Archive for Technology

Some simple steps to bypass the British government’s new internet spy ring

The British government will shortly be requiring all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to store the browsing history of every single person in the UK for a year.

Why are they doing this? For your own safety, of course. It’s to protect you from all the terrorists and organised crime gangs that they’re allowing into the country to enrich the fabric of society.

If you’re happy for the authorities to have access to your browsing history on demand then you’re not going to be interested in the rest of this post, you should probably get back to those cute kittens that can haz cheezburger. If you do have a problem with the authorities being able to see which political party you’ve taken an interest in, who you bank with, what your sexual preferences are, what religion you follow, who you’re talking to, which news stories you follow, whether you like cute kittens and every other little detail your internet habits can tell someone wanting to build up a picture of your private life to feed into their databases then you can do what the terrorists and organised crime gangs do and bypass big brother with an anonymising service.

I’m going to try and make what follows as simple as possible, partly because I’m not a networking god who knows intimately how this stuff works but mainly because you don’t need to know how it works to use it.


Tor LogoBy far the most widely used anonymising service is Tor which stands for The Onion Router. It’s so named because of the multiple layers of security it provides. It works by bouncing your traffic round the world through a number of proxies to hide where your internet traffic came from. In layman’s terms, instead of your computer contacting the web server where a website is located directly it contacts another computer in the Tor network which itself contacts another computer in the Tor network and after this has happened a few times one of the computers will get the website you wanted and pass it back the way it came. It sounds complicated and behind the scenes it is but you don’t see any of this happen, you just get the website you wanted and the web server thinks you’re in Istanbul or Taiwan or South Africa or some other random location.

The security in this comes from the fact that any computer in the Tor network in that chain only knows about the computer it got the request from and the one it’s sending it to and those two computers don’t know about each other. If criminals or terrorists or government agencies (try not to get them confused, they do much the same job) manage to compromise one of the computers in the chain they’re not going to get a picture of where the request has come from or where it’s going to because the computer they’ve compromised doesn’t know and what it doesn’t know, it can’t tell them. Connections are also encrypted all the way from your computer to the last computer in the Tor network that goes off to the web server to get your website and every time you request a website, your computer picks a different set of computers to go through.

There are some downsides to using Tor which you need to bear in mind. Some bad people use Tor. Hackers, scammers, criminal gangs, terrorists, drug dealers, black market weapons dealers, the US Navy, national intelligence agencies and more. It’s unlikely but one day you might end up with one of them at the start of the chain and that’s where your privacy and security can be compromised. The chances are it won’t happen to you and it is less likely to happen that using the internet in the traditional way but no system is foolproof. It will also be slower than you’re used to and sometimes you might find that a website is blocked in whatever country your request ends up in.

The most common way of using Tor is by downloading the browser bundle which gives you the Tor proxy service and a customised version of Firefox. You can download it from the Tor Project website, run the installer and follow the prompts. All you have to do then is remember to use the Tor browser to access the internet and to think carefully about how much of your privacy you’re giving away voluntarily.

There is also a Tor browser package for Android phones and tablets meaning you can get the same protection while you’re out and about as you do when you’re at home. You can get it from the Play Store and you don’t need to root your device to use it.


Tails ScreenshotTo add an extra layer of security to your browsing you can use Tor in in a secure virtual machine. Tails is a Linux distribution with Tor built in and you can download an ISO image that you can mount in VMWare or VirtualBox or your preferred virtualisation platform. Installation is straightforward and several security and privacy applications are installed with it. As long as you don’t snapshot the virtual machine and you have enough physical memory to run your virtual machine, nothing you do when using it will be saved once you’ve shut the virtual machine down. If you’re looking to avoid being flagged up as a user of anonymising services then it’s a good way of keeping the Tor browser away from insecure applications in Windows (or Windows itself) that can report back the fact that your have it installed. It also means you can continue your casual browsing to generate a browsing history whilst plotting your bloody revolution or looking at pictures of ladies wearing no pants on a browser that can’t be traced back to you.

You can get more information on Tails and download an image from the Tails website. There are far too any variations for me to tell you here how to install a virtual machine but there are lots of websites that will tell you how to do it for your particular operating system.

In conclusion

Following the steps above will give you the same level of security and privacy as the criminal gangs and terrorists that routine spying on our internet browsing history is supposed to protect us from but if you want to take advantage of that security you need to change your habits. If you use social media you have already given away your privacy. It doesn’t matter what you have your privacy setting set to in Facebook or Google+, if they’re issued with a warrant to hand over your data they’ll do it without a second thought. If you use any location-based services you’re creating a record of your whereabouts at any given time and depending on what the service is, you’re probably building up a picture of what you’re doing when you’re there. If you take a selfie in McDonalds and put it on Pinterest you’ve told the world where you are and that you like Big Macs.

You may be happy to share what’s going on in your life and the places you’ve been to – I know I do it a lot – but that doesn’t mean you have to be happy with government agencies, local councils, the police and other statutory bodies having access to your browsing history whether you want them to or not. It doesn’t matter what protections are promised when the legislation is passed, you only have to look at how RIPA, SOCA and anti-terrorism legislation has been abused by the authorities to the extent that you can be locked up for reading the names of dead soldiers at a national war memorial, put under house arrest after being found innocent by a jury and spied on to check you’re in a primary school catchment area.

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety
– Benjamin Franklin

It’s reasonable to assume that anyone associated with an anti-establishment political party or group is on a list and if you’re in a position of any influence you can pretty much guarantee that someone is taking an interest in you. If you want to maintain some privacy then this is a step in the right direction.

