Gmail – a Christmas Round Robin

Fortunately, no one I know sends those ghastly round-robin emails or letters at Christmas, full of the details of their ghastly children, Jocasta and Tristran, and how they’re doing so well at competitive lute-wielding, and such nonsense.

Yet, through the magic of Gmail, I get to experience much the same effect, with the odd bonus that everyone involved appears to have the same surname as I do, and the same first initial. The Ns Whitfield, as it were.

So, this year, I know that someone has stopped by Norman’s profile on Classmates, while Nicole spent two nights at the Ramada Airport Miami North; I don’t know if she enjoyed her stay, but I’ve been invited to review it on a site called Hotwire. I wonder if this is the same Nicole who lives in Ohio, or maybe there are two of them.

I also know that Nicole has a new Samsung device, which came with 48GB of free Dropbox space. And Dropbox are sending her emails with sad faces, because she hasn’t used it yet. Don’t worry Dropbox – it’s nothing personal. She just never got your email, so I hope she’s not spending money on memory cards or anything silly like that.

Poor Nicholas didn’t get his email, either. Back in November he submitted his resume online for the job of Forklift operator in a town in Indiana; I do hope he got the job, but he probably didn’t even find out if he got an interview.

Meanwhile, Natasha, a Home Mortgage Consultant called Brian Kalwicki is still keen to help you understand all about owning a home, and doubtless the various exciting finance products he can help you with. While you’re thinking about a new home, Natasha, I hope you’re enjoying the T Mobile 4G Mobile HotSpot (Refurbished) that was shipped to your Colorado address back in August. How’s that working out for you? Is the coverage any good?

Nakia, who appears to work for a 3rd Avenue law firm in New York: I do hope the sandwiches turned up. The Chicken Milanese Platter sounded the most tempting, though I see you opted for only a dozen of them, and only the ‘basic’ presentation. Presumably the clients or staff didn’t warrant a better arrangement on the plate.

I mustn’t forget Nita, of course; Craig forwarded you a joke back in February, but why you tried to send it to what you thought was your own Gmail account is a mystery. As is why you found the ‘joke’ funny, frankly.

Who are all these people?

I have no idea who these people are, but Gmail has given me a glimpse of their lives over the past year – and in some cases, information that, in the UK, it would almost certainly be a breach of Data Protection regulations to give out about someone. I’ve been invited to log in to web sites, including the Texas Teacher Retirement System (NC? Are you out there?) and people’s health plans. Norman’s Classmates profile didn’t even ask for a password to have “his story” altered. As a result it now includes the text

Norman also doesn’t know what his own email address is, and a random person in London with the same first initial and last name keeps receiving junk from Classmates

which may at least prompt someone to ask him to check his details. Some companies simply ignore any attempt to correct matters, or send emails from an address that isn’t monitored, and offer no un-subscribe link.

I’ve wished Nicole a merry christmas, because the email from Hotwire included her phone number; I’ve left messages on Brian Kalwicki’s voicemail, but still he sends me the messages for Natasha. There’s a chance Nicholas may get a job, now that I’ve told the website they really should try to contact him another way. But T Mobile can’t change the email address on an account unless I know the account number, which wasn’t in the email they sent me. And, frankly, it’s tedious phoning up companies in the US and trying to sort out this mess, on my own phone bill.

Why don’t these people know their own email address?

Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve had my nwhitfield address at Gmail for a very long time – since you used to have introductions to get on to the service, and Guy Kewney kindly sent me one. So no one else should have been able to sign up and get one like it. Some of them clearly use nwhitfield at other domains, and perhaps just got it wrong. But have they never realised they don’t get the confirmations they expect to?

And what of the companies? People are sending out information that, in many cases, is private. And they do so without, clearly, first verifying that the address works. There’s no “Welcome to Wells Fargo, Natasha. Please click this link to confirm this is your email account,” just the information about mortgages.

Surely, for any web site, let alone ones dealing with things as sensitive as mortgages, tax arrears, job applications and retirement plans, verifying the emails are going to the right person is sensible. Sure, it may add an extra step to the sign up process, but isn’t that worth the wait, before you spray the confidential details of someone else around the internet?

If you are one of the Ns Whitfield mentioned here, I do hope you have a pleasant 2014. But, with the best will in the world, I also hope to hear rather less about you. Check your email addresses, and type them more carefully in future.

Happy New Year.

