operating system.

This is a vision we were promised with XP. That the computer learns what tasks you do most and automatically tunes itself to help you. Problem is it doesn't work with XP. And it has got worse in Vista. Every few weeks when I visit home I have a list of messages, changes or new icons that Dad has noticed - as I asked him to. They are nearly all made automatically by the computer learning or applying updates. They do not help at all. They cause confusion. Why when he is learning how to work the computer do the goal posts keep moving?

There is really no excuse on Microsoft's account. Computers are fast, have plenty of idle processor time and always on internet connections. How can basic self-tweaking algorithms perform such a bad job of knowing what a user wants? And why is it impossible to turn them all off and lock the computer down to a consistent state?

2) Multiple Users with proper roles still not anywhere near implemented.

Since Windows NT Microsoft has allowed multiple users to have a different personal environment. Users can be an administrator or a standard user. I've have discussed Vista security on this blog months back so will avoid repeating myself. What I want is for the standard user to be let alone to work. They can use Word, surf the net and use the applications that are on the PC in peace. Save all the annoying windows nags (which have increased three-fold in Vista) for when an administrator logs in.

Why is it not possible for me to make any change as an administrator and apply it to all the users? If I install a wireless network when I am the administrator it should work as soon as a standard user logs in. When I am setting up the machine I have to log in as every user account and setup things like the networking and Office settings.

I know windows is not meant to be a fully multi-user operating system. Only one person can work on the machine at a time. It is not possible for a less powerful machine to connect remotely and run programs on a powerful machine while someone else is working on it. However on the launch of Windows XP it was claimed that each member of the house could have their own account, own documents, own favourites etc. But it still does not work.

Usability of computers should have moved on by now. Microsoft has had generations of operating systems to make this work. Why have such basic features still not been delivered? And why are amateur users still struggling to learn Windows way of doing things?


Update: I am discussing stand-alone Vista in a home or small business environment. Central management and configuration are different if your Vista machine belongs to a Domain.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Living with an American Express card

Everyone has heard of American Express, and as a company they have an image of providing exceptional quality services to the wealthy. Upon looking at their product range in more detail they have a number of services targetted at the average consumer.

In terms of payment cards, their top of their range product for new customers is the Platinum Charge Card. A charge card works very similar to a Visa or Mastercard credit card used by nearly all consumers. The only difference between a credit card and a charge card is you must pay off the full balance of your account each month. It is not possible within the terms and conditions to make a small payment and defer paying the outstanding balance in return for paying interest.

What's the benefit to that? If you can get a credit limit on your credit card that is suitable for your needs there is no benefit. But the point is the American Express does not have a credit limit. I don't think Victoria Beckham would cope for a month with a £20k credit limit. This is the market for the charge card. Want to buy a house this week, no probs - pay with Amex (if the agent accepts it)!!

Being a sucker for carrying flash plastic in my wallet I applied for one of these Platinum Charge Cards to find how good their service was. At the time I saw a TV campaign promoting their concierge service. It showed someone working flat out who was able to call the card and ask them to track down and send a gift to someone important. I liked the idea of having an American Express personal assistant at my beck and call.

Once I received the card it was very traditional looking. It wasn't a particularly impressive looking piece of plastic compared to some of the better designs of credit cards at the time. The best thing about it was presenting it for payment in the big department stores like Selfridges or Harvey Nichols. You immediately got a look of respect from the cashier. The worst thing about it was being rejected in 30% of stores 'Sorry we don't take Amex - have you an alternative card?'

This is the main reason I no longer have the card. If I am having to pay a Visa bill I got sick of paying an Amex bill as well. Another reason is chip and pin. The cashiers no longer see your card. You just put it in the machine, enter your pin and remove it to your wallet. Call me a poser, but that is why every card is now platinum, because at the launch of the idea they were a status symbol. Everyone wanted one.

Now i've covered the day to day aspects, I will detail the services included with card membership. These can be divided into three categories:

Travel benefits include a travel booking service. Whatever you need, be it a last minute flight or a bespoke holiday of a lifetime the service will take your requirements and arrange everything for you. Problem is in most cases you could save plenty of money by spending 10 minutes searching the internet. You got the offer of 2 for 1 flights but these apply to a very restricted list of airlines. Don't expect to get the offer flying Manchester to London, to New York or to Ibiza or Greece. You get membership to premium hotel schemes but all these provide is complimentary benefits on staying like a massage or an evening meal. In my two years as a member I never booked with them. I did use my access to airport lounges a few times.

Protection benefits or specifically travel insurance for your family and supplementary card holders. They also offer purchase protection and emergency assistance but this is common on most free credit cards.

Lifestyle benefits are basically the concierge service I mentioned I saw in the TV advert. I note that on the Amex website this has now been described much more accurately. This service can send a gift, book a restaurant or special event for you. When I used it to book a restaurant I had to give my full card and security details, and was then asked for nearly the full address of the restaurant I wished to use and details like the time and number in the party. By the time I had done this and waited for a callback in most cases it would have been easier to call the restaurant direct!

These benefits were so restricted as to be nearly useless. I called the travel service to book a ferry to the Isle of Man. They refused saying they only deal in travel by flight. I needed to take my car. I wanted a plumber in Manchester. They refused to help because they didn't have a fully vetted list. Reading their separate insurance I thought they had! I asked for an executive lounge in Greece or Ibiza. Out of a list of 500 there wasn't one. A local worker at the airport told me 'we don't have many executives in Ibiza'! You do but they are hard to spot in shorts!!

There is a loyalty point scheme. I struggled to find anything in their list of rewards that I actually wanted. In the end I settled for Molton Brown vouchers. I also havn't mentioned that there was an annual fee. A very big annual fee of (cough) £275. This has now gone up to £300!

To conclude the overall membership experience was disappointing, especially if you take the charges into account. Except food supermarkets and petrol stations, acceptance of this card is poor. Most stores at the Trafford Centre in Manchester refused it. BMW dealers and service centres do not accept it. Most stores in foreign airports refused it. Don't think of using it abroad as the foreign conversion fees are extortionate. The service was poor, refusing to book anything but run of the mill requirements. The Membership Rewards couldn't be redeemed for anything one would actually want. It was hard to save for them with card acceptance being so poor. If you can find a free credit card for your needs get one instead!


Monday, September 24, 2007

UK economic problems.

In the last week there has been a severe failure by our government and regulatory bodies to calm jitters in the UK economy.

I saw the treasury select committee MPs grilling the head of the Bank of England, but can't help but feel they missed the point.

Northern Rock is in serious difficulty. Their balance sheet is comprised mostly of mortgage lending with a small proportion of deposits. Because of the fallout from the recent US sub-prime mortgage lending crisis the cost of inter-bank lending (which NR was more reliant on than was prudent) has risen sharply, with banks much more reluctant to lend one-another money for fear that the securities offered for the loan may be overvalued.

The select committee seemed to focus entirely on the Northern Rock situation which I see as the symptom, not the actual problem.

Northern Rock had been looking for a solution for its problems for about a month before the issues bit. The problems were directly caused by fallout from the economic problems in US. These pleas had fallen on deaf ears and the problems left to grow.

In my opinion this is what went wrong:

1) The Bank of England took an extremely hard line. They were aware of the situation with the interbank lending. Banks were keeping all their cash in case they hit problems in the near future. The Federal Reserve in America noticed a similar problem and they took action. They injected cash into the system promptly, offered banks a reduced borrowing rate and have since dropped the main interest rate by two 'notches'. Our bank sat there and did nothing. Had they improved access to short term funds I feel none of the current problems with Northern Rock and the banking sector in general would have happened.

