Category: technology

A small confession.

I have been using computers for a long time. The BBC B on wheels at primary school, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum at home, the first rumblings of PC’s. Being introduced to the an early Bulletin Board System form of the internet in 1991 and thinking, “that’s rubbish.” Through out all that followed, my start on BBC Basic, through Microsoft Windows, 95, 98, 98se, Xp, dual booting with linux, building my own tower computer, moving to apple products, to my current all apple set up, there is one thing I have never done.

I have never chosen to use Microsoft Outlook as my default email client. It always seemed a bit weird, a bit like trying to cram Word into an email programme. Things change. Microsoft recently has become the company which is experimenting more than Google and Apple. Both Apple and Google became massive and overtook Microsoft was left as a big fish but not the biggest fish anymore. Perhaps it is a throw lots of stuff at the wall to see what sticks approach, in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. The phone adventure didn’t take off enough to support a vibrant app eco system. Given this failure, and the amount of Apple phones in the wild, both Google and Microsoft realised they needed to make apps that allowed people to use their products on Apple’s mobile devices, Google use their cloud based apps to provide a back end. Microsoft used their cloud service as a base to design a web app version of Word, Powerpoint and Excel that could live on mobile devices. They also released Outlook. This is a good decision as for lots of people this works as it pragmatically ties in with work tech decisions.

Well, now it is confession time. I now use Microsoft Outlook as the default e-mail client on my phone, even though I don’t need to for work.

Why? I hear you ask. Actually it is very good. I have been looking at email apps on the iPhone for a while as I am not happy with the performance of the iOS default mail app, so I wanted a replacement. While I have used many apps for the job, but none have really hit the mark, and Outlook is doing a great job currently. I don’t know if it will remain my default app longterm but it is decent so far.

The success Outlook has had with me is build on 2 main factors. First is the way it divides your email into two separate mail boxes. Focused and Other. Focused is where it takes the important mail. It guesses, (well i assume there is a complex algorithm and artificial intelligence at work here), which of the e-mails you review are important, and which aren’t. in the past month it has only got 1 email wrong. I run 4 email addresses through this outlook app. The app works well across 365 emails, other Imap accounts and gmail accounts, judging from the different accounts what goes where. Yesterday I had no emails in my focused box, all 63 emails I got yesterday went into the other account, and rightly so. The app loads into the focused mailbox, a decision that allows you to focus on the work you should be doing. When it loads in email it will tell you if email goes into the other account so you can check them, but it is built to let you ignore what can be ignored.

The second factor is the integration with cloud storage accounts. I use Dropbox and OneDrive for various things. (Despite using Apple products I do not trust Apples iCloud services with anything important.) The ability to save a attachment from my phone to my Dropbox account within the app is great. The old process using Apples universal “box with arrow” wasn’t a bad experience, but to have this streamlined is handy.

If I had to make a criticism the diary does support syncing with Apple’s calendar app nor with iCloud drive. This seems a bit of an oversight when the app does sync so well with some other apps. And as other apps have proved calendar sync is a thing that can be done well (including the old sunrise app that Microsoft bought in order to improve outlooks calendar functions). the other isssue is that this is Microsoft, the historic enemy of Apple, buying success. they bought the metal handling from accompli, the calendar from sunrise. The Outlook app is build on the work of another company that they bought. Internally it feels a bit like disliking a sports team who buy all the best players, but then in fantasy sports doing the exact same. There’s a dissonance about it.

Given all that it is a solid 8/10 for this app, it is not perfect but it is very good at what it does do.

Thinking about mobile phones – a small test of android.

ios-vs-androidMy phone is dying, I have used iPhones since the iPhone 3gs, I loved the 4s and I still use the 5s, (yes my phone is 3 years old). I had wanted to wait to see if the iPhone7 was the stunning leap forward is design and shape and deliciousness for mobile phone design. Perhaps it would be slither of glass resplendent with all the advanced tech for futuristic pop culture. Alas we got an iPhone6s-s, a refinement and incremental change on the 6s which was a refinement and incremental change on the 6. Given this I wonder about changing off apple for a year. My wife is very happy on android and her phones are good quality, shiny and attractive. So borrowed one to see how it compares.

