Posts tagged ‘computing’


We need to change how we consume and share media as Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns us about privacy and ‘fake news’

18.03.2017


Paul Clarke/CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37435469

Above: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Earlier this month, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote an open letter expressing his concerns about the evolution of his invention, the World Wide Web. (Interestingly, he writes the term all in lowercase.)
   It wasn’t just about ‘fake news’, which is how the media have reported it. His first concern was, in fact, about our losing control over our personal data, and determining when and with whom we share them. It’s something I’ve touched on regularly since 2011, when Google breached its own stated policies over user-preference collection for advertising purposes, something that Facebook appears to be following suit with mid-decade. This was long before Edward Snowden blew the lid on his government’s monitoring, something that’s happening to citizens of other occidental nations, too.
   Sir Tim writes, ‘Through collaboration with—or coercion of—companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused—bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.’
   But the one that struck me as very pertinent to publishing is Sir Tim’s second point. It’s the one that most news outlets seized on, linking it back to ‘fake news’, a term now corrupted by the executive branch of the US Government when attacking coverage that it doesn’t like. However, Sir Tim’s points were far broader than that. And it’s evident how his first point links to his second.
   It’s not hard to see that there is biased coverage on both the right and right wings of US politics (interestingly, they call it left and right), although Sir Tim points to how ‘a handful of social media sites or search engines’ show us the things that appeal to our own biases through their algorithms. ‘Fake news’ then spreads through these algorithms because they play to our prejudices. He writes, ‘those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.’ These sites are able to determine what we see based on the data we’ve given them, willingly or unwillingly.
   It’s so far from the ideals of the World Wide Web that it’s sad that the medium, which was once so expansive and inspirational as we surfed from one site to the next to read and absorb information, has come to this: a tool for becoming more insular, the first path to the idiocracy.
   Google, as I wrote last year, biases itself toward larger sites, no longer rewarding the media outlet that breaks a news item. The incentive to be that maverick medium is, therefore, lessened greatly online, because the web isn’t being ranked on merit by the largest player in the search-engine business. It’s why Duck Duck Go, which doesn’t collect user data, gives search results that are generally fairer. We think it’s important to learn alternative viewpoints, especially in politics, otherwise the division that we already see in some countries will only deepen—and at worst this can lead to war. In peacetime countries, a compatriot with opposing political thoughts is not our enemy.
   Facebook’s continued data collection of user preferences is also dangerous. Even after users opt out, Facebook’s ad preferences’ page demonstrates that it will keep collecting. Whether or not Facebook then uses these preferences is unknown—certainly Facebook itself clams up—but since the site reports journalists who alert them to kiddie porn, kicks off drag queens after saying they wouldn’t, and forces people to download software in the guise of malware detection, who knows if any of Facebook’s positions are real or merely ‘fake news’? Knowing the misdeeds of sites like Facebook—and Google which itself has been found guilty of hacking—do they actually deserve our ongoing support?
   Of course I have an interest in getting people to look beyond the same-again players, because I run one media outlet that isn’t among them. But we have an interest to seek information from the independents, and to support a fair and neutral internet. We may learn an angle we hadn’t explored before, or we may find news and features others aren’t covering. Better yet, we may learn alternative viewpoints that break us out of our prejudices. Surely we can’t be that scared of learning about alternatives (maybe one that is better than what we believe), or having a reasoned debate based on fact rather than emotion or hatred? And if you are sharing on social media, do you want to be one of the sheep who uses the same click-bait as everyone else, or show that you’re someone who’s capable of independent thought?
   It shouldn’t be that difficult to distinguish fake-news sites from legitimate media (even though the line gets blurred) by looking at how well something is subedited and how many spelling mistakes there are. Perhaps the headlines are less emotive. There is a tier of independent media that deserves your support, whether it is this site or many competing ones that we’ve linked ourselves. Going beyond the same-again sources can only benefit us all.

Originally published in Lucire’s online edition.

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Posted in culture, internet, media, politics, publishing, technology, USA | No Comments »


The big difference with the internet of the ’90s: it served the many, not the few

11.09.2016


Above: Facebook kept deleting Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph each time it was posted, even when Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten did so, preventing its editor-in-chief from responding.