2) Northern Rock asked the Bank for a 'lender of last resort' loan. This request was immediately made public. Mr King informed the Treasury Committee he would have rather used 'covert' lending so the bank could sort its problems without causing the large public panic causing queues of savers withdrawing their savings. Covert lending was made illegal by the EU Market Abuse Directive. I wait for the day I hear of an EU directive that is in our best interests.

3) Approximately a week before the crunch hit, Lloyds TSB wanted to buy Northern Rock. From what I have read they pulled out becuase the Bank of England refused to extend the terms of loans to Northern Rock to a buyer.

Today it looks like the Rock is struggling to find a buyer at any price! It is looking increasing likely the government will have to support it over the longer term.

Fortunately last week the B of E woke up and intervened by guaranteeing no depositors of NR would lose any savings and to offer £10 billion funds to lubricate the markets. Such a U-turn was well overdue. The Bank of England definitely neglected one of their core duties to ensure market stability. The MP committee forgot to ask them why.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Home Automation

Did you ever see programmes on the television in the 1980s and 1990s like Tomorrows World and some science fiction series? The prediction was that by the early 21st century our homes would be automated to make our lives easier. By easier I mean you wouldn't need to use a light switch to turn the lights on. After you left the room the lights would turn off automatically.

The basic concept of home automation is that your house would 'think' and know what you were doing and how you needed it to respond to any events.

Before I gave the situation any thought I assumed it would be very easy to make it happen. Burglar alarms have successfully detected movement for years. It should be easy to switch a light on instead of setting of an alarm! Right?

Well no. In an outbuilding or garden this solution would probably be enough. Someone walks into the shed at night and the lights comes on. 5 minutes later the light would go off, because the person has got the item they wanted and gone away. If movement is detected in front of your house it is nice to have a super-powerful floodlight turn on for a minute so any prospective intruder is exposed.

Now lets complicate things a bit and set up a system in a bathroom. There are two options for a sensor. One that detects the door opening, or one that detects movement in the room (please no puns). So you enter the bathroom and it is easy for it to decide it needs to put the light on. How long do you wait before switching the light off? Is the person washing their hands for 30 seconds or having 30 minutes in the bath? The movement detector isn't a very good system here. You could have a movement detector in the hall so it knows you moved in the bathroom then moved in the hall. Success you think! Problem is the computer doesn't know who moved if there is more than one person in the house.

In the lounge the problem gets worse. There is the same issue about a lack of movement. Have you gone to the pub, or are you talking or reading? But think about turning the light on. You are settled down to a good movie in the dark, and you reach on the table to pick up your drink. The system may detect the movement and turn the light on just when you didn't want it to!

One could get round this issue with more intelligence. The processing unit needs to have numerous modes. One for watching the tele when it does not turn the light on if you move. One for if you need a bath so the bathroom light doesn't time out. But hang on, now I have a switch to control the system and tame the intelligence. That means the switch behaviour wouldn't be as predictable as when it just turned a light on and off. You have to think even more 'I am about to watch the tele so I need to set the automation to TV mode'.

So you have paid £hundreds for an intelligent system. You have to think a lot more about how to use it AND you still have to control it manually.

What I havn't mentioned is the installation. All the components of the automation system need to be powered and linked together. Running special cables to all lights and sensors would be a big job. There are wireless options that use radio or mains wiring to communicate, but most of these only do one way communication. The processor will send a signal saying bathroom light on and assume it got there. To be reliable it needs to wait for a reply saying the light has been turned on, and if this is not received it must resend its instruction.

My last point is latency. I walk into the kitchen. The movement sensor picks me up when I cross its zones. It tells the computer there is movement. The computer thinks what time it is, has the sun set and what mode am I in. It decides if it needs to turn the light on and sends the signal. The light then comes on with a cool soft fade-up. Problem is by the time this is done you have got your beer out the fridge in the dark and are walking back to the lounge.

Don't get me wrong it is extremely cool to bring someone home after a lucky night in the pub and all the house lights fade on as you enter each room. You can amaze your friends by texting the system from the street to turn a light on. But it does not work. It doesn't save any hassle. It will probably save some electricity but is it worth it for the inconvenience of the lights going off three times during your evening meal?

When everybody has an embedded electronic chip in their body the system will be able to get a bit smarter and would probably work well. In the meantime assuming you don't want all your family to be chipped steer clear! You would have to wait years to save enough electricity to make a return on the investment!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Humour: Advertising slogans.

Imagine if all major retailers started making their own condoms and kept the same tag-line...

  • Sainsbury Condoms - making life taste better
  • Tesco Condoms - every little helps
  • Nike Condoms - Just do it.
  • Peugeot Condoms - The ride of your life.
  • Galaxy Condoms - Why have rubber when you can have silk.
  • KFC Condoms - Finger licking good.
  • Minstrels Condoms - melt in your mouth, not in your hands.
  • Safeway Condoms - Lightening the load.
  • Abbey National condoms - because life is complicated enough.
  • Coca Cola condoms - The real thing.
  • Duracell condoms - keep going and going.
  • Pringles condoms - once you pop, you cant stop
  • Burger King Condoms - Home of the whopper
  • Goodyear Condoms - for a longer ride go wide
  • FCUK condoms - no comment required.
  • Muller light condoms - so much pleasure, but where's the pain.
  • Halfords condoms - we go the extra mile.
  • Royal Mail condoms - I saw this and thought of you.
  • Andrex condoms - Soft, strong and very very long
  • Renault condoms - size really does matter!
  • Ronseal condoms - does exactly what it says on the tin
  • Ronseal quick-drying condoms - its dry and waterproof in 30 minutes
  • Domestos condoms - gets right under the rim!(Eeeuww!!.....)
  • Heineken condoms - reaches parts that other condoms just cannot reach
  • Carlsberg condoms - probably the best condom in the world
  • AA Condoms - for the 4th emergency service
  • Pepperami condoms - it's a bit of an animal
  • Polo condoms - the condom with the hole
  • The Manchester United Condom... One Yank and your whole world falls apart

Sunday, September 09, 2007

B of the Bang!

In January 2005 a landmark monument was unveiled in East Manchester to commemorate the Commonwealth Games which Manchester hosted extremely successfully in 2002. The monument is meant to look like a firework exploding. It was named 'B of the Bang!' after a quote by Olympic sprinter Lindford Christie saying that he started his races on the B of the Bang.

It is famous as at 56m it is the tallest sculpture in the country, and it is also installed to lean at an angle of 30 degrees. This artwork cost £1.4 million. It is intended to be a tourist attraction and to bring visitors to the area.

I drive past this sculpture regularly and all I can say is I can see nothing artistic about it. I have stared and studied it so many times to try really hard to find something about it to appreciate, but there is nothing. It is a rusty irregular eye-sore. I'm sorry, try as hard as I can I cannot see anything redeeming about this terrible over-hyped waste of public money.

For what they paid they could have at least painted it a nice colour. This special steel it is made of that develops a weather proof coating can only be called rusty. As you look along most of the spikes the welds that join the parts into a complete spike are really visible. The spikes are not evenly distributed around the central hub as a firework explotion is in the air. They look like they have been spaced into systematic groups to make installation easier.

On the subject of installation, you are probably aware that the entire sculpture is still fenced off for safety. This is because the spikes are slowly all falling off. So the compromise in spacing the spikes that stinks of ease of installation has not even made the statue secure. The welds that are visible are not that way for strength. In even light winds some of the spikes are oscillating wildly which is obviously going to speed up the failure rate.