Apple or Android.
It should be noted Apple aren’t really that innovative. (OK, the invention of the mouse was pretty revolutionary if they did invent it!), but since then they are not noted for inventions. The iPad was inspired by Steve Jobs watching people use a stylus on Microsoft tablets at a social event; Apples iPhone was definitely not the first smart phone; the watch and TV were both late arrivals to the smart watch and TV box market respectively. What Apple does have is control of the devices manufacture, software and cloud backend. This means that Apple can ensure that all software works on all forms of its hardware, also that all apps will run to a certain standard on all devices. For Android, Google controls the software and the cloud backend, but manufacture of the devices is in the main not controlled by them. This can be advantageous for google, allowing them to concentrate on their strengths, but it can also lead to a second layer of software engineering by companies such as Samsung, who include wrapper software to go between the Android software and the Samsung device. The effect of this is that android updates may need adjusted by the Hardware company for your particular phone before you can update.

Why not consider microsoft?
Microsoft devices are good generally, with Apple and Google both taking inspiration (while being legally different) by Microsoft design. For this test I do not have a Microsoft device to test so I cannot include it.

The test subjects,
Samsung galaxy IV running android 5.0.1
iPhone 5s running iOS 9.3.5
the reason for picking these older phones are
1- that iPhone is what I currently use.
2- that Samsung is what I have available to test and they are both about 3 years old.
3- all the hardware and software should work at the best it has ever been, right? (after three years testing, development and refinement.)

Initial impressions
The Samsung is big. much bigger that the 4.7inch iPhone, it is also lighter, much lighter, the iPhone feels like it has some heft to it. The iPhone feels better out of the case, while the Samsung feels plastic-y out of the case. When in the case they both feel like cases. The Samsung has a bright screen, due to a water incident a year or so ago the iPhone screen is permanently darkened.

Test task one – perform a factory reset.
iPhone – plug it in to computer, iTunes launches. On the iTunes page for your iPhone, you have the option to restore iPhone, click the button and a couple of confirmation boxes and it resets the phone.
Google doesn’t have the same software interface for the phone, so reseting the phone was trickier. I looked under settings in the phone menu with no success. A google search revealed the reset is achieved by booting into the equivalent of safe mode on your phone,
(Turn off phone. Press select button, volume up and power button at the same time and hold until after the Samsung logo appears, then let go of the power button while holding the other two.)
The problem with this is the screen is massive but the text on the screen in this new menu is tiny. I struggled to read what the options were. In this mode you use the volume up/down buttons to navigate and the power button to confirm. As a user experience, it is hostile and it clearly places the android phone as a computer in your pocket.  After performing this reset I then had to update the Android software on the phone. While iTunes handles this as one process with the factory reset if you wish, the android has a separate download and then update time. I took a good 30min to download and install all the updates on the phone.

task two – add apps to the phone
Both iOS and Android start you with a number of default apps on the phone with varying degrees of usefulness. iOS has considerably less of these default apps than Android. Both software platforms have shops where you can buy or download new apps. You do this by making an account, storing credit card details and a password, and then downloading apps. Both have search facilities and google play store search is better than the apple store search.

On the google play store I downloaded some of the key apps I use on iOS currently:
Lastpass – password vault
Runkeeper – exercise tracking
Spotify – music streaming
Podcast addict – podcast downloading and management
Hootsuite – twitter client
Dropbox – document cloud storage
Dropbox paper – note taking app (in beta, so trialing to see if it will take the place of Evernote long term.)
Evernote – notetaking app

On iOS the apps all run, but last pass does not offer to fill in the passwords within other apps login screens. You have to cut and paste which isn’t a very joined up experience. On Android the experience was generally good, with the exception of the Dropbox app, which stopped working and crashed on opening over a 24hr period, until I ran a software update. Secondly Spotify refuses to accept my password of let me log in (seven days now). I struggle to remember when a big high profile app that I use regularly behaved like this iOS over the last 6-7 years for me.

