On Magical Connections

wireless router

wireless router (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I’ve been having communication difficulties.  As I connected and disconnected phone extensions I found an old cable-reel extension lead and remembered how, ten years ago, this was my connection to the internet.

Back then, as now, the computer was ten metres from the phone socket so in the dim, distant dial-up days dis this was extended along the length of the apartment and plugged into my clear red plastic modem and the noisy connection process could begin.  Once finished it would be wound up again and slotted back down the side of the sofa.  In those days the dangers of the internet as espoused by the tabloids missed out my own addition – a trip hazard.

Now, of course we connect laptops, PCs, phones and tablets even speakers wirelessly and speedily, it’s wonderful to be able to play music from the tablet in my hand to the speaker in front of the TV, to control my car stereo from the touchscreen phone by the steering wheel, share pictures between cameras and phones with a touch and to be able to read books, articles and whole encyclopedia’s on a portable handheld slab of plastic and glass.  We truly are at the beginning of a fantastic age, no matter what the naysayers, er say.  Ok, the technology isn’t yet in the hands of everyone but it is becoming cheaper and easier to use so that more people can have the greatest collection of humankind’s knowledge literally at their fingertips, along with cat videos of course.

As Arthur C Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and although we don’t really think of our free and open mine of information as mystical it is a wonder, especially in the current climate of big media wanting us to subscribe to everything.  Thirty years ago I watched The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and wondered whether we could have such an electronic book as that.  Right now, we have so much more.  So next time your wireless connection stutters be thankful that you don’t have to unravel that extension lead.

 

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Hanging On

iPhone Original/3G/4/5

iPhone Original/3G/4/5 (Photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano)

As I write this many, many, many Apple devotees will be glued to their laptop screens, sorry, MacBook screens or iPads relishing the latest “one more thing” revealed by Tim Cook*.  I’ve not gone out of my way to have a look at the new iPhone(s) or whatever, I’m neither an Apple fan or an Apple hater though I’m not a fan of some of their actions surrounding patents though that’s something for another time.

What I’m thinking about is the trend of getting a new gadget every year.

Moore’s Law is an observation that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit tends to double every two years or so, this is usually misquoted as computing power doubles every eighteen-months.  There was a period recently when phone manufacturers seemed to be releasing new phones every month, though in truth they often catered for different markets and budgets, now though every major phone or tablet is refreshed every year, it’s like Christmas – literally, for the manufacturers, in June, August, September.

Computers are less obvious because there is still a steady stream of new models with slightly different cases, tweaked internals, new chipsets.  The common factor is that often the jump in actual power between last year and this isn’t that great, and usually the main difference in phones has been screen size and resolution.

Still though some people feel the need to buy again and often the reason they give is that the new one is so much faster than the old one.  Sometimes I’m sure this is true – as new software and features make an old phone, tablet or pc seem slow, if you’re trying to watch an HD video on an older phone for example but sometimes it can simply be that over time the device starts to feel slow.  When you first got it it was blindingly fast, menus appeared instantaneously and web pages were super-quick to load.  Now though you’re waiting forever.  What’s changed?

Ok, sometimes new software has features that cause an old laptop to chug, some websites (Flickr is a personal annoyance) have redesigned in such a way that you need quite nifty hardware to get a smooth experience, and of course you might only be able to watch a video in SD.  Much of the time though nothing has changed except your perception, you get used to the menu appearing, your memory of the previous computer fades into the mists of time and you don’t have anything to compare your current computer to but…

…the shiny new one at work, or in PC World.  The difference is miniscule, the slow website might still be slow on your new PC but confirmation bias will tell you it’s still faster.

My laptop is from 2008 and with the exception of a couple of websites (do I need to mention Flickr again) it’s still fast enough for everything I do, even my new copy of Photoshop Elements.  My Nexus 7 is less than a year old and has been superseded by a new N7 with an even higher resolution screen – I won’t be “upgrading” because I don’t really need to watch films in even more sparkly high-res on a small screen than before.  My phone is similarly a year old and still feels nippy and crisp, it still does everything I need it to do and I don’t feel the shame of having “last year’s phone” that drives many people to upgrade.  I know that one day my laptop will either completely die or the web will get too much for it to cope with, then I’ll upgrade,  Sometimes it seems that the only upgrade people need is to their need to define themselves by their possessions or their patience, though it does seem that that’s something lacking everywhere these days.

Perhaps I’m in the minority, there will no doubt be lengthy queues outside Apple stores soon.