What do you do when Three won’t #makeitright?

I’ve been a Three customer now for over five years, having switched from Orange when they couldn’t be bothered to fix their abysmal network and repeatedly lied about the causes of their problems.

Over the past five years I’ve been a loyal and extremely satisfied customer. Not just a loyal customer, in fact, but an evangelist who has brought them lots of new business. Unlimited data, unlimited tethering, no extra charge for 4G and customer support people who don’t try and blame every problem on your phone, no matter how nonsensical that may be. What’s not to like?

Well, things have changed and not for the better. Unlimited tethering is a thing of the past and the One Plan that brought it has been withdrawn despite Three confirming on Twitter and by email that existing customers would keep it as long as they didn’t upgrade or change their account. The current price plans that have replaced it are quite inferior by comparison and more expensive too.

Currently I have the sim only One Plan. It gives me 2,000 minutes, 5,000 texts, 5,000 minutes of 3 to 3 calls, unlimited data and unlimited tethering for £19 per month. I’ve happily been paying my £19 for a year and a half but now I’ve got to change my price plan, put up my bill and tie myself into another 12 month contract to get less than what I get now. Obviously I don’t want to do this. The closest price plan to the one I have now is £27 per month – an increase of £8 per month, or £96 per year – and for that I can have unlimited data and calls and a relatively miserly 4GB of tethering.

Now, most months I can easily get by with 4GB of tethering but on occasion it’s nowhere near enough. This month, for instance, we’ve spent a week on a caravan site in Wales with no Wi-Fi so everyone used my phone’s Wi-Fi hotspot. I’ve used nearly 10GB of tethering already this month which would have added an extra £30 onto my bill at the standard charge of £5 per GB over the 4GB allowance. Like most kids nowadays, mine spend their lives on YouTube and online gaming and for my autistic son, not being able to get on the internet isn’t just an inconvenience when he’s bored, it’s the end of the world.

I’ve made a couple of calls to Three to voice my disappointment and see what options I have but nobody’s convinced me yet . I can get 8GB of tethering but only if I upgrade with a handset, putting my bills up even more and tying myself into a two year contract. I don’t need a new phone – I’ve only had my Galaxy S5 for about 6 months – but I looked on the website anyway to see if there was anything worth having and I was shocked at the prices. To get a Galaxy S6 (the model that’s replaced my S5) I’d have to pay £50 per month. To get the phone I currently have – last year’s flagship model – would cost me £44 per month. This values the Samsung Galaxy S5 at £408 when you can buy the phone from Samsung directly for £329. These are just ridiculous prices and makes staying sim only the only cost effective option with a price hike of £8 per month for less than what I’m getting now. You can see why I’m not happy.

Three’s price plans cost much the same as the other networks now and the only thing that really sets Three apart from the others is the unlimited data and customer services which, if you can demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about, don’t treat you like an idiot and are quite open with you about the issues you’re having even if that means they admitting blame. Anyone who’s tried convincing EE that a problem that’s affecting lots of people in the same area that you don’t need to factory reset your phone to fix it will appreciate what a big thing this is. That counts for a lot and it’s that more than anything – more than the unlimited data which I absolutely make use of on a monthly basis – that makes me reluctant to move elsewhere.

I’m torn really on what to do. I can get 4G most places I go but not at home and nobody will tell me the RFS date for 4G on my home mast. That’s irritating when it’s available in the next street but HSDPA+ is fast so it’s not a deal breaker just yet. I dislike EE because they have a no blame culture – as in, they are never to blame. O2 and Vodafone coverage round here is pretty poor and the least said about O2’s network the better. There is nothing that makes me think that any other network will give me a service that is better than what I get from Three, or even one that is just as good, but I do feel like I’ve been let down by Three who are rewarding my loyalty (I have another three contracts and a payg with them – for my family of course, I’m not a drug dealer) with contempt. I appreciate that I’m only one customer and I only have five connections out of 8m+ subscriptions but I still feel that I should be treated better. I don’t want the world, I just want the old Three back.

The best way to keep your biometrics safe is not to give them away in the first place

What is so surprising about the revelation that fingerprint scanners on Android devices are vulnerable to hackers is that people are surprised about it.

The irreconcilable flaws in using biometrics were exposed years ago when Tony Blair’s despotic regime was trying to introduce biometric ID cards and more recently in the context of mobile devices, by how unbelievably easy it was to lift a fingerprint off the scanner of an iPhone which could be used over and over again.

You see, the main problem with using fingerprints is that you have to physically touch the scanner glass and that leaves a residue that can be lifted using a piece of plastic film and turned into as many copies of your fingerprint as you want. Whilst the physical method of cloning fingerprints is the simplest it can’t really be done on an industrial scale so the real vulnerability is a man in the middle attack which intercepts the digital encoding of your fingerprint and provides that to the system comparing it to the one on file rather than a physical scan of a finger.

As mobster John Dillinger found out over 80 years ago, you can’t obliterate or alter your fingerprints and the only way to stop them growing back as your skin heals is to graft skin from elsewhere on your body. If hackers manage to get a digital copy of your fingerprint, what are you going to do? Or your iris scans or DNA? You can’t change your biometric data so once it’s compromised it’s personally compromised.

My current mobile phone (Samsung Galaxy S5) is listed amongst the devices that had a vulnerability with its fingerprint scanner. It’s been patched apparently but that was never a problem for me because I refused to set up the fingerprint scanner. I pledged to refuse to hand over my biometrics to the British government back in 2006 so why would I hand them over to the company that makes my mobile phone, Google and anyone else who has access to the fingerprint database?