I have already questioned some of Manchester City Council's decisions on here before but whoever payed some drugged up hippie millions to design this awful and dangerous rusty cock-up needs their head examining. Hell you can't unveil something 2 1/2 years after an event it is meant to commemorate. Dig it up now and don't waste any more money 'maintaining' it. Failing that at least paint it a better colour to hide the welds. When it was being built there was a speeded up 5 minute video of it being constructed. They should leave it recording and we can see if it falls down in less time :).


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Is it your fault or 'theirs'?

I have just read in disbelief about a clown booked to perform in Leeds for Tesco. He has recently been prevented from getting insurance unless he stops using a bubble machine in case it drips soap on the ground and someone slips. Now he has been banned from using any balloons because 'some children may be allergic to latex'. Have you ever heard of a latex allergy from a distant balloon? Why has an allergy affecting about 2 people taking precendence over the remaing 99.99% of kids enjoying a show containing balloons? Maybe someone is allergic to the clown's face paint. I'll bet a few people have died or injured themselves laughing. Should this mean all entertainment must stop?

This post isn't about saving a clown. It is a wider issue. If people get drunk and cause trouble it is the fault of the pub for selling alcohol! There is regularly uproar about violent computer games, and more specifically recently about the setting of such violence in Manchester Cathedral. The authors claim it is just a fantasy and is not real - so its OK. Problem is now graphics and consoles are improving games are starting to look and feel much more realistic. To pass levels on games you have to keep trying, and honing your gut reactions to beat your opponents and win. After a day playing Ridge Racer I actually find myself thinking about taking corners much faster in my real car. I have decided to stop playing the game because it could put me in danger. Most other people would probably not be so sensible, and would practice in the real car so they could improve on the game. But because of this should the game be banned from the public? Is it the game author's fault for encourauging dangerous driving in a game where there are not the same consequences?

Additionally the Lords committee has recently published a good report into the future of personal safety on the internet. I like it because one of the key points they attack is current software 'license' agreements. For some reason the person who created the software is not responsible for all the flaws in the software. It is my fault for running the software! Also they suggest holding Internet Service Providers responsible for viruses etc sent from their network. I actually don't agree with this - the person responsible in my view is the one who created the virus. Any changes to make net users reliably traceable in the real world would let us nail em up!

When I buy a car do I have to sign a license? If, for example, there is a fault with all BMWs that a wheel falls off at 80mph and kills the driver would such an agreement exempt the designers from responsibility for the fault? I think the charge would be corporate manslaughter earning someone a jail term.

These issues I have mentioned are all very different issues that may seem unrelated, but my point is about who is responsible for how much? Where does a supplier's responsibility end and a consumer's responsibility start?

Can someone sell me software that exposes my credit card details to the world without me being aware and it not be their fault? Can someone sell me a program to hone my reactions to make me a more dangerous driver and claim it is my fault for using it and applying it to my real life? Can an unusual allergic reaction in one person be enough to ban all balloons from the country? Or should that person expect a clown to have balloons and avoid his show?

You know now this is composed I realise I have already written a post about this same issue. I called it Religion and racism about the racism row with Shilpa Shetty on Celeb Big Brother.

Someone in government needs to take this issue on board and establish some uniform guidance that can be applied across the board. Exactly where does a supplier's or consumer's responsibility begin and end?

Shockingly I can't begin to answer that off the top of my head. Information Technology rules are definitely too soft on supplier's. The Lords report hit that nail on the head! I also feel broadcasting rules are too hard on their supplier's. Might come back to this one.

Perhaps the answer is nowhere - both are responsible. But we need to keep the compensation lawyers on a leash! Maybe compensation laws are partly responsible for this problem?!


Friday, August 10, 2007

Playstation 3 revealed

I reviewed the PSP in a post on here in November 2006 and concluded it was wrongly marketed as a games machine. Sky told me unofficially then they wanted to embrace the PSP and the deal with Sony has been confirmed in the last week.

No surprise then that I would be investigating the Playstation 3. I am not one of these who pays through the nose for brand new technology the day it is available. I like to wait for a few updates to add vital features and the first round of price cuts. Hence when I found a cheap deal in Argos for a PS3 with 2 controllers and 2 games I went out and put my birthday money towards one :)

Why given that I am not a fan of games? Most only entertain me for a couple of days as I have mentioned elsewhere when complaining about the pricing. It is a blu-ray disk player. One of the cheapest and best you can get. It has an internal disk on which to store downloaded games, photos, video and music. And it talks to the PSP. On the game front it is the most powerful and the only one with proper full hi-def 1080p support. The Xbox 360 can only do 1080i and has no HDMI socket.

So what have I found out that the Sony marketing department have not shouted from the rooftops? Soooo much.

Firstly, all the sales figures for the next-gen games consoles are putting the Wii up front because people like the new way to play with a motion sensitive controller. No-one seems to know the PS3 wireless six-axis controllers are motion sensitive in 3 planes!!

Second, blu-ray. What a silly name for a format. I told my mum I was going out to buy a blu-ray disk and she looked at me thinking I was about to buy an X-rated blue movie. So the HD-DVD versus blu-ray format war.... Everyone except Universal are releasing on blu-ray (90% of movies). Two studios will be releasing on both formats giving the HD-DVD camp about 50% of movie availability. Universal players are starting to hit the market that can play either format, so chances are eventually the consumer won't need to know what format the movie is on. The Sony Playstation 2 was one of the driving factors in takeup of the DVD so it makes sense the PS3 could help drive blu-ray, as Blockbuster in America have found. It's looking quite good for blu-ray - except as one salesman told me Sony have a bad track record with formats backing Betamax, Minidisk and UMD.

The PSP interactivity allows the PSP to access the PS3 via your wi-fi or any internet hot spot. At present you cannot access the games, a DVD or a blu-ray movie. You can play videos, music and photos that can be accessed by the PS3.

The PS3 can access multimedia stored on other computers on your home network running the DLNA protocol (Eg Windows XP or Vista). This massively enhances the available storage. It also supports USB hard disks and incorporates a memory card reader.

The biggest plus for me is the online Playstation Store. Were you aware that you could connect to a Sony store via your broadband connection? This allows access to lots of free movie trailers, game demos and chargeable games. These chargeable games are downloaded from the net to the PS3 hard drive - no CD is available - and they cost from £3 upwards. Chris is happy - some good and cheap games (Eg Lemmings and Gran Tourismo HD)!!

The last point is online gaming. Did you know that if you wish to play other people over the Internet on a Microsoft Xbox you have to pay £10 a month subscription for ever? With the Playstation these features are available for free.

For the techies it is officially supported by Sony to plug in any USB keyboard and mouse, partition the hard disk then dual-boot a guest operating system. I have installed Ubuntu Linux and can use the console as a normal PC that can run OpenOffice or any other open source or home written programs. It can't run Microsoft Windows properly yet. The processor is a new design called the Cell/BE. It has a dual-core 'normal' processor and 8 extra specialist processors or 'SPUs' that are managed and controlled by the main processor. In some cases the SPUs can each perform 2 operations at a time. This gives it far more number crunching power (18 simultaneous instructions) than any current PC processor.

So the PS3 is the most fully featured, powerful and cheapest next-gen games machine to own in the long run. It is capable of playing latest generation DVDs and has the best quality video and sound outputs. Not bad for £400. You won't get a gaming PC with blu-ray drive for anything like that - but the games console can be a PC or a DVD player as well!