* – yes, I know “One More Thing” was Steve’s thing, not Tim’s.

How The Net Saved Me £300

English: A close up of a Toshiba Satellite L30...

English: A close up of a Toshiba Satellite L305D-S5900 Laptop Computer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a bit of a techie though the trauma of trying to resurrect an uncooperative network or computer caused me to stop being a computer geek for a while though even now I don’t keep up with the differences between Core i3s, Core i5s, Phemons and memory specs, I thankfully don’t really need to.

I do though recognise when my computer’s doing something odd.  In the past the LCD monitor attached to my laptop has started flickering, little irritating horizontal bars, and as I recognised this as electrical noise I rerouted the cables away from noisy power cables, or in one instance plugged the laptop’s power lead in properly and all was well but over the last few months the problem has returned and nothing seemed to work, I couldn’t get the leads any further apart without the aid of scaffolding.

My immediate thought was that the external monitor output was on its way out, I connected my netbook to the monitor to check that it wasn’t that or the lead to it that was faulty.  Nope.  My heart sank, as much as I’d like a shiny new laptop, namely a Lenovo one in blue at a significant discount on Amazon Warehouse, not that I’d looked in any detail, I couldn’t justify it.  I have an old desktop PC that with £50 of upgrades to its memory and an adaptor for the laptop’s big hard drive would also do the job but I thought I’d try asking the massed geeks of the net for assistance first.

Having typed “toshiba satellite vga output flickering” into Google (other search engines are available) and clicked through a few links I found that many people had solved the problem by plugging the laptop and monitor into separate mains sockets.  Sceptical as I was I tried it and blow me it worked.  There’s still some faint flickering and the fact that it’s a recent problem makes me think the adaptor could still be on its last legs but replacing that’s the cheapest option of all, if and when I need to.

That’s one of the greatest benefits of the internet, for all the naysayers proclamations that it’s just a hole of filth and misinformation – if you cast your net wide enough you can find an answer to just about anything.

Maliciously Viral

Computer Virus

Computer Virus (Photo credit: talksrealfast)

This past week has seen me battling viruses, both in my head and chest in the form of another cold and on a computer at work.  Both had appeared out of nowhere and caused me much annoyance.

The subject of this post is the computer based one.  I’ll just state here and now that I have no love for malicious-virus writers, and I don’t even buy into the argument that they “test companies security” – if that were true then they would write harmless programs that simply phone home with details of where and how they got in.  Some do that admittedly, they are the ones referred to as White Hat virus writers, the ones I’m seething about at the moment are the ones who write the viruses that do indiscriminate damage to computers like the ones at the company I work for, that send out thousands upon thousands of spam emails in our name.  The keyloggers stealing passwords and credit card numbers.

The mechanisms for the virus getting in are ever more sneaky, an inexperienced user might click on an email that they think is genuine, I’ve even seen emails faked to appear like messages from the email server itself regarding undeliverable mail, but many people are wise to this and recognise when emails purporting to be about invoices or so on are from addresses they don’t recognise so now the virus writers are infecting unsuspecting websites, inserting code that just runs the virus without any intervention.  The only way round this is to disable JavaScript, Flash, Silverlight and anything else that gives the web its rich interactivity and shine.  Even then they’ll still find a way to run code.  You’re not even safe on an oil rig.

A common method is that the hijacked website will display a message saying that the computer has a virus, the popup looks like Windows Defender or Security Centre and when the user clicks the button to clean the computer they download a virus instead.  If in doubt about a popup on a website, close the browser without clicking anything else.  Viruses have been known to be loaded by rogue apps and spam messages on social networks, free games and utilities, you need to be so vigilant about what you click on today, carefully considering where it’s come from and whether it’s too good to be true.  Rogue emails are not all about Nigerian Millionaires anymore.

I don’t know how the spamming virus got onto one of our PCs but it seems that once it had done it invited many, many friends round to party too.  As this machine has no current incoming email account being used on it, only the account details of one that used to be used, I can only assume it was a hijacked website that did us in.  I’ll never know.  I do know it took a couple of days for four separate anti-malware tools to find and remove what was on there (it’s an old machine and the scans took seven to eight hours each) and even now I still don’t trust that it’s clean though it appears that we’re not sending out any unusual traffic now.

The takeaway lesson is to always have anti-virus and anti-malware software installed and running, and regularly run a couple of extra tools in case.  The ones I’ve been using are Microsoft Security Essentials, Malwarebytes, Superantispyware and other tools recommended by our website and email hosting company who also look after our server.  Further more always install updates to the operating system and anti-virus software.