The best way to keep your biometrics safe is not to give them away in the first place.

Screw you Sony

I spotted an email coming into my inbox from YouTube for a copyright dispute and I’m wondering if I’ve had any of these before and not noticed them.

The multi-billion pound, multi-national Sony Music Entertainment company has filed a dispute notice resulting in a video I took of Donnington fireworks a couple of years being taken down. The reason? You can hear the song “OMG” which Wikipedia informs me was a popular song by someone called Usher 5 years ago which someone nearby (probably a fairground ride) was playing.

Now, I have absolutely nothing to gain from having this video on YouTube. There are no ads on it and it’s just a video of some fireworks. It doesn’t have any sentimental value. But it irritates me that this mega corporation thinks that it has the right to have an insignificant video of some fireworks taken down because a song they’ve made tens, if not hundreds, of millions from is playing in the background with a sound quality so poor that nobody would want to play the video for the less than 2 minutes clip of the song that you can hear in it.

So I’ve disputed their dispute just to show those greedy bastards that they can’t just file vexatious take down notices without a fight. It won’t change the record industry and it won’t change the way Sony does business but at least I’ll have made one of their mindless drones do some bloody work.

Firework Video

Had enough of Facebook

Facebook have informed me this evening that I’m temporarily banned from posting for 12 hours because someone reported one of my comments as abusive.

Fuck Facebook use Google_The offending comment was in response to a question posed on the Politics UK page asking whether people on benefits who drink and smoke excessively should have their benefits cut.  It said:

Give them non-transferable food vouchers. I don’t go to work to pay for other peoples’ fags and booze.

Someone has taken exception to this comment and reported it. At first I was just annoyed at the fact my account could be suspended automatically just because some whining lefty clicked the report button.  Then I discovered that actually, all these abuse reports are vetted by a real person so it was actually a conscious decision by a whining lefty at Facebook instead and that’s pissed me off.

My comment was in context, it wasn’t rude, it wasn’t abusive, it wasn’t threatening and it wasn’t “hate speech”.  Facebook seemingly does absolutely nothing about the spammers and fraudsters that infest the site despite the fact they can be spotted a mile off when you see them in group membership requests.  I report every single one of the spammers that I find yet I often see requests from the fake friends of the fake profiles to the same group days later.

I’ve been on Facebook since the early days when it was first opened up to non academics but it’s lost most of its appeal these days.  This has prompted me to do what I’ve been planning to do for a while – lock down my account and cull my friends list, I’m going to stick to Twitter and Google+ from now on.

Screw you PC World (and HP)

A fortnight ago I bought a new laptop from PC World in Telford.  The processor is a little under-powered but the rest of it is great – 8gb of RAM, 1TB hard disk, big bright screen, etc. but it was a good price so I bought it.

But only a fortnight after buying it, it’s developed a problem with the trackpad.  After a while it starts to recognise a tap as a right click and moving your finger around the trackpad gets interpreted as all sorts of multi-touch gestures.  It’s like having a really wonky old ball mouse connected to the laptop with the cursor bouncing around the screen and sometimes just doing nothing at all.

I Googled for the problem and found that it’s a well known fault with HP Pavillion laptops.  There’s a possible fix by removing the device driver for the trackpad and reinstalling it which I tried to no avail so I called PC World’s “Know How” people and was told to return it to the store for a refund or exchange as it was within 21 days.  So I went to the store this afternoon to exchange it and … well, let’s just say I’m typing this on the same laptop.

Because HP haven’t recalled the laptop for the fault they want to see it happening in the store before they’ll exchange it.  I’ve got to leave it with them for at least 4 hours tomorrow so they can see the problem but as it only happens after a period of use and I can’t see them spending half an hour or more solid playing games or browsing the internet on it they aren’t going to see it happen.  I showed them all the reports of the fault on the HP website but that doesn’t matter because “it doesn’t mean it’s happening on yours”.

Now, I could understand PC World taking this stance if I was asking for a refund but I’m asking for an exchange.  What possible advantage would I get from asking for a non-faulty two week old laptop to be replaced with exactly the same model?  None at all so I’m not happy at being told I have to take the laptop back to the store tomorrow and leave it with them.  Even less happy at the suggestion that I would have to give them my password so they could log on to the laptop and at being told not to factory reset the laptop.

I’ve already told them that I’ll be after a refund rather than an exchange now if that’s how hard it is to get a two week old faulty laptop replaced because of a known problem and I certainly won’t be buying a replacement from PC World.  The sales person I bought it off in the first place was hostile because she couldn’t sell me a load of crap I didn’t want or need and their after-sales service is crap so PC World can kiss my arse, I’ll go elsewhere.

And as for HP – their support website is appalling.  I wanted to do an online chat with someone from HP to get some details of the fault and find out whether they’re going to make companies aware of the fault so other customers don’t have to go through the same crap if their laptop develops the same fault.  The website wouldn’t recognise the name of my laptop or the model number so wouldn’t connect me to anyone.  The drill down list of devices doesn’t include Pavillion laptops at all and the auto-detection plugin that they ask you to install insists on all other browsers being closed before it will work, even though there was no other browser open and the HP website was the only tab open in Google Chrome.  All in all, a disappointing experience for my first HP laptop.

Crowd sourcing mobile phone coverage maps

A colleague showed me an app the other day that helps produce crowd sourced mobile phone coverage and performance maps.

I’m sure everyone’s seen the mobile phone operators’ own coverage maps which are reasonably accurate but are based on maths rather than user experience and Rootmetrics have seen this as a gap that needs filling.

