“If you’ve got a browser connected to the Internet, I can show you…”

November 9th, 2014

For the sake of posterity, I’ve uploaded the original VNC video that we made back in 1998.

Lots of nostalgia in here – remember the JavaStation? The WebTV? And the days when we made movies in 4:3 ratios?

A great deal has changed in the last 16 years, but VNC goes from strength to strength!

Starring, in order of appearance:

  • Quentin Stafford-Fraser
  • Andy Harter
  • Ken Wood
  • Tristan Richardson
  • Paul Webster
  • Frazer Bennett
  • James Weatherall
  • Daisy Sadleir

Also available on YouTube. Thanks to Andy Fisher for doing the original transfer from VHS to DVD some years ago.

If it doesn’t look like your normal food, that’s because it’s bait.

November 2nd, 2014

One of the tragedies of the accelerated ‘internet time’ is the speed at which advertisers can discover our weaknesses. It took several centuries for tabloid newspapers to evolve their attention-grabbing headlines with minimal content and maximum emotion. FURY AT VICAR’S CELEB SEX ROMPS. (‘Fury’ is a word which seems only to be used now on the front pages of tabloids and local papers.)

Of course, gentle reader, you and I would never buy a paper with that headline. Despite the temptation, we know in the end it will be unsatisfying. It’s journalistic pornography, appealing to our baser instincts. Resisting the lure is part of our education, our self-control. We laugh as we pass by, at the poor, less-intelligent souls who succomb to this ultimately unrewarding titillation.

But, in just a couple of decades, the web has allowed this process to be refined to an extreme degree. Techniques such as A/B testing enable publishers to play with content, delivering version A to one group of 10,000 viewers and version B to another 10,000 to see which delivers the most traffic/sales/ad-clicks. This can be repeated, like an iterative fractional distillation, allowing the drug to be purified as never before.

The web’s equivalent of the tabloid headline is the link text – the thing that stops you walking past and persuades you to look inside. The process can be applied there too, and we see the results everywhere: links which convey even less information and appeal purely on the gut level. “Three old grannies got up on stage and you’ll never believe what they did next!” “10 things no mother should ever do!” “This one weird tip will transform your sex life!” “The most shocking video you’ll ever see!” They are designed, of course, not to convey information, because if you had any at that point, you could decide whether or not to click. Instead, they just tell you that you really must click, because otherwise you’ll be missing out, and we’ll tell you why once you’ve done so. Because, of course, we get paid by our advertisers if you visit our site, but not if you just read the link.

Now, the tragedy is that, unlike with tabloid newspapers, the content sometimes is worth seeing. The video is amusing, or cute, or whatever, and often was carefully created to be so, because they want you to share a link on Facebook, where, of course, it will be automatically augmented with their carefully-baited title.

A group called Quick Sprout recently published a guide on How to write the perfect headline. I’m not linking to their site directly because the pop-up ads are much too annoying, but you can find it via the site above. Their tips summarise the industry’s discoveries:

  • “A writer should spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline…. 8 out of 10 people will read the headline, 2 out of 10 will read the rest.”
  • “The perfect length for a headline is six words.”
  • “Use negative wording: negatives tap into our insecurities.”
  • “Try using this formula: Number or trigger word + adjective + keyword + promise.”

They have some nice examples of this last rule:

  • Before formula: “How to bathe an elephant”
  • After formula: “18 Unbelievable Ways You Can Bathe An Elephant Indoors”

But I’ve noticed a strange thing recently. I’m starting to feel ashamed when I click on links like this, as if I couldn’t resist buying the tabloid; I couldn’t help eating the junk food. I’m actively resisting sites that are linked to in this way, and I have a lower opinion of sites that display the links. Am I alone?

Take the Independent, for example, a once-reasonably-respected UK paper. The bottom of every page now looks like this:

independent_ads

This is a tame set of examples which just happened to be on the first page I looked at, but really! “20 Hot Celebs You Didn’t Know Are Jewish”? We care whether they’re Jewish? They can’t be Jewish because they’re ‘hot’? Come on, Indie…! What are we meant to think of your standards?

So I hope we’ll start to see a backlash against this blatant manipulation. Let’s start educating people that, if someone pops out at you in the street and says, “Come down this alley with me, you’ll never believe what’s at the end of it!’, they may not just be doing it for your benefit.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t tell what they’re selling, it’s because you’re the product. So ask yourself this, the next time you see an irrestible link: Do you feel compelled to click, or are you making the decision?

