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

 
 

Affiliate scam on a dating site

Yesterday, I came across an interesting scam on a dating/contact site. I received a message from someone that contained this text

Hi! I find your photo on this site:
http://tinyurl.com/m9e3xrt

This is your site ? You looking for new people… :-)

Generally, in my experience, when people on sites like this (it’s GayRomeo in this case) send a message with a link, they are almost always a faker. They’re trying to persuade you to chat with them elsewhere, either to grab customers for another site, or to scam you; anyone who’s spent much time on sites such as these will be familiar with the huge number of messages from people in Ghana, for example, who seem ever so keen to find love in the UK. (Interestingly, a friend who organises academic conferences tells me they get lots of applications from Ghana for those too, so it’s not just dating sites. Nor, of course, is it just Ghana, or people pretending to be from there; other countries host scammers too, and the sender of this message claimed to be in Massachusetts).
So, of course, you want to know what happens when you click the link. Well, when the message was sent to me, it redirected to what appeared to be lfm.freehpsite.com, and it was indeed a photo of me, with a message above saying that I was looking for fun, and a link underneath to ‘View my private photo and video profile.’
My photo, but certainly not my page. It's an affiliate scam

My photo, but certainly not my page. It’s an affiliate scam

Needless to say, I have neither, certainly not on such a shoddy looking page. So, what happens when you click the link? You get directed to a site called GayPartners.com, which I have never heard of before. It appears to be owned by a corporation based in the British Virgin Islands, operated by a subsidiary in Cyprus.
A closer look at the URL suggests that it’s an affiliate link:
http://gaypartners.com/aff.php?dynamicpage=find_gp&a_aid=f0c413c4&a_bid=19e8291e#fform
And a quick search for details of the scheme suggests that the site may actually pay $4, presumably per sign-up, via an affiliate network called CPATrend.
So, I decided to look a little more closely. In fact, the address that the short link redirected to wasn’t just the freehpsite.com URL, unadorned as it looked in the screen grab. Typing the first part into my browser’s address bar revealed the full link I’d been sent to was
http://lfm.freehpsite.com/?p=0677b791db47fecde3c8a31292&r=0.832786826545163
And a look at the source of the page revealed that the image hadn’t been downloaded, it was simply being plundered directly from the GayRomeo server:
<img src="http://s.gayromeo.com/img/usr/0677b791db47fecde3c8a31292.jpg">
So, clearly the first parameter (p) is substituted in the page to give the URL of the image to display; I’m not sure what the second one does, as I couldn’t see anything else in the code that it seemed obviously related to. You can get the URL of one of someone’s images on GayRomeo (and many other sites) simply by right clicking. It’s a moment’s work to take that and create the fake short URL, which will make it look to many people as if their photo is being used by someone else, and they’ll naturally click the link.
Whether just doing that is sufficient to generate an affiliate fee from GayPartners, I don’t know; the victim may have to sign up, which I didn’t try doing, and though there certainly are paid subscription options mentioned in the terms and conditions, I don’t know if you can sign up without giving any payment details.
I must stress that I have no information to suggest that GayPartners themselves are in any way involved in what looks like a systematic attempt to lure users of GayRomeo to sign in to another site. I write this post purely to let people know how it’s done.
If you get sent a short link by anyone on a dating site, my advice is not to click it. And my advice to sites like GayRomeo is to tweak your servers so that members’ images can’t be included in other sites. That’s not foolproof, but it would mean that instead of a simple script, the scammers behind this would have to download each image first, and then host it elsewhere.
 
 

Cameron’s brave new world – clueless, puritan and just plain wrong

In his latest desperate attempt to make it look as if he cares about important issues, David Cameron seems set on ushering in an era of internet censorship in the UK. It sometimes feels like these things come in cycles – a liberal item like gay marriage or the equalisation of the age of consent, followed by a reactionary bone thrown to the anti-sex moral crusaders.