I have no idea how Rootmetrics make money but that’s their problem, not mine.  The company has already mapped much of America and is now mapping the UK.  Their employees have already driven round London and Hull testing the mobile networks and the gaps are being filled by mobile phone users like me who are running the continuous test on the Rootmetric app when travelling to build up coverage and performance data.  The continuous test only works on the Android version of the app, not the iPhone version for some reason (probably a spurious “security” restriction imposed by Apple) and it’s pretty data hungry – the app has used over 750mb in 4 days – so you’ll only want to use it on an unlimited data plan.

Rootmetrics Coverage Map Telford

The tests produced are a good guide for signal strength at least but the data stats are slightly less convincing which makes the Rootmetric score – a combined score based on signal strength and data speeds – a bit misleading.  For instance, if I check my connection speed on the app I can get some blistering speeds for a 3G connection – 9.39mbit/sec one day this week – but the download speed is fairly average using Rootmetrics’ servers giving it a yellow/orange hexagon – which is more a refelection on Rootmetrics’ infrastructure than Three’s.  I tether my tablet to my phone at work and at least one of my colleagues tethers to it in the office because he’s on Vodafone and they’re rubbish and it’s good enough to watch live TV on more than one device using the same connection.

That said, the idea of crowd sourcing mobile phone coverage data is a great one and I’m certainly doing my bit!

High speed mobile services coming to the UK

Orange/T-Mobile are launching a new 4G mobile phone service under the brand Everything Everywhere (EE), the name they gave themselves when the two networks merged.

4G LTEThere’s been a bit of controversy around the 4G roll-out though.  OFCOM, which is responsible for licensing the spectrum that 4G mobile networks will use, has given EE permission to use some of the spectrum it already owns to roll out 4G services ahead of the auction for the rest of the spectrum.  Other mobile phone providers reckon this is a bit unfair as they don’t have any spare spectrum and EE only have spare spectrum because OFCOM gave them a big chunk for free a few years ago.  They thought that was unfair at the time as well but nothing came of it.

Three make a bit of a fuss about the way the 4G auction was going to be run, saying that it gave an unfair advantage to the big four networks who already had lots of spectrum.  They have since done a deal with EE to run their own 4G services over their network.  It’s a logical extension of the mast-sharing deal they currently have with Orange.

The 4G launch will be an Apple-free zone with only Windows 8 and Android phones expected in the first year and although Apple is rumoured to be preparing a 4G version of the iBrick it might not work with EE’s network.

It does seem a little unfair that EE are getting to launch their 4G network early but while it gives them an advantage at the outset being the only 4G provider, they’re going to find themselves running a network on the wrong frequency with a limited set of handsets as a result.  They’ll buy more spectrum in the auction and then spend stupid money running the two alongside each other.  This fragmentation happens in the US and it’s a nightmare – you get entire cities with only one operator because the mobile network has been built non-standard and no other operator’s handsets work.

Whatever happens, the rollout of 4G can only be a good thing.  Fixed line broadband really has had its day – wireless has virtually limitless possibilities and can provide high speed data connections where laying miles of copper wires or fibre optics just aren’t an option.  The only thing that is likely to hold it back is divergence as a result of EE’s early adoption and companies spending stupid money in the spectrum auctions and not having enough cash to invest in building the new networks.

Ten (ish) weeks with hearing aids

Back in January I had a hearing aid fitted after getting fed up of Mrs Sane complaining about me not being able to hear her finally going to get my hearing tested.

The difference it made was astounding – I hadn’t realised how bad my hearing had got. But it did leave me a bit lopsided hearing-wise because the hearing in both my ears is pretty crap, albeit worse on one side than the other.

So I went back to the hospital a week and a bit ago to get a second hearing aid to balance things up and get the T-Loop added to the one I’d already got because it never occurred to me when I said I wouldn’t need to use it how I would use the phone at work!

The second hearing aid isn’t turned up as loud as the first one because my hearing isn’t as bad in the other ear but I can hear at the same volume in both ears and I can tell where sound is coming from again. The T-Loop is also a great invention – I first tried it in the local Co-op and it was pretty amazing to walk up to the counter and be greeted with no sound other than the voice of the girl behind the till.

My desk phone at work has an induction loop in the handset which means I can hear everything loud and clear through the loop in my hearing aid. Sadly my work mobile (HTC Wildfire S) doesn’t work with the loop but I’m sure they’ll replace it with one that does. My HTC Desire worked with it once but I think the amount of times I dropped it must have broken the loop. Luckily it was due for upgrade so the very helpful people at the Three shop in Telford helped me find a new phone that works with my hearing aids, letting me try out lots of different phones until I found the best sound quality (Sony Xperia S).

There are a couple of big problems using mobile phones with hearing aids. The main one is trying to use a phone without a loop – I don’t have those jelly moulds you see on old peoples’ hearing aids, I have a “tulip” end on my hearing aid which disappears into my ear and is barely visible. It also blocks my ear and if your ear is blocked you can’t hear properly (or less properly than usual). Using a phone without a loop means removing my hearing aid and turning the volume up which is hardly convenient.

The other big problem is using a phone with a poor quality loop. They produce lots of noise – so much noise that it’s hard to make out what’s being said at the other end. The Xperia is great with the loop, giving a really clear sound quality as long as the Wi-Fi is turned off otherwise it can be a bit noisy. The new HTC One was OK but not great.