Because there’s one sure-fire way to know if you’re the product. It’s when you’re the thing being delivered.

Social Commentary

October 10th, 2014

I hadn’t come across Kate Reddy before, but they interviewed Allison Pearson, her creator, on Radio 4 this morning, about her return to the Telegraph. The piece is, I think, quite splendid.

Now I know what I’ve been missing by not being a parent.

Tilly! Tilly! Put that camera down! Drop it! DROP IT!

Doing the TWiT

September 21st, 2014

Almost exactly 15 years ago, a Californian TV channel sent me a webcam. To be precise, they sent me a 3COM camera which came with a PCI frame-capture card. Connecting this up was a bit of a palaver, because I ran Linux on my home machine at the time, and I had to create a new partition and install Windows 95 so that I could run the supplied software. But it was worth it, because this was ZDTV, who were doing an interesting experiment on their Call for Help programme: interviewing people in remote locations using these new-fangled webcams alongside a traditional telephone call.

By the time my segment came, it was well past midnight, and I got a laugh by holding up a clock to prove that I was somewhere in a very different timezone, and by saying that, though they thought they were very advanced in California, they were still in Tuesday, while some of us had already moved on to Wednesday some time ago.

There were other guests on the show, and we made minor history by being the first time ZDTV (and perhaps anyone) had done a three-way call using webcams as part of a live broadcast. The presenter was a very nice chap named Leo Laporte.

Since I seldom saw any American TV, I wasn’t aware at the time of Laporte’s gradually increasing prominence as the host of shows such as The Screen Savers on the same channel (which had by then changed its name to TechTV). But he soon gained more international exposure with the launch in 2005 of the This Week In Tech podcast — affectionately known as TWiT — which grew into the TWiT.tv network, consisting of around 30 different shows. I have been listening to several of them almost since day one.

As the network grew, they built their own studio in Petaluma, California. And it just so happened that I was driving through there on Friday, so I stopped off to have a look.

20140920-001721104

I stuck my head inside the door and said hello, and the wonderful Debi Delchini immediately welcomed this stranger from across the seas and gave me a guided tour, despite the fact that I had arrived right at the end of her Friday afternoon.

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The TWiT studio, though not large, is cunningly divided into half a dozen different sets, to allow different moods for different shows.

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The mixing desk in the middle can rotate to face whichever one is in use.

There are cameras everywhere. Unlike traditional studios where large cameras roll about on substantial bases, we are now in a world were adding extra small broadcast-quality cameras is cheap compared to arranging the building around a few bigger ones.

Leo wasn’t there, sadly, but I did get to sit in his chair!

20140919-23555097

There was, however, a show being recorded: Fr Robert Ballecer’s This Week in Enterprise Tech.

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I noticed that he was interviewing two people over Skype.

That’s good, I thought: it looks as if the format has caught on after all.

How heartbleed works

April 11th, 2014

Everybody has probably now heard of the heartbleed bug which affects hundreds of thousands of computers across the net. There are some lists out there of the popular services which are affected – see this page, for example – and it’s worth noting that you should change any passwords on Facebook, Google, IFTTT, Tumblr and Yahoo at the very least.

But have you wondered how it works? What does a ‘memory-leak vulnerability’ actually mean? Well, of course, nobody explains it better and more briefly than XKCD:

heartbleed_explanation

Spinning the cloud

February 26th, 2014

You might think that, of all the household devices that could be connected to the ‘net, a washing machine would be amongst the least useful, except perhaps for the purposes of energy monitoring or service diagnostics.

So I was particularly impressed with Berg’s Cloudwash demonstrator, which emphasises the user interface aspects of connectivity. It’s always struck me that washing machines tend to have particularly awful user interfaces. Until very recently, for example, we had one where program ‘4’ was the one we used all the time. We needed to remember that, and on the rare occasions when we needed a different program, we had to look it up on a card.

Often, by giving a device connectivity, you can also give it a better user interface, even if that’s only used to configure the buttons on the front.

Facebook as a blogging platform, considered.

January 24th, 2014

Euan Semple and I have been having similar thoughts. In a perceptive post he writes:

…As people have moved into places like Facebook and Twitter the energy has moved away from blogging to some extent. Less comments and less people using RSS to track conversations. I, like many bloggers, used to post links to my blog posts on Facebook or Google+. Then I realised that I was expecting people to move from where they were to where I wanted them to be – always a bad idea.

