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technology

2006 wishes doing well already

I certainly didn't expect my wish for a faster PowerBook to come so soon.

Ok it's called MacBook Pro (which doesn't have quite the same ring to it as PowerBook had) but it's fast and the FireWire ports stayed put (sorta).

Some notes: * I am irked by the loss of the FireWire 800 port as I just love my LaCie FireWire 800 disk and was about to buy a 500Gb one. I hope they at least create an ExpressCard with FireWire 800.

  • I'm not bothered by the loss of PC Card as it's a flipping ancient standard.

  • Also not bothered by slower DVD burn speed, that's hardly the slowest thing in the process when creating video.

  • I was really bugged by the loss of an old-fashioned dial-up modem. At first I just thought it undermined the roadwarrior nature of the machine. But then I had a think and realised I haven't used a dial-up modem in a year and a half so I certainly can live without one. Of course as someone who was heavily into the BBS scene and ran my own BBS I'm nostalgic to lose the modem and the lovely sounds of the connection negotiation. But that's life, constant change.

Have I ordered one? Not yet, I'm probably going to give it 3-4 months. As much of my most used software – Mailsmith, Fireworks, Office, Skype etc is not universal yet, there's no point rushing and who knows what other goodies are in the pipeline…?

P.S. I'm also holding off the iLife / iWork updates not because I don't want them but because my hard disk is nearly full and there's no point replacing if I'm trading up in 3 months.

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technology

Islands of Information

Snow on Tree, Poland 2006

The snow and the vodka of Christmas in Poland are but a distant memory now.

I'm knee deep in one of the banes of my professional life: Islands of information.

Years ago we produced a detailed Flash presentation explaining how large companies suffer when their data is stranded in islands of information created by the different software used by various corporate functions such as accounting, stock control, marketing, payroll and so on. Our client was a leading ERP supplier for the construction industry – their message was all about switching to a single integrated system. Despite spending a huge amount of time on this presentation never once did we think the islands of information would be an issue for us and our school clients. (The presentation is still online here [3.3Mb Flash])

Every week I'm presented with a new format for storing alumni, parent, pupil and teacher data. Naturally every vendor has designed their database in a unique way and, if they provide an export feature at all, outputs in their own special layout of columns and rows. Some don't believe in normalisation so you end up with three people per row. Others believe in such levels of customisability it's impossible to create a re-usable tool.

Of course our system uses its own unique data structure too, though it's fully normalised. Which is great apart from when I need to normalise 7,000 rows from someone else's program into 21,000 rows for our system. Dates are a horror too, some use yyyy-mm-dd or dd/mm/yyyy whilst others have a separate column for each portion of the date. sigh

Data conversion and transposition tools aren't new and the problem we face every week isn't new. And that's probably the most depressing thing. We've come so far in so many ways yet when it comes to representing people systems are continuously re-inventing the wheel. There are too many standards floating around to define people and their relationships to each other – the result being that none have been settled on.

If everybody could export and import vCard (or whatever I'm not arguing for any standard here, just a standard) life would be a breeze.

Instead I'm left to keep tweaking our command-line Java tool for data conversion. Because while mapping one field in one database to a different field in another is easy, it's the little yet big problems of normalisation and data formats that take a human to mess up and hence sort out.

Horses in Snow, Poland 2005

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technology

Online Communities – it’s turned out ok

Barry Wellman's short Communications of the ACM article on the development of online communities over the past 3 decades leaves you with a warm feeling.

Why? Because he concludes that while ICTs have changed the nature of our communities to more specialised, less-geographically based relationships overall our human contact isn't suffering. Our social networks are filling the gaps between face-to-face interactions and not taking away from them… Our networks are becoming ever more interlinked and much more person-to-person, so less place or institutionally based.

We're in the midst in some major shifts in the way social interactions and connections work. I've no idea where we're headed! Exciting.