It’s not easy getting used to hearing aids but it’s worth the effort. Itchy ears are a particularly annoying problem, especially if you’ve got sausage fingers like me that just won’t fit down your ear hole! I find that regular cleaning with a baby wipe helps but sometimes you’ve just got to ignore everything that was drummed into you as a child about not sticking things in your ear and have a good scratch with something blunt.

Another annoying problem for me (and I suspect this will only affect you if your hearing aid is amplifying higher pitched sounds) is what beeping things like the microwave, the oven timer, alarms on TV programmes and the chime on clocks do to the hearing aids. Apart from being very loud, it makes the sound distorted and tinny on the hearing aid for a good 30 seconds after it’s stopped, like it’s been overloaded and it needs to sort itself out. And I can’t even begin to describe what a fork scraping on a plate sounds like.

Despite the little annoyances, getting these hearing aids has been a really positive thing. They’re so discrete that most people don’t even notice them. It doesn’t help me to hear in really noisy places like a hall full of chattering people or a train station but in most situations it’s made a real improvement. I don’t know how fast my hearing is deteriorating – I guess we’ll find out next time I have a hearing test – but I can already sign a bit so I’m well prepared!

Met Office can’t predict tomorrow’s weather but can predict it in 10 years’ time?

The British government’s Science and Technology Committee yesterday said that the Met Office needs to spend lots of money on new supercomputers to enable them to more accurately predict the weather 5 days in advance.

Met Office DartboardDespite being one of the top three weather prediction services in the world, the Met Office struggles to predict tomorrow’s weather.  Only a couple of weeks ago they predicted several inches of snow overnight and we got nothing at all.  The other day they predicted no snow at all and we had snow.  How often have you watched the weather forecast, gone on a day trip and been caught in a deluge despite the Met Office predicting a glorious day?

People have very little faith in the Met Office’s ability to predict the weather and rightly so.  The media are slowly turning away from the Met Office because of their poor track record and turning to alternative providers.  According to Chaos Theory it should be possible to predict the weather from any event – a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world, it’s all cause and effect.  The computing power required to calculate an accurate weather prediction based on the small amount of data available is phenomenal though and it’s never going to be possible to get a completely accurate forecast.

With enough technology and accurate data, it would be possible for the Met Office to produce weather forecasts with an acceptable margin of error.  But the technology doesn’t exist yet, the data isn’t accurate enough and the costs involved in developing the technology required would be prohibitive.

All of this raises an important point: the Met Office, by its own admission, can’t predict the weather 5 days in advance but they are one of the primary sources of data for the British government’s global warming tax scams.  It’s hard to believe that the British government would employ fund managers to manage UK Plc’s investments if they had a track record of losing more money than they made or economists at the Treasury who’ve consistently been unable to budget more than a week in advance so why do they employ the Met Office, who can’t predict tomorrow’s weather with more than 70% accuracy, to tell them what the weather is going to be like in 10 years’ time?

Four ISPs agree to censor internet

Four ISPs have agreed to censor the internet on behalf of the British government.

Sky, BT, TalkTalk and Virgin have all signed up to the agreement to automatically block “adult content”, requiring customers to specifically ask for the block to be removed.  The agreement has come about following a report from the religious pressure group, the Mothers’ Union, which said that censorship is necessary to protect children.

We have a reliable way of preventing our children accessing adult content on the internet without state-organised censorship – the computer is in the living room and we watch what they’re doing.  Not a very high tech solution but it’s a damn sight more reliable than censorship.

This is just the thin end of the wedge.  Today it’s blocking whatever a panel of Mary Whitehouse wannabes determine to be “adult content” for the good of the children (won’t you think of the children, it’s for them), tomorrow it will be what a panel of career politicians decides are “extreme views” and then it will be anything that’s critical of the British government and before long the internet will be censored according to the whims of whichever illiberal clone happens to be in power at the time.

The erosion of civil liberties is one-way, we will never get them back if we allow them to be taken.  This isn’t about porn, it’s about the principal of uncensored and unrestricted access to information.  It’s not about saving children from the ignorance of their parents, it’s about the state establishing the principal of censorship of the internet.  Once you’ve agreed to the principal, the rest is just haggling about the price.

Geek alert … tel: or callto:?

Time for another geek interlude – tel: versus callto:

Taking WAP out of the equation because it’s so old as to be irrelevant, there are two ways to mark up telephone numbers in HTML.  The tel: URI (Universal Resource Indicator – it tells your browser what it can expect to find at the destination of your link) is the official standard for marking up telephone numbers whilst callto: is a proprietary URI made popular by Skype and unsurprisingly, Microsoft.

By marking up a telephone number, it makes it easier for visitors to your website to make phone calls from their phones or computers – click on the link and it launches whichever application is set up to handle phone calls.  But the problem is, which of the two do you accommodate on your website?  Mobile devices are the obvious target because they’re usually going to be mobile phones so tel: would seem to be the obvious choice but it’s not uncommon for people to have Skype phones or another VoIP phone service so callto: support would be useful.

But you can’t have both so which should you use?  Do you encourage standards compliance by using tel: or pander to the embrace and extend ethos of Sky and Microsoft and use callto:?  Do you cater for mobile devices with tel: or desktops with callto:?

With the rapid convergence of internet and phones, we need some standards compliance in the major browsers.  The last thing we need is a VHS/Betamax or Blueray/HD-DVD battle over telephone number markup standards!

Sky to lose exclusive film rights?

Sky has been told that it may lose its exclusive rights deals with 6 film companies which allows it to show new films first to introduce more competition and give consumers more choice.