task three – add music to the phone
The iPhone plugs into your computer directly. As I have iTunes installed, it launches asking what you want to do with the phone, using tick boxes you select which music you wish to load and click the sync button, loading music is through the iTunes user interface. This requires a wire, a computer and your phone. With the advent of streaming services (including the purchase of the beats streaming service a year or two ago, Apple has introduced Apple Music, a subscription service where for a £9.99 monthly fee you can stream all the music you could want over the internet, including every piece of music in your iTunes library..
Googles preferred method of putting music on your phone is to upload all your music to their Google music service in the cloud. Then stream the songs from the cloud as you want or need them. This is great if you live with a reliable fast internet connection. (I don’t so this option is less great for me). The free layer of Google Play Music gives you streaming and 50000 song uploads, but song downloads for offline playback are only available as part of the £9.99 monthly membership.
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So how do you get the music onto the android phone using a cable rather than the cloud. Google guides you to download a programme called “Android File Transfer”. On opening this I was slightly shocked at how paired back it was. I dislike iTunes, but its graphical user interface is a graphical user interface. The AFT programme is a barebones file transfer manager. It felt like a computer thing which required a repertoire of computer knowledge to use. (I didn’t find a How to guide, and the lack of a empty music folder into which to insert files was disconcerting.) Having used file transfer programmes before I had an idea what i was doing and managed to get the stuff on the phone. But is was not intuitive to navigate a hierarchy of files to find where the files are and then create new folders within the phone or SD Card to place these files in. (and how do you handle playlists?)

Task four – general life.
in general life the battery lasts about the same for both of phones, the back button on the android phone is kinda handy and the screen is big and shiny. The iPhone does well and survives most things I put it through. In comparison the android feels slightly slower and less responsive than the iPhone. The only major black mark against the android was its refusal to connect with the Bluetooth in the car. this is unfortunate as I use this Bluetooth connection to listen to music and podcasts when I drive. The phone reception is significantly better on the iPhone. Phone call sound is clear and the microphone seems to be of comparable quality.

Conclusion.
I could live with android and be mostly happy. I am sure the Bluetooth issue and the Spotify issue would resolve themselves over time. These problems are problems I have never had with iOS.  The difference between Google as a cloud services company and Apple as a hardware company comes through in this small test, Google want everything in the cloud, (although, I object to the idea of upload all your music to the cloud and we will charge you to download it to your phone as I have already bought it once), as Google have a clear advantage in search and cloud services. Searching the Google Play Store gets you the right result. Uploading your documents to google drive is smooth, with a nice 15gb to fill, and the reports of google photos are very good.

I am reasonably clears I am not buying a new phone for its cloud services. This is perhaps because I am too aware of Apple, as a company’s failings in this area. I don’t trust the cloud of one company for too much, I tend not to use googles cloud services, I don’t use the Facebook app or any of its associated suite of apps as I am wary of using too much from one company especially when that companies main income sources is analysing my data to provide me with tailored advertising. I use different companies for specific cloud based services like, Lastpass for a password vault, Backblaze for hard drive back ups, Evernote for notes, Dropbox for files and sharing.Perhaps it is also a result of living in a borderline rural life where the idea of cloud computing is laughable when it rains.

So to buy the samsung s7 edge would cost an extra £475. the iPhone 7, an extra £600. At the moment the iPhone has clear advantages for me but £125 is a significant figure.

I don’t understand wheels #needhelp #brokenwheels #bicycle

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Background

I have been cycling recently. It was hard to fit in during the school holidays but I have been back to it over the previous few days, setting my fastest time ever for the Lanark route, (fastest measured in minutes per km). It has been good to get out and I have been concerted in my plan to ride every weekday. I want to cycle as I enjoy it not particularly on the hills, but hey i over took another cyclist while going uphill for the first time on Monday. Also socially several people I know cycle as a past time. My neighbour David can do one of the 22km routes I do around 14 minutes faster than I can flat-out out, my friend Rich is also around that time frame from the times I see on social media. If I want to ride with these guys then I need to speed up and train more. (also the benefits of losing weight are not lost on me…)

The problem

This morning I dressed, got the children ready for school and went to do some basic maintenance on my bicycle chain (cleaning with the new chain cleaner I got last night), to my horror three of the spokes in the rear wheel had snapped, must have happened on the ride yesterday. I am not risking riding in the rain with a compromised back tyre.