There’s a significant difference between the internet of the 1990s and that of today. As Facebook comes under fire for deleting the “napalm girl” photograph from the Vietnam War shared by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland, then by prime minister Erna Solberg and Aftenposten newspaper, it has highlighted to me how the big Silicon Valley players have become exclusionary. In this latest case, it is about how one firm determines what is acceptable and unacceptable without regard to cultural significance or free speech; it even punished people who dared criticize it, and has failed to apologize. Earlier this year, in one of my numerous battles with Facebook, I noted how a major German company falsely claimed videos that did not belong to them, yet there was no penalty. An individual or a small firm would not have been so lucky: when we file copyright claims, we do so ‘under penalty of perjury’ on the form.
   Google, never far from my critical eye, is the same. I’ve watched Google News, for instance, become exclusionary, too, or, rather, a service that prefers big players rather than the independents. When deciding to send traffic for a particular news item, Google News now ranks big media outlets more highly, and to heck with journalistic quality or any regard on who broke the story first. It’s damaging to the independent voice, as Google concentrates power in favour of larger firms today, and it’s rather disturbing when you consider the implications.
   Mainstream media can be homogeneous, and, in some cases, damaging, when bias and prejudice get in to the system. When it comes to politics, this can be detrimental to democracy itself. And why should a search engine prefer a larger name anyway? Many newsrooms have been stripped of resources, ever more reliant on press releases. Many now engage in click-bait. Some have agenda driven by big business and their technocratic view of the world, especially those that have their corporate headquarters outside the country in which they operate. Those who desire to wake people up from their slumber get short shrift. Google is aiding this world, because since it became publicly listed, it has had to adopt its trappings, and one might argue that it is in direct conflict with its ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra (one which never held much sway with me).
   This is the world which Google and Facebook, and no doubt others, wish to serve up to users. They may well argue that they’re only delivering what people want: if a lot of people get their news from the Daily Mail or The Huffington Post, then that’s what they’ll show in their results. There’s little freshness online as a result, which is why people aren’t as inclined to share in 2016 as they were in 2010.
   Yet it was not always this way. The hope in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that Google et al would be tools in distributing power equally among all netizens. Started an independent online publication? If the quality is there, if you’re the first to break a story, then Google News will lavish attention upon you. If you have specialized news outside what mainstream media deliver, then you’ll pop up regularly in the search results’ pages. The blogosphere rose because of this, with people seeking opinions and research outside of what the mainstream could deliver. The reason people blog less isn’t just because of social networks making one-sentence opinions de rigueur; it is because people have found it harder to reach new audience members, and their own tribe is the next best thing.
   It makes the ’net a far less interesting place to be. Without fresh, new views, we run the risk of groupthink, or we become particularly influenced by the biases of certain media outlets. We don’t really want to surf casually as we once did because we don’t learn anything new: it’s harder to find novel things that pique our interests.
   There are potential solutions, of course. I tend not to Google, but use Duck Duck Go, so at least I don’t get a filter bubble when I search for particular subjects. However, Duck Duck Go does not have a comprehensive news search, and Google’s index size remains unbeatable.
   What we really need next is something that brings back that sense of equality online. I believe that if you put in the hours into good content and design, you should excel and get your site ranked above the same old sources. Google claims that it does that when it tweaks its algorithms but I’m not seeing this. Facebook merely builds on what people have found—so if you can’t find it, it won’t wind up being shared. Twitter, at least, still has some interesting items, but if you don’t catch it in your feed at a given time, then too bad. It’s not geared to search.
   Duck Duck Go is a start, at least when it comes to general searches. It becomes easier to find views that you might not agree with—and that’s a good thing when it comes to understanding others. Google’s approach lulls you into a sense of security, that your views are sacrosanct—and all that does is give you the notion that the other half is wrong.
   So what of news? Duck Duck Go could well be a starting-point for that, too, ranking news based on who breaks an item first and the quality of the site, rather than how much money is behind it. Or perhaps this is the space for another entrepreneur. Ironically, it might even come out of China; though right now it’s equally likely to emerge from India. What it then needs is a bit of virality for it to be adopted, spread by the very people it is designed to aid.
   We need something that rewards the independent entrepreneur again, the people who drove so many innovations in the 1990s and 2000s. This isn’t nostalgia kicking in, seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses while happily ignoring all those businesses that failed. I completely acknowledge there were sites that vanished at the time of the dot-com bust, triggered in no small part by 9-11, the anniversary of which we celebrate today.
   Society needs those distinctive voices, those independent entrepreneurs, those people who are willing to put themselves forward and be judged fairly. What they don’t need are reactionary media who want to silence them out of fear that the world will change too much for them to bear; and big Silicon Valley firms all too happy to join in these days.
   It’s high time the most influential websites served the many rather than the few again.