This is, of course, what they said about directory enquiries.  Before the replacement of the 192 service with 118 number, it cost 50p for a directory enquiries search and it was free from BT phone boxes.  Now it’ll now cost you at least £1.75 assuming you can do the whole thing from start to finish in less than a minute.

It’s what they said about deregulating the energy markets and all this competition has led to is increasing bills and consumers being ripped off.

At the moment you have a choice if you want to watch new films when they’re released for TV broadcasting – you can subscribe to Sky Movies or use Sky Box Office or you can wait a few months until they end up on one of the network channels.  Ok, you have no choice but to pay Sky for the privilege of watching the film but you’re not tied into subscribing to Sky TV – you can get Sky Movies on Virgin Media and BT Vision.

The truth is, it’s not consumers that need more choice, it’s Sky’s competitors.  More competition often does mean better value for consumers but in this case it means more unnecessary cost and less choice for consumers.  If Sky, Virgin and BT are all allowed to “share” the exclusive deals then consumers who want to watch all new films as soon as they’re released for TV viewing would have to subscribe to Sky, Virgin and BT Vision.  If nobody is allowed to sign exclusive deals with film companies then the film companies lose the money they get from Sky which means they have less money to spend on making and distributing films.

DIY air con!

I’m away on a training course this week and staying in a rather nice two-bedroom apartment in an old manor house-type thing (I think it might be Edwardian judging by the windows)  on the bank of the Thames with a colleague.

The place is covered with wi-fi which is pretty essential if you’re away from home even if it is barely faster than dial-up.  But dial-up would have been an improvement over the broadband last night and today.

The signal strength was fine but the connection to the outside world was dropping every few minutes so I went to the site office to report it.  As I walked into the office I saw someone vaguely techy looking standing in the doorway to a broom cupboard filled with servers, switches and wi-fi routers.  Ah-ha, I thought, they’ve got someone on the case already.  But no, he wasn’t a techy at all and was, in fact, merely holding the door open so that the electric fan that they’d stood in there pointing at the rack could do its job of cooling the cupboard down!

It’s been a rather toasty, globally warmed 30 degrees celsius down here in Surrey and it appears that the broom cupboard they are using as a server room is not only unventilated but doesn’t have aircon either.  By the time I got back to the apartment the internet seemed to be behaving so they either threw a web monkey at it in super-quick time or their wi-fi router doesn’t run well when it’s hot enough to fry and egg on it and the fan was doing the job.

Either way, I’m connected to the outside world again and I’ll appreciate my 20mbit broadband at home a little bit more when I get back.

Installing Google Chrome on OpenSuse with KDE desktop

While I am a political animal nowadays, I am, first and foremost, a geek and I’ve been indulging my inner geek this last couple of weeks by installing Linux on a couple of laptops.

I haven’t played with Linux for about 7 or 8 years so I went for one of the most popular distros.  It was going to be Ubuntu but it wouldn’t install on Mrs Sane’s laptop – a common problem with Ubuntu not liking the graphics card – so I plumped for OpenSuse instead and the KDE desktop.

The OpenSuse install went like a dream.  The Partition Manager wasn’t the easiest to understand but that’s largely down to me not really thinking about what I was doing properly so I ended up only partitioning half the drive (note to self: remember to resize the partition on the laptop).  The second install I did I did it properly – delete the Windows partitions, rescan the disk and go with the recommendations.

I encountered a couple of problems once I’d got OpenSuse and KDE installed which I’ll walk through below for the benefit of anyone else installing OpenSuse for the first time.

Changing your hostname

Figuring out how to change the hostname on KDE was the first thing that posed me a challenge but I found it eventually.  The hostname is the name of your computer as it appears on the network and OpenSuse randomly generates one for you.

Here’s how to change it:

Click on the Application Launcher button (where the Start button is in Windows).  Hover over the Computer icon at the bottom and then click on Yast.  You will need to provide your root password for Yast.  Select Network Devices on the left hand list and then Network Settings on the right.  You’ll get a message saying that the network is controlled by NetworkManager – just click ok.  Select the Hostname/DNS tab and put the new computer name in the Hostname box.  If your computer is part of a domain, put the domain name here, otherwise whatever you enter will be the workgroup your computer is a member of.  You may need to log off and back on again for the changes to take effect.

Installing Google Chrome

The other thing that gave me a headache was installing Google Chrome.  This one wasn’t as easy to resolve as the hostname thing but I got it figured out in the end.  If Google want to increase the take-up of Chrome on Linux then they really need to improve the installation process because it just doesn’t work on OpenSuse with KDE.  Here’s how to do it:

Go to and download Chrome.  Make sure you choose the correct installer – you want an rpm package.  Once the package is downloaded, open a Terminal window.  You need to be logged in as root to install Google Chrome so type in su – root, press enter and provide your root password.  The installer package will be downloaded to /tmp so type in cd /tmp.  Now you need to install the package – type in zypper – install google-chrome-stable_current_i386.rpm.

During the install you may be prompted for your root password and permission to install a number of packages – enter your password  and agree to the other packages.  Strangely, the installation package doesn’t actually install everything Google Chrome needs – without the png library, Chrome will load and then shut down without even displaying anything on the screen.  To install the png library, you need to run zypper -install pnglib12-0.

Google shuns St George

St Andrew’s Day …

Google Doodle St Andrew's Day

St David’s Day …

Google Doodle St David's Day

St George’s Day …

Google Doodle St George's Day

Now I can guess what the excuse will be – St George’s Day has been postponed until the 2nd of May by the church because it clashes with Easter and Easter is more important in the religious calendar than a saint’s day – but it’s not good enough.