The help

The wheels are the standard wheels on the bike when i bought it 3 years ago.
The bike is the standard bike I bought off the shelf 3 years ago.
I was thinking of upgrading some components from solid to decent.

So what wheels should I buy?
not a large budget but enough to cover new wheels and a set of winter road tyres (around £200 hopefully).
Why are some wheel sets different sizes? – what is the advantage? (currently both of mine are the same size)
What is a decent winter road tyre for Scotland?

Email Spam

I have been receiving a lot of email spam recently. I wonder if my filters have been changed at web domains? The thing I have noticed about this spam is it almost convincing.

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This Fedex email look very convincing. The old chestnut of don’t open an attachment on a email your not expecting kept me from opening it but i did have an urge to open it.MXlab warning on this email

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the lloydstsb email was slightly less convincing as TSb has been spun off into its own bank, I was pretty sure that the email as fake, but still I did wonder. the sane security blog warning on this email

These professional looking emails made me consider why they were so close to being accurate and why others were so bad. I remembered this…

Finally, this approach suggests an answer to the question in the title. Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.

Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria? – Cormac Herley, Microsoft research.
it comes down to the difference in what they want. the virus email people want information without being noticed. the Nigerian guys want to be noticed and want a one time interaction. By being good, the virus people get a lot more potential targets thereby distributing their virus thingy, widely. As the Nigerian scam guy needs someone gullible to send him some money, they need to ensure only gullible people click on the link and one way to achieve this is to make the link comically suspicious.

I thought the internet was meant to make our lives easier?

Listening differently

NadelAufPlatteSince christmas I have been listening differently. Thanks to my wife and children I was able to get a new amp and pair it with a vinyl turntable. Yes we are living in the future and I have embrace the technology of 100 years ago!

The amp is a Marantz PM6004 and the vinyl is being played on an Rega RP1. They are wired up to a pair of 16 year old Tannoy Mercury M2.5’s.
rega

The sound is warm, solid, clear and fills the room no problem. The next task would be to replace the speakers. The Salvation Army second-hand shop in Perth has a pair of Linn speakers for sale second-hand for £900 which I am sure I could make use of… but i digress.

Music wise I am rocking a mix of vinyl form two sources.

Source one is various things I have collected from way back, from when I would DJ for people and briefly volunteered in a second-hand shop.  Frampton comes alive, Dylan at the budokan, Dire Straits, and others.

 

Source two is more recent vinyl which has focused around albums from the recent best of lists i have made; the national high violet, my morning jacket circutal, and other records I think could benefit from being heard on vinyl; over the Rhine meet me at the edge of the world, the innocence mission we walked in song and the fanfarlo albums.

Vinyl is usually more expensive than cd or download, but it does have some advantages. Firstly vinyl has a physicality to it which is significant. The 180gram vinyl has some weight to it in comparison to CD’s. Playing music physically takes some commitment and attention. The turning of a record takes care where as CDs can be thrown around reasonably easily. (Throw about an iPod at your own risk!).

I am not sure if the music is better or not but I feel a lot more involved and conscious of the process which is surely a good thing.

This corresponds with an increased consideration vinyl within the mainstream media. for example John Harris is great in this article on the guardian long reads website on the dangers of the vinyl revival. (The accompanying podcast is also worth subscribing to). and this article from the New York Times describing some deeper issues around vinyls comeback. Plus Tom Gauld’s illustration is fabulous for it.

so there it is.

The chances are I will be writing or tweeting about vinyl a bit more, and it will be noticeable. Getting excited about Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foils choose your own colour of Vinyl release of Goliath, or stumbling across the 180 gram coloured vinyl reissue of Sufjan Stevens Seven Swans. It’s Just a part of me which is ok, and geeky, and abiding.