So I started posting the entire content of my blog posts on Facebook and Google+. The process is the same, I get the same benefit of noticing things that blogging gives me, the same trails left of what caught my eye, but the conversations have kicked off. I love the forty or fifty comment long threads that we are having. I love the energy of the conversations. It’s like the old days…

And I have to agree. Much as I dislike the tabloid-style, ad-infested nature of Facebook, it does seem to be where the conversations are happening. Yes, some of the smarter people are on Google Plus and App.net, but just not very many of them, and I’m letting my App.net subscription lapse this year. I am even starting to tire a little of Twitter’s 140-character limit and, more so, of the difficulty of having real multi-person conversational threads there. And even though it’s now easy to reply to posts here on Status-Q using your Facebook ID, where your thoughts will be preserved for viewing by other readers, many more people prefer to comment on Facebook or Twitter when I post notifications there.

Euan and I have both been blogging for about 13 years. In that time, a variety of other platforms have come and gone. I expect that quality blogs like his and John’s will outlive Facebook, too. At the very least, I expect that I’ll be able to find good past content on them (see my recent post), long after the social network of the day has changed its ownership, its URL structure, its login requirements or its search engine. So I’m not going to be abandoning Status-Q any time soon: it’s not worth putting much effort into anything that you post only on one of these other platforms.

But his idea of cross-posting the whole text of one’s articles is an interesting one. Facebook is clear, at least at present, that you still own it, though they have a non-exclusive right to make extensive use of it – something those of us who occasionally post photos and videos need to consider carefully.

But I also need to consider the fact that I actually saw his post on Google+, even if I then went to his blog to get a nicely-formatted version to which I could link reliably. Mmm.

The long tail of streaming?

December 25th, 2013

I recently tweeted that I had signed up for a (UK) NetFlix trial, but had found little that I wanted to watch, and had been put off by the necessity of installing Silverlight, so was going to return to my trusty ‘Lovefilm by Post’ subscription. This got a lot of responses from friends.

Some expressed surprise that a geek like me should embrace such a backwards technology. Some proposed AppleTV/iTunes or Blinkbox as better alternatives. Others persuaded me to persevere, and recommended the new House of Cards series and Breaking Bad as worthwhile (so I shall certainly give those a go).

Anyway, I went ahead, installed Silverlight on my Mac Mini media server, and we watched Encounter at Farpoint from NetFlix last night, and it generally streamed OK, though the quality was somewhere around VHS-level, I think; certainly not like DVD and a long way from the BluRays we now often get through the post. I’m guessing this is just a poor match of Microsoft software and Apple hardware, because we have 120Mbps broadband, and other streamed content plays very nicely.

So we could probably find an online service that worked – why do we stick to that primitive idea of physical media dropping through the letter box?

Well, streaming services, or at least online purchases, are clearly the future, but still cater largely to the mass-market, and we obviously land somewhere in the ‘long tail’. By way of a simple illustration, here are a dozen films we’ve watched and really enjoyed over the last couple of months. Some of them are slightly obscure, but others have big names and Academy Awards.

I thought I’d do a quick check and see where I could get them, either as a digital purchase or rental. I threw in House of Cards season 1 as well, though I haven’t yet seen it, but now intend to!

Film Lovefilm by post iTunes Blinkbox Lovefilm Instant NetFlix UK
Mud Y Y Y
Lincoln Y buy not rent buy not rent
The Impossible Y Y Y
It Happened One Night Y buy not rent
Hyde Park on Hudson Y buy not rent buy not rent
Untouchable Y buy not rent
The Kings of Summer Y buy not rent Y
Now you see me Y Y Y
A Late Quartet Y Y Y
The House of Eliott Y
Shackleton Y buy not rent Y
Moonrise Kingdom Y buy not rent buy not rent
House of Cards (2013) Y Y Y

Now, this isn’t quite fair, because I knew all of these were available from the postal service – that’s where we saw them. And I’m sure it’s possible to find a good list of things on the other services which are not available through the post.

But I guess my point is that, had we restricted ourselves to other services, most of these dozen excellent films would never have made it to our screen, especially if we didn’t want to cough up the money to purchase them outright.