My only concern is that the motion sensitive controllers and the new processor design have not yet been understood and used to their full ability by developers. I hope it isn't because the designers have made things too complicated or that they do not actually work in practice. There are not yet many specific games, but all the PS2 back catalogue will work and can be upscaled to hi-definition. Watch this space...


Monday, July 09, 2007

Politics of a terror flop.

No doubt you will be aware of the big news from last week. I don't mean the launch of the Apple iPhone (Had to mention that on here somehow!). I am refering to the car bombs that didn't go off in London and the Jeep that was driven into an entrance at Glasgow airport.

Obviously had these been properly undertaken they could have caused serious injuries and would not be a joking matter. As it is the only injury was to one of the perpetrators.

Patient: "Doctor, doctor it feels like my ar*e is on fire"
Iraqi Doctor: "Shut up and drive the Jeep."

My writing on this subject has been inspired by this two-page article in The Register by an ex-police army bomb disposal officer 2001-2004 (Honestly. The Register is reputable). He analyses how incompetent and insignificant these incidents actually were. His article concludes if this is the worst that Al-Quaeda can do we are winning the war on terror.

As part of the following precautions to protect the public Liverpool's John Lennon airport was closed due to discovery of a suspicious vehicle. Let me guess - it was taxed, insured and still had the radio in the dashboard!

Next it is announced that our wonderful new Prime Minister declares he will be spending his summer holidaying in the UK. And his reason is because any traitorous English people trying to holiday in a foreign country will be seriously inconvenienced by security arrangements at UK airports. He even says in the article that 'I'll make sure it's difficult for people'! As chancellor he did his best with all the supposed 'green taxes' on airlines. Now he has even more powers.......

You really think by now airport operators would have upscaled security facilities - alas no - travellers have to get to the airports even earlier and have more time to kill in on-site shops. After all, passenger convenience has no commercial benefit to them.

So my friend Gordon Brown, who I have already criticised very heavily on here a few times took up the office of prime minister on 27th June. Three days later on 1st July the 'threat level' to the UK was upgraded from severe to the highest possible level of critical. Are we sure the factors determining the increase in threat to the UK are just the bungled bomb attempts that couldn't have detonated under any circumstances? I reckon MI5 did it to warn us about Gordon Brown!

I can't believe this man can stand up in the commons and make a speech about restoring british trust in politicians. He was the worst for deceiving the public during his 10+ years as chancellor. I mean he described his last budget as 'a tax cutting budget'. How stupid does he think we are? He cut the basic (middle) rate of tax, but at the same time abolished the 10p rate (lowest) that helped the lowest paid. What's more most of the increases he made took effect immediately yet the cuts did not take effect until 2008 or 2009. If this isn't bare faced deceit, what is? All the experts that analysed everything concluded eventually it will be a neutral budget.

Since taking power lets have a look at what has changed?

1. A whole cabinet of newbies, doing away with the vast experience of the ministers that were in the posts and replacing them with completely inexperienced alternatives.

2. Every promise from his cabinet has been to 'try' and achieve a target, or to do his 'utmost'. How's that for a non-commitment? At least when they fail they can't be accused of failing to keep a promise.

I'm sorry but we voted Tony into office, for his policies etc. Now he has gone what gives Gordon any right or mandate to roll through any changes and reforms?


Friday, July 06, 2007

Vista Security Configuration

In the last few weeks Sony Ericsson have realeased Vista software for their mobile phone range. Philips webcam drivers are now available. I believe also that Apple iTunes is at long last Vista compatible. So now more hardware is supported is it time to upgrade yet?

If you are a computer guru and can still do what you need to on your PC under Windows XP then I don't see much need to upgrade, other than curiousity. It is no more stable than XP. I had to pull the power plug out to reset mine which has now caused serious damage to my user environment. All I was doing was watching a video full screen while running a slow installer in the background. The installer asked a question meaning I couldn't minimise my video or bring the installer to the front to allow it to continue. I should be able to multi-task perfectly in windows by now, but it is still not right. Also why Mr Gates have you taken out the ability for me to choose the colour of my taskbar?? XP Blue is nicer than Vista Grey - Grrr

If you have young kids who's internet usage needs monitoring or controlling, or you struggle with the multimedia interfaces of XP then maybe Vista would help you. Parental controls and digital photo handling are much enhanced in Vista. It is also true that it is harder for viruses to propagate through the internet under Vista - so long as you keep UAC (User Account Control) enabled.

What is User Account Control (UAC) you ask?

If you have installed Vista you will know - even if you didn't know it's name! By default this is enabled. It prevents any major changes to your computer without your permission. Whenever you use the control panel, or run an installation program you will be bombarded with windows telling you that you are about to change the system or install the program. After an hour you will be so fed up with all these prompts you will just be clicking Yes and Accept to them all without reading them or thinking about them. If you have searched help about how to turn the problems off the only option listed is to disable UAC completely. Don't do this!

This problem, technically called 'User Fatigue' makes the new protection virtually useless. In fact I will go one step further and call it damned annoying. The level of user it is meant to protect is the level of user that will become most vulnerable.

There is a very little publicised way of fixing this, while still making use of all the advantages of it. That is the purpose of this post. The instructions below will allow you to create one account that will be able to alter anything without receiving the new security warning windows.


In Windows XP each account was either a standard user that could not change the system configuration, or an administrator that could change anything. Because everyone needs to tweak things at some point everyone used the administrator setting for all their work under XP. Hence the terrible situation with viruses, malware and configuration problems.

In Vista this has been modified. An administrator level account is a normal user that must say yes to a security warning before it can change the system. Perfect you shout! Except when setting up a new system you will be constantly changing things and will get so many of these security prompts you will be pulling your hair out. Standard user accounts now have to supply the password to an administrator account before they can change things. Isn't that pretty similar to a new-type administrator account?? In a domestic situation yes!

Follow the steps below and you can have a proper administrator account that can do anything without being prompted. I recommend for normal use you use a new-type administrator account (created by default when you install your computer). If you have people using your computer who should never be able to install or change your computer create a non-administrator account for them.

Configuring UAC in Vista

Please note these changes are made at your own risk. If you change anything else make notes so you can repeat the process to reverse the changes.

1. Click on the Windows icon to open what would be the old start menu.
2. In the search box type 'mmc'
3. It should be found and listed as a program.
4. Click on it or press enter to run it.
5. You will be prompted with one of the security warnings asking for permission to run the Microsoft Management Console (now you know what mmc stands for).
6. Click Continue. The console will load.
7. Open the File menu and select Add/Remove Snap In.
8. From the list of available snap-ins, double-click on Group Policy Object Editor.
9. Simply click Finish in the Group Policy Wizard.
10. Click OK to dismiss the Add/Remove Snap In window.
11. Navigate the tree in the left hand pane of MMC to the following item.
"Local Computer Policy" ->
"Computer Configuration" ->
"Windows Settings" ->
"Security Settings" ->
"Local Policies".
12. Click on the policy titled "Security Options".

In the right pane are about 50 different policies that can be configured.

I recommend you change the following:

  • "Accounts: Administrator Account Status" = Enabled
  • Optionally edit "Accounts: Rename administrator account" to set the name of the super administrator account we are setting up.
  • "User Account Control: Admin Approval Mode for the Built-in Administrator account" = Disable.
  • "User Account Control: Behaviour of the elevation prompt for standard users" = "Automatically Deny Requests"

To exit the management console choose Exit from File menu. Say no when asked if you want to save. Your changes were saved instantly.

To login to the new administrator account open the start menu. Point at the arrow to the right of the padlock. In the menu that pops up select either "Log off" or "Switch User". I recommend the latter.