It doesn’t matter whether there is congestion in the church’s calendar, St George’s Day left its religious roots behind a long time ago and is a national day for our country.  I don’t care what the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury says, England’s St George’s Day is on the 23rd of April every year.

So, to Google and Asda (who have decked out their Telford stores in British flags) and all the other shops around England that have ignored St George and stocked up on the butcher’s apron, I have only one thing to say: how dare you insult my country, fuck you.

I have Three. Yay!

Talking to a colleague at work about his problems with Orange (pretty much the same we’re having at Chez Wonko), I decided to phone Orange again to see what the score was following my phone call on Saturday.  The person I spoke to actually seemed to be doing something so thinking I was on a roll I decided to phone Three again.

The colleague in question had sent me a link to a website that said Three were opting out of network sharing with Orange in areas where they had good coverage.  Three think they have good coverage here which is why they turned a mast off so maybe they’d opted out of network sharing where I live?  They haven’t but the person I spoke to said “we don’t want you to leave us, let me see if we can fix your problem”.

What have I got to lose?  I’m waiting for Mrs Sane to sort out Orange so we can change networks together and like I said on Saturday, if Orange sort out their problem I don’t necessarily need to change networks.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at my phone this morning and it was on Three.  Not only was it on Three, it had a full signal.  They phoned me today and said they’d changed something at the mast so that I would get coverage while they sorted out another mast for the area which should be operational in about 3-4 months time.


Orange admits to 69.5% failure rate on mobile phone mast

The Orange rip-off saga continues unabated.  I eventually got Orange to disconnect my phone after a prolonged battle with customer services eventually got me talking to their network support people.  But I haven’t escaped Orange yet.

When I left Orange I changed to Three and it all went well for a couple of months until Three decommissioned a mobile phone mast near my house and left me unable to get a Three signal in my house.  And when you can’t get a Three signal, your phone roams onto Orange.  Same shit service at home, different name on the bill.

Orange, in their infinite wisdom, decided to turn off one of their masts a week later even though they’d already acknowledged a few months earlier that the network was congested.  If your car is running on 3 cylinders, you don’t take another spark plug out … unless you’re Orange.

Mrs Sane is still on Orange and tearing her hair out since they turned the mast off.  Since that weekend the pattern is the same – about lunchtime on a Friday you can’t make and receive phone calls or send and receive texts with any degree of reliability.  Most of the time it’s not possible to use the phone as a phone which is a bit inconvenient.  This goes on until Monday morning.

Mrs Sane complained to Orange and they agreed to release her from her contract if she wrote in to their head office.  She wrote in to their head office and I put a letter in the same envelope for #1 son’s phone which is also on Orange.  I haven’t had a reply but Mrs Sane got one denying there was a problem and insisting that their networks people said there is no problem.

The level of service is unacceptable.  I provide 24 hour cover for work every other week and the on-call phone is on Orange.  The last two times I’ve been on call I’ve had to give my house phone number to my employer because the mobile phone doesn’t work.  Mrs Sane can’t use her phone and neither can #1 son.  I can’t use my Three phone because roaming connections are dropped off first and neither can #2 son who’s also on Three.  My brother-in-law says that whenever he comes to Telford – and particularly where we live – he has the same problem.

Things came to a head today when Mrs Sane and I were trying to call each other this morning and couldn’t so I phoned Orange to complain again.  Five times.  It took about 30 or 40 attempts to make the five calls.  The first time a supervisor was going to call me but didn’t.  The second and third times I got cut off while I was on hold.  The fourth time I asked to be called straight back on my landline because I kept getting cut off but nobody called.  The fifth time I asked to be called back on my landline while I waited on the mobile and when they called me I didn’t bother wasting time explaining myself again and insisted on being put through to a network support person.

To my surprise I was put through to a network support person who was very helpful.  He checked the repeater mast at the end of our road and found that it was a bit poorly.  Well, when I say a bit poorly, what I mean is absolutely buggered.  The connection failure rate on that mast yesterday was 69.5%.  You haven’t read that wrong – 7 out of 10 attempts to connect to the network to make or receive calls, send or receive texts or use data resulted in a failure.  That is amazingly bad – a critical failure rate according to the networks person at Orange.  But according to Orange head office, there’s nothing wrong!

The nice networks man raised a ticket for an engineer to go and check it out next week.  He said it’s a line of sight repeated and it may have lost sight of a proper mast (the one they’ve turned off perhaps?) or just not be up to the job and needs cabling up instead.

It’s understandable that the first line support people don’t have access to that sort of information because they wouldn’t know what to do with it but it shouldn’t be so damn hard to get through to someone who can check out that sort of thing and deal with the problem accordingly.  I really hope they can sort the problem out because if I can get a reliable Orange connection at home, that means I don’t have to change from Three who I’m still really happy with, lack of connectivity at home notwithstanding.

Orange should have known there was a problem because that level of failure is just ridiculous but the big problem is people just accepting shit service and not reporting it.  If everyone who had a problem – and there are a lot of them – reported it they would have been more likely to have spotted a problem before now.

I’m not convinced that they’re going to fix the problem – certainly not in the short term – but let’s see what they say next week.  I am assured that I will have a phone call by Thursday at the latest to give me an update.

Help me choose: O2 or Vodafone

I’m beginning to think we’re jinxed when it comes to mobile phones.

Last week I posted about the dilemma I have now that Three have turned off the mast closest to my house.  I left Orange because it was so unreliable so staying on Three when I can only pick up Orange on my Three phone is no good and T-Mobile doesn’t work in my house.