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Posted in business, culture, globalization, interests, internet, media, politics, publishing, technology, USA | 2 Comments »


Bye to the US news app that ranks the Steven Joyce dildo incident above Martin Crowe’s passing

04.03.2016

I’ve just switched from Inside, the much vaunted news app from entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, to Wildcard as my principal news app on my phone. I never got to use Circa (which I understand Jason was also behind), which sounded excellent: by the time I downloaded it, they had given up.
   But we all need news, and I don’t like the idea of apps that are from a single media organization.
   Inside seemed like a good idea, and I even got round to submitting news items myself. The idea is that the items there are curated by users, shared via the app. There was a bit of spam, but the legit stuff outnumbered it.
   However, I can’t understand the choices these days. A few items I put in from Radio New Zealand, Māori Television and The New Zealand Herald were fine—stories about the flag and the passing of Dr Ranginui Walker, for instance—but none of the ones about the passing of Martin Crowe, possibly of more international interest, remained.
   There were other curious things: anything from Autocar is summarily rejected (they don’t even appear) while I notice Jalopnik is fine. When it comes to cars, this is the only place where the publication with the longest history in the sector is outranked by a web-only start-up, whose pieces are enjoyable but not always accurate. The only car piece it accepted from me was about Tesla selling in Indiana, but Renault, Volkswagen, Lamborghini, Porsche, Aston Martin and other manufacturers’ news didn’t make it. This I don’t get. And I like to think I know a little bit about cars, in the week when Autocade hit 8,000,000 page views.
   Now, if this is meant to be an international app, downloadable by everyone, then it should permit those of us in our own countries to have greater say in what is relevant to our compatriots.
   Visit the New Zealand category, and you see a few items from yours truly, but then after that, they are few and far between: the Steven Joyce dildo incident, for example, and you don’t have to scroll much to see the Otago car chase being stopped by sheep last January. A bit more has happened than these events, thank you. No wonder Americans think nothing happens here.



According to Inside, these news items—separated only by one about Apple issuing a recall in our part of the world—are far more important to users following the New Zealand category than Martin Crowe’s death.

   The UK is only slightly better off, but not by much. I notice my submission about Facebook not getting away with avoiding taxes in the UK vanished overnight, too.
   News of the royal baby in Sweden wasn’t welcome just now. Nor was the news about the return of one of the Hong Kong booksellers, but news from Bloomberg of a luxury home on the Peak, which I submitted last month, was OK. Lula’s questioning by police has also disappeared (admittedly my one was breaking news, and very short), though Inside does have a later one about his brief arrest.
   Yet to locals, the rejected ones are important, more important than Gladys Knight singing to a cop or a knife on O. J. Simpson’s estate (which have made it).
   This is a very American app, and that’s fine: it’s made by a US company, and I’m willing to bet most of its users are American. However, the “all” feed, in my view, should be global; those who want news tailored to them already have the choice of selecting their own topics. (It’s the first thing the app gets you to do after signing in.) And if some fellow in New Zealand wants to submit, then he should have the same capacity as someone in the US. After all, there are more of them than there are of us, and I hardly think my contributions (which now keep vanishing!) will upset the status quo.
   Or does it?
   I mean, I have posted the odd thing from The Intercept about their country’s elections.
   Whatever the case, I think it’s very odd for an app in the second decade of the century to be so wedded to being geocentric. I can understand getting stuff weeded out for quality concerns—I admit I’ve posted the odd item that is an op-ed rather than hard news—but this obsession to be local, not global, reinforces some false and outdated stereotypes about the US.
   It’s like Facebook not knowing that time zones outside US Pacific Time exist and believing its 750 million (as it then was) users all lived there.
   My advice to app developers is: if you don’t intend your work to be global, then don’t offer it to the global market. Don’t let me find your app on a Chinese app centre. Say that it’s for your country only and let it be.
   Or, at least be transparent about how your apps work, because I can’t find anything from Inside about its curation processes other than the utopian, idealistic PR that says we’re all welcome, and we all have a chance to share. (We do. Just our articles don’t stay on the feed for very long.)