You should now be able to login to the new account. First thing to do is press (alt) - (ctrl) & (delete) and use the Change Password option.

For completeness, you can create, change or delete user accounts in the Windows Control Panel. The option you will require is in the "User Accounts and Family Safety" section and is called "Add or remove user accounts".

The more I use Vista the more I cringe at how it has such serious shortcomings in user friendliness. If a company of mine launched software this bad as a Beta I would be very concerned. I think a few people at Microsoft have been sitting on their arse eating donuts! (Picture homer simpson!). According to this report 10,000 people have been working for 5 years on this!


Update: This option is not available on the basic versions of Vista

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Copyright theft

With the rise in speed and popularity of the internet connections, more and more users have access to the various file-sharing systems that enable users to share anything with other users. Unsurprisingly, this includes copyrighted material such as computer software, movies and music.

All the copyright owners are trying their very best to intercept and prevent this type of sharing. They argue that their customers are enjoying material they have paid to create without them receiving any payment. They claim this is threatening the livelihood of all their artists and production teams.

When systems were created back in the 1970s to record and playback music everyone moaned that it would destroy their livelihood because there would no longer be a need to play music live in concert halls etc. Then audio cassette was created and people could copy this recorded media. Then radio was the problem because people could hear the music without buying it. Same happened with TV when video was invented. Talk about history repeating itself! :)

The reason for this post is to state my view of downloading copyrighted material - which obviously I don't condone.

From a record companies point of view, what is the difference between:

  1. someone using something they have downloading or copied, and
  2. someone not buying it?


How much money does a record company loose in case one compared to case two? None, because the customer pays for their internet connection, their PC and their disk space. If they create a CD they have to pay for the blank CD and they have to pay to print on it.

If the person who has downloaded the content then starts selling it on for a profit, making money out of something they got for nothing I believe they are committing a crime. If they just use it themselves a few times I think the record companies should look at this as free advertising.

Most people who enjoy copied material believe they should give some money to the artists. This could be in the form of actually buying an original copy because they enjoy the work and are happy to pay for it. Even if they are not inclined to buy something they have already obtained they are much more likely to buy other works or merchandise by this company or artist in the future.

Another argument for copying is that most of what is paid for a music CD is pocketed by greedy record companies. On a £15 CD the artist receives much less than £1. Where does the rest go to and is it actually deserved? I'm sure Simon Cowell, one of the richest men in the world would argue it is!!

Before file sharing, how many times have you heard a hit song - thought it was really good and gone out to buy the whole album by that artist only to play the album and not like any of the other songs? If you go and knock on the record companies door and ask for your money back because you don't like the material will they give you a refund? Not likely! They will even accuse you of copying it before you brought it back!

My last point is the actual price of CDs and movies in the shops. Do you actually believe that £15 for an hour of music is value for money? Games are even worse. I object to paying £35 for a PSP game. I will probably only play it for a day before I finish it, get bored or get stuck. That is a hell of a lot of money to pay for one day's entertainment. It's even worse with the latest generation of console where games start at £50. Most of these are marketed to kids! How many kids get that much pocket money in a month?? It's not fair on parents.

The best way I think record companies could combat piracy is to become more customer friendly. They need to drop the price they ask for their products. Why when CDs were launched was the same music £6 on vinyl or cassette yet over £10 on CD? Why are songs bought in the iTunes music store dearer in real terms to UK customers than US customers for exactly the same song? Let's look how much they charge for movies on Hi-def DVD: Superman returns RRP £28.99 on HD-DVD, £17.99 on DVD. Does any of this extra go to the artists? I don't think so.

Customers are voting with their feet. And they don't like it! Ha!


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Controlling climate change

Everyone is making impending climate change something big that we must all worry about, and must change our lives to prevent global warming. The argument to my understanding is that should the climate of our planet warm, more of the arctic ice sheets will melt causing sea level to rise. This will submerge some coastal land and also disrupt marine life.

It is the latest political band wagon that everyone is jumping on. The politicians love it because they can raise taxes, make more money for the treasury and still score a positive image with most voters - except me!

Can we just use what is described as 'the helicopter trait' and take a look at the slightly bigger picture here?

1. Every single definition of a climate, or discussion of different climates ALWAYS states that a climate is always changing. It is one of the most certain things in nature.

2. Nature is phenomenally powerful. I learnt this when canoeing on moving water. My strength was nothing compared to that of water. The art of canoeing is about embracing the power of the water, not trying to fight it. Nothing we humans try can prevent or control nature. Think of a lava flow from a volcano. No one has ever managed to stop it in its natural flow.

3. How can Carbon Dioxide be the problem? The planet could not survive without Carbon Dioxide. All plants and trees need it to photo-synthesize (live). Every human being breaths in Oxygen and breaths out Carbon Dioxide as part of our respiratory process.

A recent Time magazine had a list of things we could do to save the planet. One was to turn vegetarian. Apparently there is a regular rise in meat farming meaning more cattle emitting methane. If we stopped eating meat there would be less cattle and less methane 'damaging' the environment. This is when you know things have gone way too far.

I have already commented on the green tax on airlines elsewhere - who is going to bat an eyelid at an extra £5 on a £400 holiday? People like holidays and should not be discouraged from enjoying free time somewhere nice with their friends and familys. The climate will change regardless of our Carbon Dioxide emissions. Some statistics I have seen state Carbon Dioxide increases lag climate changes by about 800 years. How can it be blamed?

The recent IPCC report was not endorsed by all the scientists who participated in it, and a large part of the contributions to it were not by scientists but politicians and other 'interested' parties.

To the people who really want to save the planet I suggest they only breath one day a week so they emit less Carbon Dioxide :) - only joking cos you might die if you try it.


Update: Check this out on the Channel 4 website for more details of the arguments.

Friday, April 20, 2007

If Microsoft made cars....

Bill Gates reportedly once compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated: "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving twenty-five dollar cars that got 1000 miles to the gallon."

In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release stating:

If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:

  1. For no reason whatsoever your car would crash twice a day.
  2. Every time they repainted the lines on the road you would have to buy a new car.
  3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason, and you would just accept this, restart and drive on.
  4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn, would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.
  5. Only one person at a time could use the car, unless you bought "Car95" or "CarNT." But then you would have to buy more seats.
  6. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, reliable, five times as fast, and twice as easy to drive, but would only run on five per cent of the roads.
  7. The oil, water temperature and alternator warning lights would be replaced by a single "general car fault" warning light.
  8. New seats would force everyone to have the same size butt.
  9. The airbag system would say "Are you sure?" before going off.
  10. Occasionally for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key, and grab hold of the radio antenna.
  11. GM would require all car buyers to also purchase a deluxe set of Rand McNally road maps (now a GM subsidiary), even though they neither need them nor want them. Attempting to delete this option would immediately cause the car's performance to diminish by 50% or more. Moreover, GM would become a target for investigation by the Justice Department.
  12. Everytime GM introduced a new model car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.
  13. You'd press the "start" button to shut off the engine.

It's an absolute classic, but still rings so true!


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Web 2.0 and beyond

Whenever you talk socially to people and say you work with computers and the web their question is always 'So what do you think about web 2.0'?

There is no such thing. Web 1.0 works. We don't need a web 2.0! The people that tell you we do are trying to sell you something.

When I return the question and ask what people think web 2.0 is - the answer is always these virtual life websites like Second Life. I have never logged into one. Also they run on the normal web, and display a website normally in a normal web browser. You can't call something Web version 2 without changing some infrastructure (Ie hardware), protocols (Ie http) and/or browsers.