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technology

The Spam that goes beep in the night: Stopping SMS Spam

The other night my wife's mobile beeped and vibrated as two SMS text messages barged into her phone at 4am. We were both delighted seeing as the phone was on the bedside table, waking us both. The next morning she checked and saw two lovely spam messages.

Hence the past hour or so spent trying to stop it from happening again. We're both with T-Mobile and they're call centre staff are usually quite helpful so I gave them ring. After faffing through the menus (joy) I got through to a human who told me one thing several times “There's nothing we can do about spam.” Right, thanks buddy.

Phone Scream

He was nice and friendly as he said it. But still he could have said “Have you tried registering with x” or “If the spam persists report it to our unsolicited messages team” or “Your phone has a feature to block certain numbers” or even “If you pay us we can block it.” But no, nothing, zip, nada. Not interested.

So, as always, I went online and started by searching all of the barely usable T-Mobile UK site for 'spam' or 'unsolicited' which resulted in… nothing. With lots of fiddling, opening the site in Firefox and Safari eventually I found “Unfortunately, it's not yet possible to bar incoming text messages.” Great.

So after lots of Googling the best I can do, it would seem, is register our numbers with the Telephone Preference Service which may do the job. Let's face it, the network operators profit from every SMS message sent, so why stop the little money makers?

The information I've found has been sketchy and contradictory but I believe there is EU legislation pending to try and cut down on SMS spam. It's dependent on how each country implements it though… I think we're yet to see the UK version. I hope in the future phones will offer filters for this kinds of thing while the spammers themselves get thwacked by the authorities. Hopefully, maybe?

I'll let you know if we get less SMS spam too…

The Others

In the interests of completeness I then had to go and check out the other phone networks. So in descending order of patheticness here's my findings:

Vodafone have a VSPAM service which seems fairly pro-active. Any message sent to the VSPAM service is going to be blocked, they imply. If an 090 number is in the spam they also pass the spam to the appropriate regulator.
http://online.vodafone.co.uk/dispatch/Portal/appmanager/vodafone/wrp?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=Page_BOS_MainContent&pageID=AV_0054

Orange aren't exactly spectacular in their help but they do offer useful tips and advice online. They also implicity do something about spam as they encourage users to forward spam messages to a special short code number. Still they don't do Blackberries so not much good for me.
http://www.orange.co.uk/about/contact/spam/

I finally cracked O2's dreadful site with an advanced Google search which showed one page just telling people to report messages to the premium number regulator ICSTIS. Not helpful or proactive at all. http://www.o2.co.uk/help/spam_advice/0,,500,00.html

I could find nothing at all about spam from 3.

SMS Spam Links

43% of text messages in the US are now spam according to Wireless Services Corporation.
http://www.informationweek.com/story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=60404039

Text spam complaints skyrocket in South Korea.
http://www.engadget.com/entry/1234000520024878/

Children burned by SMS Spam on the CBBC Newsround site.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/chat/your_comments/newsid_2450000/2450311.stm

Legal moves to stop SMS spam around the world…
http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,61226,00.html

Excellent overall guide to SMS Spam.
http://www.wiredsafety.org/gb/law/spam/sms_spam.html

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technology

Changing email address like changing hair styles

Across the communities we run at Swing Digital we've started tracking how often each field is changed in our members' profiles. It's proven to be an interesting exercise…

Across all our sites one field is the top or near the top of the most changed fields: email address.

Now I'm clearly not usual as I've had the same personal email address for around 10-11 years. I've got some other addresses in addition to that as time has passed, from my universities and work, but for most things I've registered with this one address. It's been a continuous thread for my online identity, but it would seem that this isn't the case for the membership of our clients' organisations.

People log on to the sites with their email address which perhaps helps them to be aware of when they need to change their address. Still members are actively changing their email addresses really often.

I wonder, is this due to the disposability of Hotmail and Yahoo addresses or just that people move jobs so often? Share your comments and experiences.