Wildcard has an attractive user interface, and its mixture of news is more appealing, especially if you want more depth.

   Admittedly, I’ve only been on Wildcard for less than a day but I’ve already found it more international in scope. It also has more interesting editorial items. It is still US-developed—east coast this time, instead of west coast—but it supplements its own news with what’s in your Twitter feed. It’s not as Twitter-heavy as Nuzzel, which I found too limited, but seems to give me a mixture of its own curation with those of my contacts. The user interface is nice, too.
   I’m not writing off Inside altogether—if you’re after a US-based, US-centric news app, then it’s probably excellent, although I will leave that decision to its target market. I can hardly judge when dildos matter more to its users than the greatest cricket batsman in our country.
   For me, Wildcard seems to be better balanced, it doesn’t make promises about public curation that it can’t keep, and I’ve already found myself spending far more time browsing its pieces than the relatively small amount that seem to remain on Inside. It is still a bit US-biased in these first 24 hours, probably because it hasn’t taken that much from my Twitter contacts yet. There seems to be more news on it and I’m getting a far better read, even of the US-relevant items. I’m looking forward to using it more: it just seems that much more 21st-century.

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Posted in business, China, culture, globalization, Hong Kong, interests, internet, media, New Zealand, politics, publishing, Sweden, technology, UK, USA | 1 Comment »


Capricious Cortana

23.11.2015

I have never seen a program as inconsistent as Microsoft’s Cortana.
   We were always taught that computers were very logical, that they all followed a certain set of code each time.
   Not so Cortana, which has had more different behaviours than anything I have ever seen.
   When I run into technical issues, it’s the fault of certain parties for failing to anticipate the behaviour of ordinary people or for adopting a head-in-the-sand position to bugs that are very real or crooked company policies. These have been covered many times on this blog, such as Six Apart’s old Vox site refusing to accept a log-in, or Facebook ceasing to allow likes and comments; and then there’s the human dishonesty that drove Google’s failures on Blogger and Ads Preferences Manager.
   This still fits into those categories, as Microsoft’s engineers on its forums are peddling standard responses, none of which actually work. One even damaged my start menu and forced a system restore.
   The bugs are so varied, and that to me is strange. Normally bugs will take one form and one form only. Address that, and your problem is solved.
   However, Cortana has done the following.

Day 1. Refused to work, with Windows saying US English was not supported (curious, given it’s an American program). I downloaded the UK English language pack. Worked perfectly for the rest of the day. How novel.

Day 2. Refused to work, but prompted me to set up again, and then it worked.

Day 3. Cortana becomes deaf. No prompts to set up again, but I do it anyway. It works again.

Day 4. I play with the microphone settings (by ‘play’ I mean clicking on a setting but not actually changing it) and Cortana would work intermittently.

Day 5. Cortana would not work except at night, and I play the movie quiz.

Day 6. Cortana claims my Notebook is inaccessible because I am offline. Clearly I wasn’t offline because I was doing stuff online.

Day 7, daytime. Cortana refuses to answer and sends all queries to Bing. The Notebook screen just displays animated ellipses.

Day 7, evening. Cortana works after I plug in my headphones (which has a microphone). After I unplug it, my regular webcam microphone starts picking up my voice again. Cortana works again.

Day 8. Cortana hears me say ‘Hey, Cortana,’ but then just goes to ‘Thinking’ for minutes on end. It might display, ‘Something’s not right. Try again in a little bit,’ after all that. Apparently Cortana still cannot retrieve my interests because I am ‘offline,’ which is amazing that I’m posting to this blog right now.