Twitter, Tr0lls and Hobbes.

Twitter has been in the news recently. The news reports speak of Tr0lls, people who deliberately use the service to shout abuse, issue threats, and insult other users. This morning, Michelle Mone, has been on TV talking to both ITV and BBC about her experience on Twitter. Click here for a report.

Within youth work this concern has been tackled by Young Scot. This is important as young people are seen as early adopters of new technology through their digitally native upbringing, conversely young people are regarded as a vulnerable group within society, and as such need to be treated as digitally naive.

calvin-hobbes-impersonates-dad

Hobbes, like Machiavelli, had a low view of human beings. We are all basically selfish, driven by fear of death and the hope of personal gain, he believed. All of us seek power over others, whether we realize this or not.
Warburton, A Little History of Philosophy.

Hobbes main idea is that the only thing that keeps our selfish side from coming out is the rule of law the threat of punishment, you could call it society. Hobbes life without these rules or threat of punishment, life outside society would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In order to keep society together you need a strong leader, or a strong government. you also need people to buy into a social contract of not being selfish. giving up the dangerous side of being or the safety of society.

When you look at Twitter and it use by tr0lls it does look much like Hobbes analysed. It lacks any policing and any threat of punishment. Is that a bad thing?
logo_twitterpolice
Yes.
because people are digitally naive. I consider that people are generally good, and a few bad apples spoilt it all for us. I say this from an awareness I am white, I am male, I live in the country, with a comparatively affluent lifestyle. I don’t see the shit of life. I don’t life in the nasty underbelly of life. I don’t see my neighbourhood being oppressed. I don’t have gangs on every corner of my streets. My neighbours do not go hungry on a regular basis. Life is good, comfortable. The practice of tr0lling brings a piece of nastiness, a glimpse of the underside of life into my path. It makes me more conscious that oppression is real. People have nasty experiences everyday and I may unthinkingly contribute to that. Without speaking about sexism, racism, the outrage of need for food banks within Scotland, people living in substandard housing. then I would by my silence be complicit with this oppression. I would be giving Tacit approval to this state of affairs.

I have once been in the situation where I caused great concern to someone by a comment I made on twitter. It was meant as a sarcastic remark but caused remarkable pain to someone else. I apologised immediately. I asked to apologise in person but was not told who it was I offended. I apologised publically using twitter, and since then have never made a comment like that again, (hopefully). It bothers me I made that comment and secondly I didn’t get to apologise in person. What moderated my usage was someone telling me I had crossed a line.

So the lack of policing is a good thing?

No.
I can only imagine how horrible it is to have people attack you for being who you are. I can only imagine how horribly it is to have people deliberately threaten you verbally, threaten you physically, and threaten your family and friends. Just because you can delete your account or block abusive people does not mean that you are safe or that people should be allowed to say whatever they like on the internet.

What does twitter needs is a society to actively moderate itself. A community to engage with it and speak up when things arent right. A community willing to engage and say, that over the line, to speak and say that’s not right.

iOS app Fiete – a game for toddlers

With my daughter getting ready to go to school after the summer. 4 or 5 years of attempting to find good, fun, interesting apps for toddlers is coming to an end. Hence it is time for a short series of app reviews featuring some of our favourite apps for this age group 3-5 year olds.

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Fiete
website- http://www.fiete-app.com/
app store link – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/fiete/id586669403?mt=8

Fiete is a simple game, you are accompaning a sailor in a world where thing have went wrong and your job is to help them get better. You help accross 15 scenes (or i would call them senarios) and 3 games, In each scene or senario, you can play and interact with the world making it better.