 
 

Dispatches from the War on Sex

With David Cameron’s internet censorship – let’s not be coy and use the word ‘filter’ – rolling out in the UK, I thought I’d round up some of the related material that I’ve published here and elsewhere infrequently.

I’m also going to point you at an article over on The Register, where I’ve commented a fair bit. As just about everyone who has a clue pointed out, there would be perfectly valid sites blocked by this ill-conceived idea.

In their zeal to be seen to be “doing something” people like Cameron and Claire Perry (is she the most dangerous woman in Britain?) have thrown wisdom and caution to the wind. Aided and abetted by a spineless ISP industry, we now have just about the worst of all possible worlds in the UK.

Had the ISPs not rolled over in the face of Cameron’s threat to legislate, he would have had to do just that. Politicians would have had to stand up in the House of Commons and justify why they wanted our internet censored. They would have had to listen to real evidence, and come up with clear proposals about what would be blocked, and who would make decisions, and how sites wrongly blocked would be able to appeal, lest they suddenly find their business disappearing down a black hole of censorship. People would have been able to make a clear case against Cameron’s digital Section 28, which has already seen perfectly harmless lesbian and gay sites such as the Lib Dem LGBT group blocked by UK broadband providers.

Instead, this unholy coalition of censorship, cheered on by the likes of Ms Perry, has led to a system that has no statutory backing, no political oversight – unless you count the whining of the Daily Mail, and the terror it clearly inflicted upon Cameron – and no clear means of challenging decisions. What’s censored is not for you to know, except by experimentation. Your ISP – or someone they’ve subcontracted it to – will be making the decisions for you, in your own best interests.

I’m emphatically not saying that statutory censorship is a good idea; I’d rather we had a free, open net, with people taking responsibility for themselves and their children. But if there has to be filtering, it should be done properly, instead of by ISPs rolling over, and allowing David Cameron to crow at home that he’s protecting children, while still swanning around the world, lecturing patronisingly to other governments about Human Rights, something he’d find rather more difficult had he stood up in Parliament and introduced a censorship bill.

Previously, in the war on sex:

The links here are to other material I’ve published on this blog, or elsewhere, regarding the rather disturbing trends in the UK. You may think they’re rather off topic for this blog, but I think this is all vitally important.

Cameron’s brave new world – clueless, puritan and just plain wrong. In which I explain why none of this really does anything to solve actual child abuse (July 2013)

The chilling idiocy of Cameron’s Good clean wifi. How this idea can’t really be anything other than the start of more widespread intrusion and censorship. (April 2013)

It’s time for the UK’s CPS to stop its war on sex. From another site I manage. How puritan police and the CPS can wreck someone’s life. (August 2012)

Online chat in the UK is still not free. Did you breathe a sigh of relief after the Twitter joke trial? Oh dear… (July 2012)

Digital TV doesn’t need more smut regulation. There’s an off switch, you know. And parental controls. So quit with sanitising the TV, ok? (June 2011)

Censorship – won’t someone think of the Adults. Do you know how many homes actually have children in them? Can you imagine what a list of ‘porn users’ will be used for? (December 2010)

Not directly to do with censorship, but related:

Freedom to snog. Regarding an incident at the John Snow; not directly related to censorship, but to attitudes which may well inform it. (April 2011)

Gay is not a noun. On the use of the word, and why it does matter. (October 2010)

What begins with L-E-S-B. Some things, apparently, aren’t wholesome enough to display instant search results. (September 2010)

 
 

Farewell TopUpTV

I must admit I’m a little late to the party on this, but I don’t recall seeing much fanfare at the time. In fact, I suspect a lot of people probably won’t even be really aware of what it was, let alone that it closed down at the end of October.

Back when it started, Freeview was relatively new, and not all the slots had been taken up. TopUpTV saw an opening and bought capacity – some of which belonged to Channel 5 – to provide a pay TV service for those who wanted a little extra compared to the standard Freeview offering. Channels included part time versions of UK Gold, and it was aimed at those people who had a set top box with a card slot. Specifically, those who had an old OnDigital box, since there weren’t many others around at the time with a slot. That was one of the considerations in my own choice of a Topfield PVR when they launched, as the CAM slot enabled me to get the extra channels.

With only a limited amount of space, and some channels broadcasting at slightly odd hours, TopUpTV wasn’t a roaring success, and things became progressively more difficult for it over the years. Perhaps, at first, many people understimated the success that Freeview would become, after the collapse of the subscription service that preceded it, but eventually those slots that TopUpTV used because quite appealing to other broadcasters, including Channel 5, and they slowly lost out on space, forcing them into a fairly radical course of action.