   The microphones work with other programs. And browsing the Windows forums, this has been going on since July. The November service pack was supposed to have fixed a lot of issues, but clearly not.
   I’ll be fascinated to see what it does tomorrow. But I am tired of the BS that their techs are dishing out as “solutions”. I’m being reminded why I don’t use Word or Outlook: because I have a short fuse when it comes to crap.

PS.: Day 9, same as day 8. Day 10, asked a few set-up questions (again) and it works, though ‘Thinking’ still came up for a few seconds on the first go. Day 11, worked without intervention (amazing!). Day 12, see day 7 (evening).—JY

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Posted in India, internet, technology, USA | 1 Comment »


My first day with Windows 10

17.11.2015

I never expected that the Windows 10 download would ever begin. I had registered for it, but the Windows 10 notification window kept coming up with various excuses, talking about my drivers being out of date, then claiming that because of the automatic log-in, the download would not start. Clicking ‘Tell me more’ never did a thing: that took you to Microsoft’s home page. This went on for months.
   But on a day when I upgraded a new office Mac to El Capitán (and migrated the old data on to it), and reinstalled Lubuntu on another PC which threw a wobbly after being asked to adopt the Cinnamon desktop (which took many hours), Windows 10 decided it was ready after all on my main Windows 7 machine, via Windows Update.
   First signs were promising, with the 2½ Gbyte download coming in five minutes, although the computer stayed on ‘Preparing for the upgrade’ overnight. I had heard that the upgrade process would take an hour or so, not overnight, so something was wrong. Typically I had this trouble with one of the Macs on OS upgrades—one took 18 hours while another took 30 minutes once—but this was new territory for Windows.
   One thing I will say for Windows is that when things go wrong, there is help. One piece of advice, which proved right, was to crash out of the process (using the process manager), and to start it all over again.
   Windows just need a second stab at it, and recommenced the download. This time the ‘Preparing’ window flashed up and was gone, and the hard yards then began. It did wind up taking just over an hour. Getting it on a second attempt isn’t bad, considering I’ve had Mac OS upgrades fail far more times than that.
   First impressions are pretty good though most Windows 7 initiés will tell you that things are a bit harder to find. Don’t believe a soul when they tell you it’s faster to boot up: it isn’t. I’m sure it takes an extra minute compared to 7. Doing some basic things in the File Manager takes more movements of the mouse, to open menus and to click, and the menus aren’t as streamlined once you open the panel to find the functions you used to see at a glance. Little annoying things included Windows 10 forgetting that I had set Cyberfox as my default browser—it really loves Edge, and admittedly, it is a nice, fast program—and the time zone changing without you noticing (I prefer GMT, but Windows kept altering it to NZDT). You have to dig a bit deeper into the menus to make these things stick, such as going through the default programs’ dialogue box, and turning off Windows’ ability to check the time. Having opted for UK English, Cortana refused to work—curiously, it claimed that the installed US English pack was an unsupported language, until I downloaded the same for UK English.


Cortana gives completely the wrong address for me. I wonder if the resident of 39A Aparima Avenue is getting identified as the home of a lot of Windows 10 users.

   There’s not an awful lot that Cortana can tell you. Most enquiries wind up on Bing, and she’s only really good for the weather and exchange rates (as I have discovered so far). There are a few fun questions you can throw at her, asking if she’s better than Siri, or whether if she’s met Bill Gates, but generally, but we’re far from Knight Rider or replicant technology here. A New Zealand accent presents no problems. One thing she gets very wrong is my location, which is allegedly 39A Aparima Avenue in Miramar. I’m not sure how she arrived at that address, as I don’t live there and I don’t believe I know the person who does.
   It’s not too unpleasant to look at although the mobile-specific features can get a bit annoying. The menus feel too large overall, because it’s all designed from a mobile-first standpoint, while the biggest gripe from me comes with the typography.
   Microsoft has ruined ClearType here in its attempt to make something for mobile first, and most type looks very poor on screen. Fortunately, a Japanese website still hosts the MacType plug-in, which brings the font display closer to what we experience on Mac OS X. It even goes beyond what we were used to in Windows 7, which had been Microsoft’s best use of its ClearType technology to date.