This website trys to be a virtual world where you can interact with other non-existant fake people. To me that is electronic social networking. And their PR company have decided to try and sell it as web 2.0 to get more press.

End of rant. :)

Let me define what the web actually is. This really is basic stuff but I bet most readers wouldn't be able to explain it.

We start with lots of computers. They are connected together by a single network that allows them all to communicate with other instantly regardless of how far apart they are physically. This network is called the Internet. Some computers 'serve' data, and the majority download data to use it. The term data describes anything a computer can store or use. For my discussion of the web I will refer to 2 main kinds of data - Email and Webpages.

Email is an electronic letter sent directly by a sender to one or more named recipients. Anyone can send an email to any other net user for negligible cost. Whenever most users think of email, they also think of spam. Unfortunately spam is big business, and over 70% of all emails sent on the internet are spam. Spam is basically unwanted direct email. Usually marketing. Nothing can be done to control spam because it is untracable back to the sender, and it may have come from abroad where our legal system doesn't apply. Every spam message appears to be from a different sender on a different network, so blocking it is very difficult.

Webpages are nice looking pages of formatted text and graphics. To access them you need a computer connected to the internet. On this you start a web browser and enter the address of the web server you want to read from. If you don't know the webserver address there are sites that search the web for you and tell you the address. The reason it is called the web is because webpages can and pretty much always do contain links to other pages on the internet. This complex and unlimited interlinking of all webpages to each other is like a web, hence the names World Wide Web and webpages.

Moving on, having defined the web you should agree that what we have works. And it works well. Anyone can easily and cheaply publish anything to the world. It does not need upgrading or enhancing. What it does need is controlling. Controversial but true.

When something is controlled there is an extremely fine line to draw between policing it to protect people and prevent illegal activities, and censorship. In a country proud of allowing free speech, censorship is bad - its basically someone saying I don't like what your saying so you can't say it.

The two issues that need addressing with the web are:

One, it is beyond the control of the law. Illegal information and opinions can be published and this cannot be stopped. It is not always possible to trace people across the internet and hold them to account. Hence the problem mentioned with spam. The web is impossible to police. If anyone tries all the hackers scream 'but that infringes our privacy'.

Two, if a computer is on a network it may be possible to break into it remotely and change or access data you should not have access to. This also covers making changes to someone's computer by installing nuisance software like spyware or a virus. Vista's claims to help with this are pretty shallow.

When someone has addressed these two issues successfully, I will let them call what they create web 2.0.

Over and out.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Review of Google Apps

Following from my post about Software As A Service, I promised to review the Google Apps Beta service once I had used it for a while and put it through its paces. You need to try something for a couple of months before you find the problems! An example of this I recently hit was some great hardware I got cheap. Turned out it wouldn't work in Vista as it promised because it had a dodgy firmware version. Thankfully I got a refund no probs.

To recap, Google Apps is a customisable, brandable, free service from Google that provides email, calendar, chat, website, word processing and spreadsheet functions. It is planned to compete with Microsoft Outlook, Word and Exel.

So the question, should you give up your normal office applications yet and migrate to these software as a service alternatives? In a word NO!!!

See my other article for discussions of the principles. My conclusion then was cover a couple of potential problems yourself and it is a great idea.

The main advantage with services like Google Apps is they run within any web browser on any machine. This is also the biggest disadvantage. Web browsers, as the name states are small limited programs that visually display web sites, and let you navigate them. However this restricts the possible functionality of all websites. They are designed to prevent anything you look at from accessing your computer. This is why a website will never compete with a normal program running on your PC.

A lot of the functions in Office 2003 are available in Google Apps. Due to limitations of what is possible in a web browser, the features are much harder to find and use. The ways you can edit a document are not as sophisticated as is possible in Word. The next version of Office will move the barrier higher as Google get nearer and nearer to where it was. As an example a web page cannot be controlled by voice commands in the way it will be possible to control a word processor running on your PC.

I do uneqivically recommend the email features of Google Apps. It is head and shoulders above using the normal POP service provided by your internet company. The reasons why are described next - be warned its a long list :)

  1. Google email will work with your domain name. Find a better service and you can leave without changing your email address!
  2. You can create an unlimited number of email mailboxes, email aliases (think nicknames that forward to one of your other email mailboxes) and email lists (an alias that forwards to any number of other email accounts on the web).
  3. It's quick. Email is delivered immediately its sent. My old email service could take 10 minutes to send a test message to myself.
  4. 2Gb of storage per mailbox. You will have to try very hard to exceed that. I have just checked my PC and all my email from the last 5 years is only 1.5Gb!
  5. All email mailboxes are filtered for spam by Google at their end. In other words you don't have to download everything to your computer and delete the ones your computer decides are spam. The spam filtering is free. And it is extremely good. I now get 2/3 spam messages a month compared to 10 a day with my old spam system (cloudmark) which was hot compared to most. Nothing important has ever been marked as spam in error. You can use the google web interface to review spam messages and release any you actually want.
  6. Nothing is appended by google to sent or received messages.
  7. One way you can access all your email mailboxes is from any web browser. This can be customised free to show your company name and logo if required. There are unobtrusive ads on this web page (same as in google search) unless you upgrade.
  8. The other way is over an encrypted connection from your usual email client such as Microsoft Outlook. Normally, anything running on your network can eavesdrop when your mail program routinely looks for email. Every time you check for email your email account password is sent completely unprotected. I have never come across a service that allows secure email collection before. Outlook has a checkbox to turn it on if supported at the other end. This stops your password and your emails being eves-dropped.
  9. It is usually not possible to use any outgoing (SMTP) service other than the one provided by your internet company for security reasons. Again google provide enhanced encryption and security for outgoing messages that works over any internet connection.
  10. If you wish, all email (incoming and outgoing) will be kept on the google servers after you have retrieved it. It can be put in an archived state which effectively makes it disappear until you search for it. We all know Google for search and this is a great feature.
  11. When accessing email in a web browser all related incoming and outgoing messages are grouped as a conversation so they appear as one large message.
  12. There are loads of options for conditional filtering or forwarding of email.

In summary - it is good!

If you studied the above you will understand that at no point did you need to go to Google in a web browser. The email side (including the web browser email interface) of Google Apps is clearly ready for mainstream release. It is good enough for use in any size business. The rest is not. The web interface is unusable by all but the most advanced user. It is hard work. For example some calendar screens have two save buttons, one at the top and one at the bottom of the page. Press the wrong one and it doesn't save. The interface is very inconsistent between different parts of the applications. I could not recommend this aspect of Google Apps. Even sharing any access to a document between members of the same group was next to impossible.

Once it is out of beta testing and the interface is refined I will have another look. At the moment forget the features other than email. I have lots more niggles, and loads of features the system badly needs to be properly useful in a shared environment, but as its beta I'm sure Google will fix them and it would not be fair to detail all of them here.

To sign up go to It's all totally free! You can even try the premium service free. This gives you more storage, ability to turn off the ads in the web email interface, an uptime guarantee and access to technical support. All the problems I raised they just logged them to be fixed by the developers.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Living with HD TV!

As I have a HD ready TV and Hi-Fi system I have been unable to resist getting a HD input source to test it :).

The early versions of the two HD DVD systems were awful according to all the reviews. Rebuying all my favourite films on HD disk would be expensive, if indeed they were available.

My media PC is no-where near powerful enough to play HD content downloaded from the net (It's a Pentium 3, 1Ghz - Great for music and normal def video playback). I can't get cable so my only possibility was Sky. I have stated my opinion about them in one of my first articles on my blog.