Push VOD

TopUpTV reinvented themselves as a ‘Push Video On Demand’ service at the start of 2007. With a specially designed box from Thomson, the main thrust of the service was overnight downloads; while capacity during peak viewing hours was expensive, it was easier to use space in the middle of the night, when channels were shut down. The new box allowed users to select channels, and new content from those channels was broadcast overnight, and automatically added to a library, ready to be watched later.

Perhaps that sounds like a bit of a weird idea, but remember that at the start of 2007, higher speed broadband services were only just being rolled out. An 8Mbps service from BT was £27 per month and the ‘Colossus’ backbone operated by BT still tied most people to 2Mbps. Even the BBC iPlayer wasn’t to officially come out of beta until the end of the year.

So, back then, this really did seem a novel, and interesting way to provide some extra content, but the capacity was still limited, so you’d only get selected shows from the channels you’d chosen, and if you didn’t like what was on offer, that was tough luck.

Freeview itself was busy working on innovations, and in the same year launched Freeview Playback, later to become Freeview+, and it took a while before functions like series link – seen by many as very important – made it to the TopUpTV box.

IPTV killed Push VOD

In 2010, Freeview HD launched; TopUpTV had no HD content, but they did fight back with the launch of Sky Sports, using their conditional access functionality to bring it to Freeview alongside EPSN. But that capacity problem, again – with limited space, dedicated sports fans would still need to find another way to be sure they could watch everything they needed to.

And waiting in the wings, there was even more competition. By now broadband was starting to offer much faster speeds. iPlayer was becoming well known, and LoveFilm was offering streaming to some of the first smart TV sets and games consoles.

With Netflix arriving in the UK at the start of 2012, more smart TVs, and services such as YouView plugging directly into iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD and Demand 5, it’s not hard to see why the TopUpTV proposition started to look a little ragged around the edges.

Sky doesn’t need a gatekeeper to provide access to their sports channels on Freeview any more; they can deliver them directly over the internet to equipment a NowTV box, which can also provide access to far more of the content from subscription channels than Push VOD ever could. If it was just a little extra that you wanted, then rather than taking what you happened to get from the selection available on a TopUpTV box, a subscription to Netflix would give you a huge catalogue of material to choose from, often in HD and with surround sound too – something that the SD Push VOD service would never be able to offer.

So, given the march of technology, it’s hardly a surprise, I suppose, to see TopUpTV stop broadcasting; and I’m not honestly sure it could have played out any differently – as Freeview itself took off, the only solution would have been to acquire more spectrum to broadcast more material, at considerable cost. Moving to MPEG4 might have fitted more in, but would have required investment in consumer equipment, and spending more on content, for a service that would only ever have been a poor relation to satellite or cable, yet would have needed a decent subscription income to remain viable. OnDigital never managed to square that circle, and I don’t think anyone else will.

It was an interesting experiment, which I suspect worked for different people at different times – the original linear service was good for me, back in 2004, but the PVR and Push VOD didn’t offer what I wanted, nor did the later sports offerings. But other people will feel differently. That the company reinvented itself to cope with the changing landscape is laudable. Ultimately, though, perhaps it was always doomed to be swept away by the technological tide.

TUTV Obituary at a516digital

 
 

Xmas gift guide

The first of a few pieces I’ve done for The Register on tech gifts for christmas is now online.

 
 

Sky Store – or Acetrax revisited?

Around about a year ago, I wrote a piece over on The Register looking at the state of play with ‘Over the top’ video services – that’s those that provide an IP service; in the UK these are found on a variety of platforms, including smart TVs, YouView and the Roku box.

Back then, Sky’s NowTV was relatively new, and had briefly offered pay per view, a situation which, according to their PR, would resume in time. Meanwhile, it had a load of films available for your monthly subscription, as well as access to Sky Sports.

If you wanted to just watch a single film without being tied to a monthly fee, your main choices were Blinkbox (owned by Tesco) and Acetrax, which was present on rather more sets and, despite the “independent” label on the corportate website, actually owned by Sky.

That situation didn’t last terribly long, as in May of 2013, the closure of Acetrax was announced. Since the summer, Blinkbox has had things pretty much to itself in the OTT pay per view stakes. Sky, of course, is not a company to miss an opportunity, and so it’s no surprise that this month has seen the launch of Sky Store on various platforms. Available through the company’s HD set top boxes, it’s also available on the web, the NowTV box (itself a rebadged Roku model with custom software), YouView and Roku, which is what I’ve been using.