After installing MacType, ITC Legacy Serif looks far more like it does in print.

   You can alter the fonts through the Registry Editor, and I set about getting rid of Arial as always. Windows 10 doesn’t like you removing a system font, so the trick is to replace it with something else called Arial, then remove the original from HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Fonts.
   Windows 10 removes your ability to change the icon and menu fonts, and they now have to be changed in the registry, too, at HKCU\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics, and very carefully.
   After tinkering with those, the display began looking like what I was familiar with, otherwise there was a bit too much Segoe on screen.
   There have so far been no program incompatibilities. As upgrades go, it hasn’t been too bad, and I haven’t been stuck here forever downloading updates. Apple still gets higher marks for its OS upgrade processes (when they work) but given how much data I have on my main Windows machine, and how different each PC is, Microsoft has done a good job. I’m glad the system waited till now, and delivered me a relatively bug-free transition. Software upgrading is one area where I don’t mind not being first.

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Posted in design, technology, typography, USA, Wellington | No Comments »


The best mouse to buy might be a dead-stock one made in 2005

09.10.2015

With the mouse being the culprit on my main computer causing mouse and keyboard to be unresponsive in Windows 7 (I’ve still no idea when Windows 10 arrives and Microsoft has been no help at all), I decided to shop for a new one again.
   The failed mouse was one I bought in 2012, which also made it the most short-lived. Made by Logitech, I had expected better. It replaced a 2002 Microsoft mouse which was my daily unit, and that had failed around 2013.
   Another Logitech, a few years older, was already giving up the ghost when plugged into the office Mac, and I transferred that to an old Windows machine that we use very irregularly for testing. It was fine there, but the fact it only works on Windows (and Linux, as I later found out) meant that it’s faulty in some way.
   One thing I did know, although mice fail in my care less easily than keyboards, is that quality was important. Some months ago, Corporate Consumables advertised old-style Microsoft mice for NZ$12. Considering that type isn’t made today, I assume it was old stock they were trying to get rid of. It was the most comfortable I had used last decade, but it appeared that the NZ$12 sale was successful: there were none left.

   I headed again to Atech Computers on Wakefield Street, as Matthew had always looked after me and knew I could be fussy. He sold me a Lenovo mouse (above), which he believed would have better quality than the Logitechs, and let me try it out. It was fine at the shop—it was more sizeable than the Logitech—but after prolonged use I discovered it wasn’t wide enough. My ring and little fingers were dragging on the mouse pad, but since there was nothing technically wrong with it, it wouldn’t be right to return it. Lesson learned for NZ$30: it’s not just the length, width is important, too. That Lenovo is now plugged into the Linux PC and the older Logitech put aside for now. I might wind up giving it away knowing that it’s not in the best condition, having given away quite a few recycled PCs of late from both myself and a friend when she got new gear for her office.
   Corporate Consumables had let me see a dead-stock Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000 on my earlier visit and I decided I would give that a go. Armed with the Lenovo, I went to the Wellington office to compare the two and the width was, indeed, right. It was a bit closer to the 2002 model I had. It was narrower, but the sculpted design meant I had somewhere to rest my ring finger, within the body of the mouse. Although manufactured in 2005, it was still in its packaging and Corporate sold it to me at a very low price.

   I don’t mind that it left the factory a decade ago, if, roughly, the newer the mouse, the shorter the life. A 10-year-old mouse might last me another decade or so. A few years back, I bought a Microtek Scanmaker 5800 to replace a faulty 5700: although it was obsolete and I bought dead stock, it was at about a third of the price of what it was when brand-new last decade, and it plugged into my system without any software alteration. As long as a gadget delivers the quality I want—and the 5800 gave better results than a newer scanner with a plastic lens, for example—then I don’t really mind that that particular model isn’t the latest thing. Even the office printer was in a box for about five or six years before it replaced something we bought in 2003 that had gone kaput.
   Have mice changed that much between 2005 and 2015? Not really: they do the same thing, more or less, and the old ones might be better made. I’m perfectly happy with bringing something forth into October 2015 that isn’t a De Lorean DMC-12 with a Mr Fusion on the back.