I didn’t make any special effort to select these, by the way: they are not nearly as obscure as some films we watch: they just happen to be (roughly) the dozen most recent films of the… golly!… ahem!… 821 movies we have watched from LoveFilm over the years since we started subscribing. (We don’t have cable, and don’t really watch any broadcast TV.) We couldn’t, in fact, have rented the majority of those from iTunes, but if we had been able to, it would have cost us about £2900 (assuming we didn’t want HD).

Of course, the elephant in the room here is that with postal delivery you have to know, in advance, a list of things you want to watch, and not be too worried about when you see them. I’m blessed with a wife who enjoys finding good stuff and queuing it up, so we always have 30-40 items in the list. And we have a reasonable amount of control of what arrives when based on how we prioritise those.

Some other notes to explain why this works well for us…

  • We live about 20 yards from the postbox, so after we’ve watched something, I stick the disc in the pre-paid envelope and mail it off before we go to bed.

  • We enjoy watching the extra features and commentaries on DVDs – something you often don’t get with other forms of delivery.

  • If we can’t watch a DVD immediately, we can click a button and have a DRM-free copy of it in about 30 mins, complete with special features and commentaries. But that probably wouldn’t be legal, so of course we wouldn’t know how to do that.

  • We can often choose between BluRay and DVD (depending whether we want a modest gain in resolution in exchange for a big delay in startup time).

  • We don’t have to finish watching things within a given timeframe.

  • We currently have the subscription which give you up to two disks at home at any one time, so with that, and the disks we own, and the stuff that EyeTV has recorded for us, we are never short of choice.

  • On average, we probably watch two or three movies a week, meaning that each one costs us about 89p.

In fact, I think we may start moving to some combination of the pre-planned postal and the on-demand streamed systems, and Blinkbox looks like an attractive service, if the quality’s good – on some of the above, purchasing from Blinkbox costs about the same as renting from iTunes.

But we’ve also seen a lot of very good stuff for 89p that we couldn’t have seen anywhere else. And quite often, it’s in 1080p resolution. On other services, the resolution would be lower and 1080p would be the price…

IMAP, Sent mail, Apple Mail and Mavericks

November 16th, 2013

This is one of those posts that’s chiefly intended for those Googling for a particular problem. It might still make gripping reading, though, for those of you interested in the internals of email protocols…

Most email programs nowadays allow you to specify the folder in which you want to save your outgoing messages, and choose whether that should be stored locally or on your email server. (Assuming you’re using IMAP to fetch your mail, that is. If you’re still using POP, you should get another mail provider. And if you’re using Exchange… well, you have my sympathy…)

But different apps have traditionally had different names for this folder: some call it ‘Sent’, others ‘Sent Items’ or ‘Sent Messages’ and some will use a folder with one name and display it as something else to the user. (The same is sometimes true of ‘Drafts’, ‘Trash’, and ‘Junk Mail/Spam’). So, over the years, I’ve tended to standardise on ‘Sent’, and when I set up a new mail app or a new machine, I configure it to use that folder.

But recently, that setting didn’t always seem to be stick, and I found some of my mail would end up in different folders when sent from some devices. Still, I persevered, until I installed Mavericks on my Mac, and found that the setting wasn’t even available on Apple Mail, at least, not for my main account – it was greyed out! What could be going on?

Screen Shot 2013-11-16 at 08.37.45

So I started to investigate. I dug into the file that Mail uses to store information about its accounts (currently ~/Library/Mail/V2/MailData/Accounts.plist) and I came across a setting which gave me a clue: it was called HasServerDefinedSentMailbox, and for this account it was set to YES. Mmm…

In the past, IMAP basically just provided you with a smart filing system for your mail, and it’s proved a remarkably resilient one, when compared to other formats. As an aside, I felt very old recently when I told a colleague in the lab that I had used the same method for storing my mail for ages, and had emails from 1991/92 in there that were just as accessible now as they had been then. He laughed, and said, “That’s the year I was born!”. Sigh… Still, compare that to data stored n tapes and floppies.

Anyway, a few extra features have been added since then, and one of these came just a couple of years ago. RFC 6154 describes ‘new optional mailbox attributes that a server may include in IMAP LIST command responses, to identify special-use mailboxes to the client, easing configuration’. In other words, the server can tell your app which folders to use for these key functions. This makes a lot of sense, particularly when your email provider also has a webmail interface, for example. I use Fastmail, which has a really good one, and, of course, it needs to know what you want to use for sent mail, drafts, etc when you’re using it via the web. Fastmail reflect these folder choices in the IMAP protocol, to keep everything consistent. Which is fine by me: I now simply stick to using the ‘Sent Items’ folder that the server recommends, and all is well on all my devices.