You need to sign up on the website at store.sky.com to use the service, unless you have an existing Sky or NowTV ID, which you can use instead. Roku users can then install it like another ‘channel’ on their box, and sign in via the remote; you can install it without signing up if you just want to watch trailers – sadly not available for all films – or browse through the collection.

What’s on?

Sky claims 1200 films available at start; I’ve not counted, but it looks pretty reasonable. There are clear categories (somewhat easier to access than Netflix on Roku, where the categories shown seem to change and wander up and down the list), though of course some films appear in more than one – “Man of Steel” is both ‘Action’ and ‘Sci Fi’ for example; the latter category shows 150 films, and prices per rental range from 99p to £3.49.

It’s good to see recent films like that, alongside”Star Trek: Into Darkness”, “Pacific Rim”, “World War Z” and others; you don’t get such up to date fare on Netflix in the UK. However, there’s plenty of back catalogue too, and that’s where you may need to pay careful attention, as it could be all to easy to click and watch something that’s actually available on Netflix – like “Thor” or “Captain America” – and instead pay £1.99 to watch, a problem that may be exacerbated by the differing artwork that you’ll sometimes see for the same film on the two platforms. Clearly, there’s an opening somewhere for a web site that will help users work this out, much as Oric.com does for TV episodes; in the meantime, I’d advise those who do have Netflix to search for a film on that first, before checking Sky Store.

Watching

Viewing a film is pretty straightforward; select it from the browser, click the button to watch – which displays the price clearly – and then enter the PIN set on the website, to confirm the purchase.

One a purchase has been made, a film will appear in a library section of the site, so you can stack up a load of rentals in one go, and find them easily later. You have up to thirty days to start watching, on any device that’s linked to the account. However, once you start playback, the film is locked to the device on which you began to play – so you can’t start watching on the living room Roku, for example, and finish off with the laptop in bed. From the moment you start watching, a 48 hour countdown starts; watch as often as you like in that period – on the same device – and then you’re done. For occasional viewers, that’s probably fine, but some will doubtless find the restrictions a bit much – especially the inability to stop on one device and pick up again on another.

Quirks

While the overall picture quality is pretty good on my broadband – the web page says you need at least 2.5Mbps – it’s not exactly HD. The web site is pretty vague on this too, and says simply “Our movies are the same quality as a DVD” which isn’t a lot of help. That said, the ones I’ve tried so far are perfectly watchable. What’s more annoying, however, is that there’s no surround sound, even on a new release like Man of Steel; doubly annoying, since the Roku hardware is certainly capable of it, so you may find yourself reaching for the ‘Pro Logic’ button or one of the ‘Cinema’ modes on your surround sound amp.

For the hard of hearing, another blow is the lack of subtitles; this is strictly a no-frills experience. That even extends to some of the most basic functionality, fast forward and rewind. Don’t panic – you can do both. But, at least on the Roku implementation, you’ll be doing them with the only indication that something is happening being the elapsed time counter at the bottom right of the screen. Yes, that’s right – fast forward and rewind on Sky Store has less functionality than a VHS recorder; you’ll be effectively blind, and when the picture returns you’ll quite likely need to guess from your knowledge and memory of the film whether you’ve gone too far, or not far enough.

Overall

It’s no surprise that, after the closure of Acetrax, Sky has decided to get back into the pay per view OTT area, and there’s probably a better range of films for the UK than Acetrax ever managed. There’s a certain logic, too, in separating this out from the content that’s available on NowTV, in that users who have both will always be pretty clear what’s going to be included in their subscription, and what’s going to cost them, though I can’t say I’m 100% convinced by that.

But, while the film browser is certainly less clunky than the current Netflix experience on Roku, in my opinion it’s let down somewhat by the lack of HD, surround sound and subtitles, and the shocking inability to see the picture when using fast forward and rewind.

Some films are priced pretty reasonably, though at £3.49 for a recent release, I really would have expected surround sound; I’d put up with just ‘DVD quality’ for that. I’d be less happy if I ended up paying £1.99 to watch something that I could have seen included in my Netflix sub, where it would likely be in HD with surround sound and subtitles.

Overall? A useful addition for those who want a bit extra, especially recent movies without a monthly subscription, but for now, Sky Store definitely needs polishing.