Basically I have switched my ADSL to Sky. I now get twice the speed (16Mb) for £10 a month, saving me about £12 by cancelling my old deal. Add to this the fact Sky now give away Sky+ free with Sky HD, that means we can get both products for £10 - it used to be £20. Therefore I get HD, recording and better broadband and still save £2 a month! I also got a good deal on my Sky HD hardware. Before christmas Curry's did an offer that you got the system installed for £200 (normally £360) when you made a certain purchase. This included my Sky HD set top box with full recording abilities. My opinion of Sky is improving!!

Before I continue with TV, my Sky broadband has been good. The free hardware is shipped completely configured, so once my old kit stopped logging in I plugged in the Sky router and it all worked. I have tested their technical support and was not impressed, but as its working at the moment I am very happy with it! The free Sky router is better than my old 3com one!

All the mags who reviewed Sky HD when it was launched concluded you need hi-def and once you see the picture, you'll never look back. I was scepticle. Was it really that good?

The first thing that hit me was the audio! All of a sudden a normal program like Planet Earth broadcast on BBC had stunning top-quality surround sound. During a filmed thunder storm I could hear rainfall all around me. And the HD pictures when Sky decides to broadcast them at full quality are breathtaking.

The new series of Last of the Summer Wine has been made in high def. When the men are chatting over a drink in Ivy's cafe the picture appears nearly 3D. The picture is so clear, your eyes can pick out the background and the subjects as if they are on different planes. Barry was sitting on his stairs chatting and I could inspect the wall paper and see what a bad job had been done of hanging it and how dirty it really was.

I do enjoy it. I now want more and more programmes in HD! As with most normal channels on Sky the HD channels have around 10% new content in a week, the rest is repeated episodes that were broadcast last week. Even the HD box office channels have very few new movies in a month. No need to repeat them so often Sky because we can all record them!

However, not all the material broadcast on the 10 Sky HD channels is made in HD. Some is up-converted, and most on Sky One HD is broadcast as-is eg, the Simpsons. The picture is no better than the quality from a normal Sky box and upconverted.

That brings me nicely onto my next point. Upconversion. All TVs have a 'native resolution' which is basically the number of rows of dots its display is made with. Normal TVs have 576 lines, and the two forms of HD are 720 and 1080 lines. When a 720 line display receives a picture in 576 it has to 'interpolate' the picture, which means converting the picture and making up the extra 150 lines with the goal of making the end result look better.

The market is awash with cheap DVD players that offer upconversion. I can't see the point as I already have an upconversion system inside my projector? Reviews of early HD ready TVs from a few years back concluded that a standard resolution LCD TV with good processing technology produced better results than a cheap HD-ready equivalent with poor processing.

How does a proper HD input compare to a decent standard definiton input for example, my progressive scan DVD player? In my opinion it actually does compare. The upconverter inside my cinema projector, the Hitachi PJ-TX200 really works well. The quality of the picture from a normal DVD of computer animated Disney films like Ice Age is almost as breath-taking.

As with normal resolution broadcasts, not all HD programmes that are broadcast are the same quality. Not all programmes have surround sound audio. I wish there was a proper labelling system made public that stated how hi-def each programme actually is. Fast motion on DVDs and the better quality HD broadcasts is fine. However some programmes the motion is decidedly dodgy. As the connection out of my Sky receiver is always 1080i then processed by my projector the issue must be at the Sky end.

I do like Sky+ (Sky's personal recording system). When I see something in a TV guide I want to watch, I switch the tele on and program it to record. Then when I have time I flick through the list of stuff that is recorded and pick what I want to watch. If my mood changes or I am interrupted I can stop it and come back to it. If I leave a live programme to check my cooking and take longer tending to something than a minute, when I get back to the TV I can rewind it, without needing to remember to ask it to record! You can now also set bookmarks within your recordings - very handy when you get to the best bit in a really good hi-def programme. I did have an accident that deleted everything from my Sky+ disk. Luckily within 2 weeks I had re-recorded most of the programmes I lost!!

To sum up, could I live without HD now I have had it for 2 months? Yes, but I'd rather not!! The picture is good, but a standard definition input to my HD projector still more than holds it's ground. I really enjoy full-quality 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound when a TV programme supports it, though not all do yet. I'm also very happy with the combined deal on offer from Sky!


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Software as a service

Wow that title is the latest buzzword!

Every IT Director who mentions that will be in for a good pay rise from his impressed boss!!

To define Software as a Service it is the idea of renting your IT software, or even your IT hardware for a monthly fee. All you have to do is pay each month, and you get the IT facilities you have been promised by your service provider. For example Google have just launched their beta (not yet finished) Google Apps service. All one needs is a web browser connected to the internet anywhere in the world, and you can access a good word processing and spreadsheet service. All your work is stored on Google's systems.

It is in contrast to buying the products needed and installing them for an upfront capital fee, and then having access to them forever (in theory) for no more charge. For example, buying a PC and printer, buying a copy of Windows software, an office application suite and a finance program.

Reportedly, "Google are firing an arrow" across Microsoft's ship with their recent launch of Google Apps, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and other integrated features. They are reportedly aiming for the Microsoft Office user base. I will be reviewing the specific service from Google Apps very soon in another post on here. The features are promising but are not very well integrated yet.

For now I want to talk about the principle, the advantages and the disadvantages of software as a service.

I have no doubts this is going to become a very large market. How much a provider can charge people to use the service remains to be seen, but when normal competitive market forces take charge I don't think the fee to each user will be much. The Google Beta is available free at the moment.

For the home user, the concept of accessing a good word processor cheaper than buying an office suite is going to be too good to true. If your PC gets a virus your documents are safe and secure and cannot become infected. If your PC breaks, you get a new one, plug it into the internet and all your favourite programs are available instantly. On your lunch break at work you can write a personal letter. When you get home you can print it and post it on your personal stationary. No need to worry how to take it home. No need to worry about backups. You don't at the moment but you should!

For the small business (say less than 10 employees) an added advantage is that everyone can find and share the documents easily. No need to pay a consultant to configure a file server, make the disk available to all your network clients and train everyone how to save onto the file server's disk. How many times have you searched all the computers in the company to track down something written by someone who is out the office, or no longer with the company? Google is famous for search, and needless to say you can easily search all your company's files. No need for all your staff to be in the office. They can use their broadband link at home to access all the company's documents. It is even possible for more than one person in more than one location to edit a document at a time, a feature called collaborating. Bill in the UK and Eric in Germany can both work on a joint report very easily and efficiently.

For the larger business I expect you will need your own IT department to provide a customised service specific to your company's needs. Applications that employees can access will all be thoroughly tested and controlled to ensure they can be supported and can meet the needs of the company. You will want to take your own backups so you are confident they are safe and are managed to your standards. For example you will keep a backup from every day within a month. Then from the 1st day of every month for 3 years. Then backups from 1st January and 1st July will be kept forever. These will all be in fire-safe locations. Should anything be needed from a backup you know how long it will take to locate the correct media and restore from it. I still think some large company's will use internet based services for specific tasks, such as collaborating with remote workers, then copying the file to your company servers once they are complete. Accessing your internet filestore would be something of a lot of value to a competitor!

In summary there is a lot of benefits of this new idea, aside from spreading the cost monthly and not having old computers that are too slow to be any use in 3 years.

I have two principle concerns.

The one I will mention first is program updates and new versions. People don't like change. With bought software you are in control. You don't want the new version - simple, don't buy it. With a managed service the provider can and will change the service. They don't have to ask you, and if you don't like the new version, tough! You are tied to a contract and all your files are on their system.