Well now it’s becoming more of a pressing issue because Orange have also just switched off a mast and you’ve guessed it, it’s the mast nearest my house.  Getting an Orange signal isn’t a problem but making and receiving calls and sending and receiving texts is a problem and data connections are a rarity because the already overloaded Orange network is now maxed out all the time.

So in a nutshell, I’ve got a choice between O2 and Vodafone.  I’ve been asking on Twitter and Facebook and so far pretty much everyone has said Vodafone.  O2 are apparently having the same capacity problems as Orange and T-Mobile.  But what about Vodafone?  Everyone can’t be happy with Vodafone otherwise there’d be nobody on the other 4 networks!  Their data allowances are rubbish, as are their upgrades but what about the network?

The coverage checkers for O2 and Vodafone both show reasonable coverage for where I live – not as good as Orange, T-Mobile or Three – but there’s not much difference between the two.  So it’s just down to reliability, customer service and value for money but which one should I choose?  O2 or Vodafone?

A Dilemma

A couple of months ago I achieved a small personal victory against Orange who finally admitted that their network is struggling and terminated my contract early.  They’ve since agreed to pay me a quite reasonable amount of compensation for unreasonably keeping me in contract when they knew they couldn’t provide me with the service I was paying for.

So I changed to Three for a number of reasons, foremost of which was the value for money and the superior coverage.  For £32 per month I get a free network unlocked HTC Desire, 500 minutes of any network calls, 1000 minutes of Three to Three calls, 1000 texts, 120 MMS messages and 1gb of data.  On the coverage front, I get Three’s network which provides relatively patchy coverage nationally (but fine in the places I frequent regularly) and roaming access to voice and data on Orange – the largest combined coverage of any UK mobile network.

I have been more than happy with Three right up until last Saturday when my phone would no longer connect to Three and was stuck on roaming.  I assumed it was a local problem and after a few hours called Three to confirm they were aware of the problem.  They said there was no problem, it must be the phone and I should turn it off and take out the sim card, leave it for a few minutes and try again.  I left it overnight to see if the problem went away by itself but it didn’t so I tried what I was advised to do and that failed to fix the problem.

So I called again and was told it must be my phone and that there is a known problem with the HTC Desire that can cause it to latch onto a roaming network and be reluctant to move back to the home network.  I was told to take my phone to a Three or Carphone Warehouse shop and get it flashed to the latest version of the software under warranty.  The phone had updated that morning so I knew it was up-to-date but I reluctantly agreed to do as they said.  But later that day I went to a relative’s house and as soon as I travelled away from home, the phone picked up Three again.  “Ah-ha”, I thought, “that proves it’s the network”.

So when I got home I checked #2 son’s phone which is also on Three and his had the same problem.  I manually scanned for networks and it would only pick up Three on 2G – scanning with the phone set to 3G wouldn’t pick up Three at all.  So it’s definitely the network, without a doubt and I phoned Three back up again.  The person I spoke to this time told me that the mast by my house had been decommissioned and that they were currently working on the next nearest to upgrade it to take up the slack from the decommissioned mast.  This would take a couple of days, he told me.

Being a naturally suspicious person, I decided to go to the Three shop in town and check it out the following day.  I went, they checked and confirmed that what I was told was correct.  Brilliant, it’s not my phone and I just need to sit tight for a few days and it’ll be sorted.  Except it isn’t sorted because my phone still roams onto Orange as soon as I turn into my street and it’s been a week.  I called Three today to find out if the upgrade had been finished on the other mast – yes it has and there are no problems with any of the masts in my area.  You know what’s coming next don’t you?  I did and I sighed.

The handset faults person asked me for my software versions again and told me that I didn’t have the latest version.  I disagreed.  So did he.  He told me it was my phone and I needed to get it flashed.  I told him it wasn’t my phone and explained all the above again and asked him if he genuinely thought that it was all a co-incidence and that two different models of phone had spontaneously developed the same fault which only manifests itself in my street and started when they turned off the mast near my house?  He said it could be.  Clearly it isn’t.  This is what I do for a job – I diagnose and fix application infrastructure faults for a multinational IT company.

The aforementioned handset faults person got his supervisor to phone me back and we went through it all again.  He didn’t try and blag me the like his colleague did though and agreed that it was Three’s fault.  He offered me a different handset or to terminate my contract without charge.  As I’ve already proven it’s not the handset with #2 son’s phone, the only option is to terminate the contract and go elsewhere.

But here’s the dilemma: my phone works in the house, it just can’t get a Three signal so it roams onto Orange.  If I’m on a call when I turn into the street it invariably cuts me off as it tries to keep the Three signal for as long as possible and ends up cutting me off because it’s too late to switch the call to Orange.  And I came off Orange for a reason – the network is overloaded and unreliable.  But I won’t get the deal I’ve got from Three if I go to another network – I won’t get the data, the free calls or the coverage.

Obviously Orange is out of the question so that leaves me with T-Mobile, O2 or Vodafone.  We’ve dabbled with T-Mobile and it was nothing special and then they built a new mast at the end of the road and the signal nosedived to the extent that it often wouldn’t work indoors.  So that leaves O2 or Vodafone.  Having worked for a mobile phone dealer, I know that Vodafone’s upgrades are shit – you have to spend quite a lot of money with them to get a decent upgrade when your contract is up so that leaves O2.  But O2 have overloaded their network with free data packages to the extent that their network in London was pretty much knocked out earlier this year for weeks.

So now you see my dilemma, what should I do?