This one is, in that sense, the latest in a pretty long line, including the crackdowns already imposed on “extreme pornography” which have seen the police consider charging someone in relation to photographs of a person wearing a gas mask – yes, kids, it might restrict breathing, so it could be illegal – as well as earlier rulings like the Spanner case regarding BDSM. We now have a situation in which the relatives of victims are deemed to have become experts in areas where all they really have to offer is grief and anger, and people who may enjoy things in the bedroom that, while not perhaps to your taste, are nevertheless legal, risk imprisonment, notoriety in the press, and public shame, should they be found to possess a photograph of acts that themselves are perfectly legal.

And yet, Mr Cameron wants to go further. He wants to impose censorship on every internet connection in the country. Worse, he wishes to bully corporations into doing this on his behalf, threatening laws if they don’t do his will.

Images of child abuse are already illegal; it is, in my view, unlikely that a default block on domestic connections will do anything to curtail that, as those who share such images aren’t searching for them via Google. It’s instructional to remember that when you hear talk of people being arrested for “making indecent images of children” they almost certainly have not done that in the sense that a normal person would imagine. They haven’t taken a camera and filmed or photographed a vile act of child abuse – for which, of course, they would more rightly get a long sentence for assault.

What they have done is downloaded something to their computer, likely taken by another person. The courts, the CPS and the police have a cosy agreement that this is tantamount to “making” an image, because a digital copy is created. People can be charged with a crime for which there is a longer sentence available, and it’s good PR in as much as it makes it sound like the police are actually stopping the abusers.

What would really stop them would be restoring the funding that’s been cut from them by this very same government, and investing time and effort not just in tracking down the consumers of vile material, and trumpeting to the press that you’ve taught someone “making kiddie porn”, but catching those who really are doing so, and thereby really doing something concrete to protect real victims.

But, labelling everyone a maker, and taking police cameras on dawn raids with you, certainly gives an impression of doing something useful, doesn’t it? Much like David Cameron’s new policy of bullying companies to implement a flawed solution.

If there is to be censorship – which Cameron wants – we should not let it be established by private letters between ministers and corporations. ISPs should call the government’s bluff, and refuse to implement any of these proposals until they are passed into law – and that law should explicitly list exactly what is not allowed, so that we can all see clearly which search terms, which sex acts, which types of information are being prohibited “for the good of society.”

Unless we do that, we are allowing the sort of censorship that will creep and extend, without any scrutiny. We shouldn’t, in my view, allow any censorship at all – everyone should register for an uncensored internet feed, to ensure the list can’t simply be used as a “register of perverts” open to the scrutiny of private investigators and tabloid hacks.

This is a horrible idea for freedom and democracy, and for any consenting adult in the UK who’s ever considered doing something out of the ordinary in bed. It must be stopped, or mitigated.

I’ve written on this stupidity in the past, and there are three posts that it’s worth referring to on this site:

The chilling idiocy of Cameron’s Good Clean WiFi

Politics and technology don’t mix – the welfare cash card is the latest example

Censorship – won’t someone think of the adults

I suggest, somewhat tongue in cheek, that given the day on which this announcement was made, we should refer to the filtering system by whatever name is given to the royal baby, to ensure that we never forget.

 
 

Buying a TV in the UK? No need to give your address any more

Some of you may already know this, but it’s worth remarking on the passing of one of the quirks of the Wireless Telegraphy Act (1967). This was the Act of Parliament that required anyone renting or selling TV receivers to collect name and address details, and pass them on to the TV licensing authorities.

As part of the current government’s desire to streamline things for business, this requirement has been abolished, with effect from the 25th of June this year. So, if you’re buying a TV, video recorder, set top box, or any of the bits of kit that used to prompt a demand for your address in the past, it’s no longer necessary.

I’d be interested to hear if stores are up to speed on this; I’m sure some are. And I’m equally sure that if some could get away with it, they would try and use this requirement to harvest your data for their own reasons too.

The Impact Assessment for this decision is worth a read; one curious thing – to me at least – is that in the cost implications, because the BBC isn’t a business or a ‘civil society organisation’, whatever that is, then costs it incurs don’t count, whereas savings to retailers do. A brief announcement of the change is on the TV Licensing web site.