 
 

Test page for a widget

Most of you don’t care about this. Testing a widget. More details at http://bluf.com/api/calplugin.html

 
 

Forget desktop Linux – small systems are more fun

The diligent reader will have noticed I’ve been a little lazy when it comes to blogging lately, occupying my mind with various other things. One of those was the production work on the Computer Active Ultimate Guide to Raspberry Pi, which was a fun little computer to play with, and as Tony Smith astutely comments over at The Register, is probably being used by a lot more grown-up hobbyists than schoolchildren.

It’s not a popular opinion in some quarters, but I do believe that this is not going to be the year of Linux on the desktop. Nor is next year. And nor have been many of the other years heralded as a great breakthrough. While some big companies may use it, or even whole city councils, when it comes to home computing, Linux remains an also-ran.

You, dear reader, might be quite happy using it. But if you’re even thinking of posting a comment pouring scorn, on a small blog, because someone doesn’t think Linux is about to take over the world then, I have to say, you’re not a typical computer user. Typical users want the thing they’re familiar with; they want to plug in their camcorders and music players, and play their DVDs and hook up their printers, with the minimum of fuss, probably following the instructions in the box, and maybe even the CD that came with it.

That doesn’t make them “sheeple” or some other insulting nonsense. It makes them people for whom getting the job done is more important than evangelising. Whether it’s Windows or Mac, a huge majority of people are happy with what they have and what they know. Pointing out the lock-ins of proprietary systems, and how they can do so much more with Linux doesn’t cut any ice. They want to do the things they want to do, and for the most part, they can do that with a standard system with less hassle, and more readily available friendly help than then can with Linux as their desktop operating system, even despite the tremendous advances it’s made in user friendliness in recent years.

Small is beautiful

What that doesn’t mean is that I think Linux is pointless; I’ve been a long term user of Linux/UNIX systems of one sort of another. Back in the 1990s, most of my freelance writing was done using a Wyse50 serial terminal connected to a PC running SCO OpenDesktop, with WordPerfect 5.1 for UNIX. I did my spreadsheets using Wingz, too. Sitting in my office equipment rack at the moment is an ancient Cobalt RaQ, and above that is my home-built mail server, running OpenBSD. A huge amount of my time, I seem to end up with a terminal window open, either to do something odd on my Mac, or to tinker with a setting on one of the servers.

In short, I think Linux/UNIX systems are great; I just don’t happen to think that, for an average user, the desktop is where the action is.

Regular readers of the UK edition of Computer Shopper will have seen at least one of the Linux Expert columns that I’m now writing for the magazine, and in those, I’m following this philosophy. Home users very probably won’t be using Linux full time on their main PC. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for it in the home. I’d argue that, for a lot of people, it can be a much more useful employed in a secondary role, rather than as the main PC.

What sort of role would that be? Well, there are loads; in the first of my columns, I’ve looked at a device that many people may have already, a Synology NAS. Not only are these jolly good bits of kit in their own right, but it’s extremely easy to add additional software to them, via the desktop management interface. So why not take advantage of that, and add a mail server, putting all your emails in house, where it’s easy for you to find what you want, and rather less so the NSA?

Synology’s not the only game in town, but other NAS platforms can similarly be tweaked and expanded, and so too can many other devices. In the third column, I’ll be looking at a £50 router, the TP-Link TL-WDR3600, which is arguably even a better bet than the Raspberry Pi for some people who want to tinker. For your money, you not only get a cable router, but a Gigabit ethernet switch, wireless access points, and a flexible computer in a case with a power supply. It’s capable of running media servers, mail servers, and as I explain in the magazine, the Asterisk phone system too, thanks to the OpenWRT firmware.

I’m going to blog more about that separately, but I think this is pretty damn cool; much more so than desktop Linux. With many people having smart phone that are capable of running a VoIP client, it’s simple to set up a phone system, whether it’s for your home or even a small office. Add a VoIP service that costs a few pounds a month to provide real phone numbers, free SIP software for the phones, and a few hours spend on configuration, and you have something that, not so long ago, would have cost hundreds of pounds, and quite possibly involved expensive maintenance contracts too.

So, I really do believe that when it comes to Linux, small is more fun. Whether it’s the Raspberry Pi – ideal for projects where you need a TV display, or want to play with the IO ports – or something like a router with a Linux-based firmware, for providing network services, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and a lot of uses that these small systems can be put to, without having to teach everyone else in your house how to get to grips with a completely new desktop.

The TP-Link £50 router than can turn into a phone system