Comments from the previous version of this blog:

Spam
Need I say more?
15:42:18 GMT 28-10-2005 lee

Tinned Meat
Does spam *really* force people to change their email addresses so often? I always saw changing address as a short term fix only, seeing as so many spams just seem to try any and all addresses at every domain name they can lay their hands on.
Perhaps not. Before SpamSieve and SpamAssassin (yes it takes both) I was struggling with spam too…
19:16:09 GMT 28-10-2005 Jason Kitcat

not everyone is aware
My experience is that the average, who seem to compromise the majority, of internet users still don’t really know that much about spam and it’s prevention. I too have had the same personal (ISP provided) email for a several years, I haven’t changed it since I last changed ISPs and wont change it unless I change ISP again. I also have a ‘trash’ email which I do use if ever I need to enter details anywyhere that I think may be a bit risky (and yes I have ‘fun’ email addresses for when I feel like using them)- but it’s only ever needed to be changed once. So many internet users I come across though go around entering their email address willy nilly in any box that asks for it, posting it on public forums and handing it out to all and sundry – then they wonder why they need to change it.
00:33:54 GMT 01-11-2005 manny

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technology

Linksys WAG54GX2 SRX Modem Router Review

It wasn't my intention but I ended up being an early adopter of the new Linksys Modem Router. So I thought perhaps a review would be of benefit to others.

In the past few years I've been through ADSL modems from BT, Binatone, D-Link, Hermstedt and Netgear. The BT one was like a rock, but I couldn't reconfigure it when I moved. The Netgear one was okay but I asked a lot of it and I ran into some firmware issues which wouldn't bother most, same for the D-Link but it was a little less user-friendly than the Netgear. The others aren't worth discussing.

Through this modem orgy I stuck by my Apple Airport Extreme basestation (sans modem or aerial port) and it coped fairly well. The administration software is lovely, the USB printer sharing is fabulous and of course it looks nice. But range and performance is pretty uninspiring, especially if you allow for 802.11b and 802.11g clients.

With my recent move the Airport was just not reaching all corners of the house and garden, modest as they are. I also was tired of the occasional game of reset the routers when one began to diagree with the other, or something, I couldn't be bothered to diagnose the issue hence my fiendish use of an unbent paperclip on the reset buttons.

So I warmed up Google and set about finding an all-in-one ADSL modem and Wireless router which was going to be stable, fast, secure and easy to configure for my occassionally demanding needs. It was harder than I thought it might be – really high-end stuff like the Proxim ORiNOCO AP-700 (for Xmas please!) assumes a big corporate network so have no ADSL functionality. At the other end loads of no-name boxes have minimal reliability thanks to their absurdly low pricing.

To cut a long story short I found out about the WAG54GX2 which wasn't actually showing on the UK Linksys site but I tracked it down on the oddly named NickKnows.com for an excellent price and had the box in my hands in no time.

Let's manage expectations here – it's not like taking an iPod out of its box, but nevertheless the out-of-box experience was pretty darn good. I was up and running in no time, once I read the help to understand the different terminology Linksys use compared to other vendors. The configuration interface is sensible and filled with piles of useful and intelligent options. The two aerials for MIMO (basically more speed, more range) are not precisely attractive, but who cares – I've been using this baby a week or two and it's been rock-solid reliable and fierce fast.

Here's my signal-strength test data collected using a 15″ PowerBook with an built-in Airport Extreme card with iStumbler's signal readout…

Apple Airport Linksys WAG54GX2
Study 19-33 37-49
Lounge 39-42 46-55
Garden steps 21-28 19-27
Hammock
at end of garden
0 8-23

Quite a difference… I can actually surf from the hammock – bliss.

The only problem I can report is that the router's DMZ option doesn't seem to be honoured, so that if you set an IP address to be in the DMZ it should be fully accessible to the outside world but it isn't. I got around this using the port-forwarding options, more fiddly but good enough. I really couldn't recommend this box enough, it's the best I've found anywhere

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technology

d.construct – Brighton flexes it’s Web2.0 muscle

Yikes, this is cool. There's gonna be some serious validation of Brighton's webbiness with the ultra-web 2.0 mini-conference d.construct on 11th November.