Someone said to me last week that someone must be able to do something about the problem, that the ISPs should be held responsible for “letting them (the virus authors) get away with it, for not blocking the viruses” but it’s not that simple, neither is it simple to find those responsible for creating them in the first place though much of the tech industry invests much time and effort in cooperation with governments to try to find them.

Microsoft and Symantec had a recent success in locating and shutting down the control centre of what is called a BotNet – thousands of virus-hijacked computers used to commit crimes, hack other computers or just send out spam, all without the owners noticing.  The internet is vast though and the trails that lead to the sources of viruses are long, vague and often hidden by proxies and by the sheer scale of dispersal of the virus if it’s been in the wild for some time.

As for why they do it, some do it to prove that they can, for some kind of prestige, to show how clever they are; some do it for money; some do it to prove a point, maybe to make a political statement.  In the end they simply cause havoc; ordinary people lose money, important messages, their life’s work, business deals.  Maybe some of them just don’t have any empathy for the people whose work they disrupt, seeing the virus in purely technical terms, not being aware of or caring about the consequences, basking in the glory that what they’ve created has prospered and been noticed.  Many simply say that it’ll teach the infected users a lesson, to take backups, to not click on emails from strangers.

Those who say that the virus writers provide an invaluable service, to test security are perhaps right and that would be important where governments want to protect their secrets from other governments but without viruses and spyware we wouldn’t need our security testing in homes and small businesses would we.

Personalised News

English: A simplified version of the RSS feed ...

English: A simplified version of the RSS feed icon.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometime in the late nineties I wrote a sci-fi story and in one scene a man gets home, taps a touchscreen on the wall of his kitchen and instantly brings up a personalised news feed programmed to display things that interested him and also set up to specifically look for news items featuring certain keywords, to highlight any news about a specific ship in this case.

Now just a bit over a decade later I’m just getting to grips with this exact same thing on my own personal tablet computer, though without the spaceship captaining wife.

Websites, including these WordPress blogs, can provide what is called an RSS feed which summarises each article published and these can be picked up by reader apps.  These have been around a long time admittedly but these readers are now becoming more sophisticated and stylish.  On my Nexus 7 I have tried Google Reader, Flow Reader, Google Currents, Flipboard and Feedly.  Some apps actually access your Google Reader subscription list to find out which feeds you want to receive.  You can even view other RSS equipped sites in your WordPress reader.   The icon above signifies that a site has an RSS feed.

These apps are the solution to the at time overwhelming volume of information that can come at you from the internet.  This sheer volume of articles is one of the reasons why I sit down to write something for this blog and just decide to have a mug of tea and watch tv instead, I just don’t know where to start.  With an RSS reader on a phone or tablet I can skim through articles, share useful ones to Pocket for use later on my desktop PC and read anything that I can just enjoy in the moment – all while half-listening to the tv.

The nice thing about these modern readers is the way they present the content.  You can filter what you see so if you have a news website’s feed you could refuse to acknowledge the existence of articles about X-Factor winners or only view articles about the weather or Wills and Kate.  Then depending on which app you choose you can have a list of your incoming torrent of news, divided into subject if you so wish or displayed to you as a virtual, stylish, one of a kind digital magazine, or a mixture of both.  Of course as it’s tablet/smartphone based (although you can use PC RSS readers or websites too) you can have notifications.

The future of news, personalised and delivered to your sofa.

Eye Control You!

Tobii-EyeTracker der Universität Hohenheim

Tobii-EyeTracker der Universität Hohenheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tobii have released a device that allows control of computers using your eyes.  The device, about the size of a pen, attaches to the bottom of your screen and monitors eye motion.  Users of prototype devices have said how it “works like a dream” with Windows 8 enabling full control of navigation, scrolling, selecting and zooming.

Combined with increasingly sophisticated voice recognition and gesture recognition these new technologies are more examples of how interacting with computers will become more intuitive and natural in the future.

The Sci-Fi films weren’t so far fetched after all.

[Gizmodo UK]

21st Century Hobbies & British Pi

English: Extract from Raspberry Pi board at Tr...

English: Extract from Raspberry Pi board at TransferSummit 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been said that having a hobby is a particularly British thing, when I was younger I used to spend evenings listening to REM albums while building model aircraft – many of which still linger in my mum and dad’s attic along with my old school books.