Anyway, all of that is a long way of explaining why you may find the ‘Use this mailbox for’ menu items are greyed out, and why on iOS devices you may try changing the ‘Sent Mailbox’, only to find that your new setting doesn’t stick. If your server is specific about which folders should be used, Apple will take that setting seriously, which I think makes sense, but they aren’t yet very clear in the UI about why you can’t then change it yourself.

Hope that’s useful to somebody!

Security and Email

November 2nd, 2013

If you want to understand the basics of how encrypted communication works on computers, and why it should be easy to secure all your emails but often isn’t, it’s hard to find a better introduction than Bart Busschot’s on this episode of the Nosillacast. It starts at about 47 minutes.

Tweet archiving

September 29th, 2013

I’ve just noticed that Twitter allows you to export your tweets, under your account settings. They come in both human and machine-readable form. Not sure how long ago they added this, but it partially addresses one of my chief concerns about the service: that users stick many years of their lives into it without necessarily knowing that they’ll ever be able to extract the information in future.

This is not easy to automate, though, so I’m still going to keep using Archive My Tweets for my own archive.

Keeping in touch in a post-Google-Reader world

June 26th, 2013

As I hope everybody knows, Google Reader will close down on Monday.

This means that something like half of you lovely Status-Q readers have just a few days in which to make alternative arrangements, or you’ll find your supply of Status-Q posts, and indeed those from any other blog or similar feed, will suddenly go very quiet next week.

So, assuming you’d like to keep having sensational new content delivered to you regularly without having to keep visiting all those web sites by hand, what can you do?

RSS

Well, one option is to find another RSS reader. (RSS is a machine-readable format that websites can make available, saying which articles have been published recently and when.) There are lots of good RSS-reading programs out there, for every platform – things like Reeder, Flipboard, NetNewsWire… to name just three – and all you need to do is open your favourite one and tell it that you’d like to subscribe directly to:

 http://www.statusq.org/feed/

and you’re away. If it’s a clever app, you may just be able to say ‘statusq.org’ and it’ll work the rest out for itself.

This is great if you have just one or two places in which you read all of your news. But the reason Google Reader was popular was that you could access it on multiple devices and from various apps, and it would remember which feeds you had subscribed to and which articles you had read, and keep them all in sync so you didn’t need to duplicate things everywhere. If you want that functionality now, you need to pick one of the alternative services that are springing up to take Reader’s place.

There’s an episode of the Mac Power Users podcast which looks into some of the alternatives (and will be relevant for non-Mac-users too). A quick summary is that the ones they liked most were probably Feed Wrangler and Feedbin but there are alternatives like Feedly discussed too. Which one works best for you will depend largely on whether you have a favourite feed-reading app which needs to support it, or whether you prefer to use a web interface. Many of these services have a direct ‘Import my feeds from Google Reader’ button to make life easy for you.

Here’s the bad news – most of them cost money. But it’s generally a very small amount, and by having lots of good stuff to read, you’ll probably save that much on iPhone apps you might otherwise be tempted to buy and then forget. And remember, you won’t be giving all that data about your personal interests to Google any more…

Social networks

I don’t tend to post here very frequently, so I automatically send out a message on the social networks with each new post. If you don’t already, why not follow me on Twitter, on App.net or on Facebook? That’s a good way to track other authors as well, but you’ll only see posts as they whizz past in the stream – it’s harder to find quality material to enjoy in a more contemplative fashion over coffee on a Sunday morning… so you may want to do the RSS thing as well.

Or perhaps you prefer such material in your email inbox…?

IFTTT

If you don’t know If This Then That, it’s a service where you can set up rules (‘recipes’) to do all sorts of clever things like “If I’m tagged in an image on Facebook, save it to my Dropbox folder”.

You can also connect to RSS feeds like this one and have it take action when there’s something new posted. If you have an IFTTT account, it’s really easy: here’s a recipe that will email you any new Status-Q posts.

Anyway, that’s a few ideas to get you started. Feel free to post other ideas for post-Reader alternatives in the comments.

But the important thing is to take action now…