My second is a very big concern. With legs and lots of hair! Longevity.

After you have written a letter you save it. Why? So you can access it again in the future to save time if you have to send it again. So you can copy it if you need to send a similar letter. So there is a record and you don't need to print a spare copy on paper and put it in your cupboard. Ask yourself how long you may want to go back in time when you search for something. If a company answered anything other than 'forever' to this question I would be very worried! When I started in IT I worked for a very large consultancy company. Half my time was spent trying to get documents off superceded systems, 5 1/4 floppy disks written by Wang's because people had a need for them.

What happens in 3 years time when there is a new technology? Google will not have customers for the old 'service' anymore and could switch it off. Bang. All your work has gone. How do you get it back? They will probably promise a migration path to the replacement service, but they don't have to and probably wouldn't disclose the charge for this in advance. What if the company providing your service becomes the next Enron and goes into administration? The chances are slim but it IS possible. More likely, suppose I have a billing dispute with my provider? If I don't pay they can lock my service!

Google do offer a 99.9% uptime guarantee to premium (paying) customers. Ah that's good it won't ever go down. Dig into the guarantee a bit deeper. If it does go down what then? Well you get a few free days extra service IF you know it went down and IF you claim! So you have lost a vital report that could mean the difference between win or loose in a multi-million dollar law suit. Who looses out? What is the uptime guarantee worth? 20p!! No, the guarantee was only for email, not the documents service. It also guaranteed uptime, not that your files would be safe. Plus the service credit cannot be converted to cash. If they lost my data I would be off to someone better in a flash.

In short, you are no longer in control of where and how your data is stored, and you are just hoping that it will always be there when you want it. Trust me on this. It won't. No-one will offer a guarantee worth having to promise availability in 10 years unless I pay a fortune for it.

These concerns are still an issue with some bought software that has to 'phone home' when it is installed. In 10 years its phone home call won't be answered. You will be stuck in a time limited trial version. Check you can do what you want in trial mode with your programs before relying on them.

I'm amazed no one else has picked up on this problem, and I'm gonna try and get some answers to it, if there is one. My advice? When a new format is released, print all your important old stuff onto paper quickly! At least you can still read that in 50 years time when we no longer have electricity and everything is powered by fresh air! There is nothing in the IT world that can guarantee that. You think there is a computer in use today that will still work in 50 years time? I'm taking bets :) Got to make up for the global pension shortfall somehow lol.

Did I mention my specialism in IT was Business Critical servers (working on a 4 hour from problem to fix helpdesk with one of today's largest IT manufacturers), High Availability, Backups, Fault Tolerance, Disaster Recovery and Contingency planning?


Friday, February 16, 2007

iTunes has some major faults

I have previously been very positive about the work of Apple, but iTunes is appauling. How can most people that review this software rate it as good?

Allow me to explain what I see as some of the issues are with this program:

1. Syncing with the iPod.

It can automatically sync when the iPod is docked. The sync operation works accurately. As the iPod needs docking to charge it mine is plugged in most of the time.

I regularly change iTunes, add music, edit the MP3 tags within my music files so it is all filed properly and modify playlists. I have lost count of the number of times I have gone away, or got to my car and gone to listen to new music or a new playlist and it is not on my iPod.

iTunes is well aware when I change anything. Why does it not immediately replicate when I make a change? I used to have an Orange SPV mobile which ran Windows Mobile. I loved this o/s- why are there no modern ones on an non-Orange network?? It's sync software was Microsoft ActiveSync. Immediately I add a contact in outlook the Activesync icon would flash and it would update my phone. Just what you expect.

How can someone who comes up with some really well designed stuff miss this one?? Grrrr.

2. You can't listen to and browse your music at the same time.

If I start an album playing in iTunes then continue to view and navigate my music library iTunes goes quiet after the current song finishes. It forgets I asked it to play a whole album. There may be some way round this by opening another window, but I've not sussed it out and shouldn't have to.

3. Podcasts.

I really like the Manager Tools podcast. Each week they provide hints and tips for managers. This is not topical and it is a series.

iTunes seems to take old podcasts out of its podcast section. Annoying, but the podcast people have a website. I have just been downloading some of the first podcasts which they often refer you back to. I cannot add these to the Podcast section in iTunes because they did not come down via its podcast download service. The latest podcasts are in the Podcast section and do not appear in the iTunes music library because they did come via the download service.

This really is very poor. To find them on the iPod they appear under a Podcast Genre which is not shown on the PC application.

4. Last played timestamp and Library sharing.

Whenever you play a song on your iPod or on your main iTunes PC a play count and last played timestamp are updated. This is great - I love searching for stuff I've never played when I want a change of music.

Also iTunes serves your local music to any other copy of iTunes on your network.

Two great features!

But when I access my iTunes library over my network from my PC in the lounge connected to my TV and decent hi-fi the album art in the music is not available, and the play count and last played figures do not update, ever. The Party Shuffle feature cannot see any of my remote music.

5. iTunes version updates.

Every time a newer minor version of iTunes come out they change the quick icons in iTunes to do difference features. Why is there not a customise option so I can make the 3 or 4 icons do what I want? I now have to go through to menus to get the visualiser on. There is also no longer a sync to iPod icon which used to make it easier to live with the first problem I discussed.

I can't find a way to contact the Apple team with my gripes. I won't give up trying and hope they fix these major issues in a potentially good program I am forced to use as an iPod owner.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Creating a two-tier society.

I have previously posted articles about road congestion and Gordon Brown's attitude to taxing everything. The main example of the latter is the new 'green tax' charged to all air travellers. This post is a follow-up on both and also the latest ideas about road charging.

Why does the treasury think the way to reduce congestion and tackle climate change is by charging people to do what they need to do. This will have a small effect on both but in the wrong manner.

There will be the less well off, students and pensioners that change their habits and bear the huge inconvenience of using the poor quality alternatives like buses and trains in order to save a few pounds each month. There will be the other group that can afford to pay the extra charges without any problem.

All these taxes do is create a two-tier society. The poor people are the ones who are effected as they can't afford the extra few pounds.

Is this actually what the government wants to achieve?

Someone posted this to another forum, and I felt it worth stealing! "Say there are 33 million vehicles on the road. If they do an average 7500 miles per annum each and we are charged 1p per mile the treasury will reap 2.5 billion pounds. The annual mileage quoted is minimal,as is 1p per mile. At 10p per mile and say 22500 miles per annum the take would be 75 BILLION PNDS per annum for "Greedy Gordon" - it's irresistable." Credits to Edward Corbett, Bridgend.

Incidently if you wish to add your name to a petition against road charging on the Downing Street website, follow this link: There are already over 1 million signatures.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

First Vista security bug!

It is 1st February, 1:30PM.

I am rolling on the floor laughing at this, but it is true.

A technique has been released to delete files from a Vista PC!!!!

Have you ever been to a website and unwanted music starts playing?

Are you aware that speech recognition is becoming more popular so you can talk to your PC instead of typing?

Can you guess where this is going?

Yep a website only needs an audio file dictating commands to the computer to delete files, then empty the trash bin and it will.

Until Microsoft cave in and remove all the content control that stops you playing your own videos you have paid for on your computer, and stop taking control of what you can do with YOUR OWN PC this is gonna get far worse.

Their T&Cs let them delete anything they want to from your PC. Dangerous when viruses find a way into this mechanism!

Keep XP and sit back and laugh!!


Update: Vista's integrated virus scanner is worst on the market.