It's being organised by some CSS gurus and Cory Doctorow is speaking, what on earth else could you want from a tech event?

I'm going to have to change a flight to Marseilles to get to this, so if everyone snaffles the limited 100 tickets before I get one, I'll be peeved

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technology

You know mobile roaming rates are too much when…

the flipping EU gets heavy with a dedicated website to help consumers find the best rates.

The site isn't going to win any design awards but it's a serious move by the EU to try and normalise the rates. A fundamental key to the EU's economic success is ease of movement for citizens, this is hampered by the extraordinarily high fees mobile operators currently hit us when out of our home turf.

I've been hammered by T-Mobile on many an occasion, no so much in the EU was when in Dubai. Outside of the EU they even charge you for missed calls redirected to voicemail – so even if your phone is off you pay (mine was dead due to a large wave splashing in and soaking the darn thing).

Whilst the EU's site is helpful it's tough as a consumer to balance things out: T-Mobile is the cheapest in the UK for my needs (Blackberry and any network minutes) but O2 is much cheaper in the EU. Hmmm…

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technology

Virtual communities: It’s not over yet…

I called Infonortics and it's true that the Virtual Communities conference has been cancelled for this year. It's an event I've been meaning to attend for years and something has always got in the way…

Still it's a bit surprising to read terms like 'old-skool' or 'over the hill' raised in relation to virtual or online communities. It's a terminology game you see… virtual communities = message boards & email groups. Social networking = blogging, buddy lists etc Some argue that the 'new' social networking tools are more user-centric and less discursive creating less room for true discussion. In some cases that's true but instant messaging can create wonderful hyperlinked spaces for intelligent discussion, just as much as web-based boards can also do so.

I think this is just silly jargon. Call human to human interaction online what you want but I figure that Skype, LinkedIn and co are all Online Communities. In fact I'd be more than happy to argue that social networking is a subset of Online Communities – which is why I'm sticking to being an online community consultant.

(via the local e-democracy national project blog )

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technology

TomTom GO 300

My brother-in-law is an HGV driver. He's just come over to the UK to start working here and he doesn't really know his way around the rounds. He could manage with maps, he did around Eastern Europe, but he wants to make a good impression with his new employers.

So he went out and bought a TomTom GO 300, and who was I to stop him? Obviously I had to test it for him, just to make sure it worked, you know how it is.

I'm very very impressed. It's very, very easy to use; totally multi-lingual and utterly cool. The 3D view is perfect – the road you're on just sort of continues ahead onto the screen which shows your position at just the right angle. There's something very cool about cruising around a junction at night (there's a gentle night vision colour scheme, natch) watching your arrow zoom down the road – of course I was watching very carefully as I was driving (cough).

It's truly simple, just enter your destination postcode and you're off. If you get lost, which I tried intentionally a number of times, and the TomTom doesn't get flustered. It recalculates your route and just tells you to take the next appropriate turning – there are no demands to make immediate U-turns nor does the polite person inside give up in exasperation.

I love that it's so portable, easy to fit in the car and it shows where the nearest petrol stations are! I'm always looking for a pit stop with only fumes in my tank.

The TomTom can also be connected with a GPRS mobile for live traffic and weather info, I haven't tried that but it sounds good. You can also update and expand the the TomTom through its USB link, or through the SD card for storage. My brother-in-law wanted to load up a Polish voice on the TomTom so I dutily fired up my PowerBook. I wasn't expecting much joy, every other device like this has never worked with a Mac straight up – I've always had to find a hack or give up.

But lo and behold the little beauty worked like a dream, mounting on my Desktop like any other storage device. Wonderful.

Can honestly say that this gadget is very close to being perfect. Sure a bigger screen, longer battery life and all that would be nice. But really at this price point I couldn't expect anything more.

The incredibly positive reviews on Amazon are justified.