In the past some people have collected stamps, cheese labels and even old street lamps (which looked more like street theft in the BBC documentary on hobbies I’ve just watched while thinking about the subject of this post).  All these activities though gave people ways to enjoy their leisure time and as we reached the end of the twentieth century technology was playing its part in hobbies whether it was in building kit computers, programming home computers or playing video games whose graphics required a kind of leap of imagination that would be unthinkable to today’s Call of Duty playing generation of gamers.

Hobbies were something to be wanted, something to share and talk about.  Today though many of us grown-ups at least don’t have hobbies possibly because of the vast array of distractions from TV and the internet (and yes I’m aware of the irony.) 

Ooh, QI’s on the telly, er, be back in a bit…

I have heard people saying that their hobby is buying and selling things on Ebay, others that when they’re not watching TV or down the pub they’re on Bingo or Poker sites so the prospect of making money is a major driver rather than the satisfaction of making something or completing a collection.

One area that had been fading but is now bounding back is computing as a hobby – and typically it’s a British invention that is leading the charge.  Raspberry Pi began as an attempt to reverse the decline in the numbers of students going to Cambridge to read computer science which had once been the domain of many hobbyist programmers.  A group at Cambridge identified that something had changed in the way young people used computers; they were being taught word and excel in ICT lessons at school (when I was at school I was taught about mainframes) and at home they used games consoles and PCs rather than the ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s of the eighties where part of the enjoyment was typing in your own programs.

What was needed was a modern Speccy – a low-cost computer that could boot Linux and be programmed to do whatever you wanted.  The computer was designed and even before it went on sale its low-cost and versatility sparked the buried creative juices in hobbyists across the country and it has sold fantastically well and is soon to be Made in Britain too.  The foundation set up to develop the computer has also had enquiries from developing countries where such devices can provide access to technology previously unavailable.

The little one-board computer will be finding its way into a myriad of homebuilt projects in the years to come as well as its original use in encouraging the next generation of British tech engineering pioneers.

[Raspberry Pi 2.0  Gizmodo UK]  [Raspberry Pi Games Platform BBC News]

Beware Geeks Bearing Solutions

Windows Generations

Windows Generations (Photo credit: UWW ResNet)

This morning my phone rang, it was an unknown number but I answered it because I thought it might have been the same person who had just sent me a text regarding a tech query.

The caller identified himself as working for Windows Support Services or some such company and immediately I thought, right how shall I work this one.  I’ve had this call before, as have friends of mine.  The ruse is that they call and say that your computer has suffered an error and has sent Microsoft a message which has then been sent to Windows Support to follow up and that is why they’re calling.  They ask you to go onto your web browser, type in bing.com and search for their name.  Naturally it appears in the search results but as it’s Microsoft’s search engine they use this to claim that they work for Microsoft, saying “look, you can find us on Microsoft’s website.”

You click on their site and immediately download and install a remote access client.  With this client running the caller then remotely disables your antivirus.  This is when they start asking for cash, in order to allow them to keep your PC running healthily.  I have removed this client from various PCs, it’s not difficult but if you were a novice you’d never know that it was malware.

I had decided that when I next got one of these calls I was going to play dumb and go through the whole spiel, pretending to type in the web address, pretending to look at their website, pretending to allow him to connect.  Pretending that I couldn’t understand why whatever they were trying to achieve wasn’t working.  Then I was going to say “does it matter that this is an Apple computer not a Windows one?”  Click, beeeep.

As it happened I was a little busy with my genuine tech query so in the end I let him go through the script, which has changed now and no longer talks about errors being sent to Microsoft but now says that you may have picked up viruses and spyware inadvertently but as a registered Windows user they have been asked to check your computer for problems.

“That’s strange though,” I said.  “I don’t use Windows.”

“You don’t have Windows?”

“No, I use a Mac.”  (I don’t, I have a Windows 7 laptop, Windows 7 netbook and Windows 8 desktop, FYI).

“You don’t have any Windows computers?”

“Nope.  And I want to know who gave you my details, this is very serious, I’m going to look into this.  And you should know, I’m an IT manager.”

“Who for?”

“A local company, that’s irrelevant.”

“Well, I can’t tell you who provided the details…”  blah blah blah.  “Thank you for your time, have a good day.”  Click, beeeeep.

On an online forum another person called by the original scam called them out on the “Microsoft gave us your details” part, as I had done on the previous call – he told them that Microsoft never gives out customers details to third parties, and he should know, being a manager at Microsoft UK.  Click, beeeeeep.

Quality.