The game runs on iOS maeaning touch is an intergal part of the game, for example onthe scenes opens with this image-
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you can see a seed, a pot with some soil, and our sailor friend. using your finger you drag the seed into the soil
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and then get treated to a simple animation of the change you have made.
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As an app its joy is derived from logical actions from the child, see the problem, find the solution and enjoy the reaction. It is this way of engaging children with game logic that
I like. How do you at 14 or 15 become really good at computer games, or logic puzzles, or homework, or perhaps change the world and society? By this really simple encouragement to play, be creative and do the simple things well.
How do we create a healthier society? well we give all the sick people the medicine they need to be healthy for free at the point of need. it strikes me that adhering to a simple outworking of this game gives us a bit of hope for the future course of how our society functions, but also this wee game gives us a reminder, that as adults, we are responsable for doing the simple uncomplex changes which makes tomorrow grand.

Plus there is a sailor with an hat, seriously, who doesn’t like a sailor in a hat?

Computer games research hits the headlines.

Torus_Trooper_-_Game_Over

Aggression from video games ‘linked to incompetence’ – BBC News
Video Gamers’ Aggression Born From Frustration, Not Violence: Study – NBCnews
(and others)

So the interwebs news reports on some research from Oxford and Rochester universities. This is good news as this type of research needs to be considered widely. Aggressive reactions to computer games are due to the difficultly of the task you are asked to complete, not the game scenarios you play. Thats good findings. But as I read the news reports I found questions come up.

Take this explanation of one of the experiments.

In one experiment, undergraduates held their hand in a bowl of painfully cold water for 25 seconds. They were led to believe that the length of time was determined by a prior participant, but in fact, all participants were assigned the same duration. Next, participants were randomly asked to play either a simple or challenging version of Tetris, after which they were asked to assign the amount of time a future participant would have to leave their hand in the chilled water. Players who experienced the difficult Tetris game assigned on average 10 seconds more of chilled water pain to subsequent players than those who played the easy version.

tetris game screen

Eh?
So they inflicted pain on people, lied to them about why they had the painful experience, asked them to play a game of Tetris, after the game, the participants decide how much pain someone else should get. I am not sure the effects of the game difficulty which is causing the player to react? I realise I am easily confused, but that seems weird. I don’t know this is really the experience to be able to make findings upon. Within the paper there are seven different approaches used. This experiment was one selected to be reported in the press.

The second thing which occurs to me is the experience of the player.
If you play games regularly you develop a repetoire of skills and knowledge which is applicable, within a game setting. The theory (Sicart) argues that Video Games only have a restricted number of things you can do. As your repertoire increases so does the amount of strategy you can call on. Your ability to cope with new game scenarios and higher levels of difficulty increases. In this research what game experience did the players have? How did the players repertoire affect the findings, was it considered? Reading the article, yes it was. In the article there were 7 experiments and player competence was actually named and considered as a key factor in the study.

The last thought is the role of failure within computer games. Jesper Juul in his book “the Art of Losing”, considers that games exist in a paradox. We as humans prefer success to failure. We enjoy games. But games are an exercise in repeatedly failing. We enjoy failing in this game context. How does this aggressive behaviour study actually address this paradox? How does it move beyond a computer games are linked to aggression stand point to actually consider the very nature of games and how this experience then affect the person.

Sadly it doesn’t deal with this issue. It doesn’t even refer to this a part of the game experience. I think this is a fatal weakness which undermines this researches usefulness. If the central premise of your study is around our reaction to failure why pick a medium which has a predominancy to failure, yet paradoxically is a very popular and enjoyable space for expressions of failure?

Why not something with more of a 50-50 chance of failure. If I replaced video games with soccer, or trying to find a car parking space in a busy car park would the research or findings be different. This seems to indicate that the designers of the study decided early on that video games and aggressive reactions were significantly linked, thereby betraying a low view of video games and those who play them. Computer games are reasoned to cause more agression than other example, by inference, they are a negative way of spending time. Is the failure cause actually important to the research? This research is not about computer games and their players at all.

I know my analysis of this stuff is probably wrong, but here goes. If I was cynical I would guess that the research has used computer games in order to speak about the links between video games and aggression with a knowledge that this is a topic newspapers like to comment on. Being generous I would guess they are trying to challenge the perceptions of aggressive behaviour and games being linked. Unfortunately by not dealing with ongoing relationship between failure and video games, a vital element of the very nature of video games, they have not actually dealt with their research subject.

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