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Posted in China, design, technology, USA | No Comments »


Bugs galore: frozen while using Firefox; keyboard and mouse unresponsive when using Windows 7

26.09.2015

Last week was an interesting one for computer bugs. Apple took 42 attempts to install the latest Itunes update on one Mac (and that was the good one that normally presents no issues with updates), but, to its credit, once it was done there were no further problems. Windows, however, gave me a few headaches and I’m recording the solutions here for others who might have the same, since what I’ve read online doesn’t always apply.
   The old laptop was freezing every time I used Firefox. God help us, I even downloaded Chrome when I was in the Philippines, since it was the only browser compatible with YouTube, to which I had to upload a few videos for work. (Internet Explorer kept producing an error, with YouTube saying I had to get the latest version, and Microsoft saying I had the latest version.) And no, I didn’t accidentally turn on my search history since the dates don’t even correspond, and I was using another account.
   Fix: remove Avast. The bug had been plaguing that work machine for a few weeks and I had an inkling it was Avast. One of the team had accidentally allowed an Avast 30-day trial to proceed, which was the root of the problems. It was roughly at this time the issues began. I had downgraded back to the standard one, but things were so irreparably damaged that the only solution was removal altogether. That laptop is back to AVG, although Microsoft Security Essentials is recommended to me.
   My main desktop computer, which is running Windows 7 (since Microsoft has been completely silent on how to upgrade to Windows 10, with the advisory box giving me no clues other than I am in the queue), began freezing me out earlier this week. Twice at night the keyboard and mouse became unresponsive, although the computer itself had not hung: things were happening in the background normally. I had to do a hard reset twice that night, and had a painless day for the subsequent day, but then the bug recurred around 10 times on Friday.
   In the meantime, should this happen, putting the computer to sleep works, which, like most bugs, seems to be the opposite of the advice you get. I was still able to access the computer via VNC on Android, and control it through there. Putting the PC to sleep (discovered entirely by accident) and then awakening it worked in getting keyboard and mouse control back.
   You begin suspecting certain things.
   Keyboard and mouse faulty? You would hope not, since I spent NZ$160 on the former, though it is under warranty. On two occasions I heard a USB disconnect sound. However, both were checked and appear to be fine. I altered some USB sleep settings, but they made no difference (and were put back to default).
   Hacked? Actually, yes. I run TightVNC, and there were repeated hacking attempts from IP addresses in the US, the Netherlands and Colombia of late. These were added to the firewall and the TightVNC program updated to the latest version. The Event Viewer had picked these up.
   But the bug persisted and even became more regular.
   Was it to do with the Windows Error Reporting service? I had not signed up, and it was switched off, but I still went into the Task Manager and disabled the associated tasks. No joy, nothing changed.
   One person wrote that they experienced this error after downloading the Intel update driver utility, which I had done so, too, after Microsoft advised that I had Intel issues and was unable to upgrade to Windows 10. That was in August, but it was close enough to the September bug—and I had been away, after all—that it was a possibility. I removed it, but, the bug continued.
   I did the usual disk checks and verified the hard drive.
   What finally worked? Removing everything by Apple with the exception of QuickTime. It turns out that not only was the Itunes update problematic on a Mac, it could freeze you out on Windows. That meant removing every updater, Itunes, any Apple utilities connecting you to portable devices, and an Apple service called Bonjour (which had generated a lot of errors in the Event Viewer). Till Apple sorts itself out with Itunes, that’s the thing you should avoid. Although having used it for the first time in many, many years, only to be told that what I wanted to buy was not available to New Zealanders (who, incidentally, could have watched the same programme for free from the copyright owner’s website), I’m not entirely sure why anyone would. At this rate, I won’t be using it again in a hurry, at least not for another few years till someone asks, ‘Can I download Itunes on to your computer?’

Postscript: A few days after writing this post, which included a trouble-free day, the problem recurred, and this time, there was nothing in Event Viewer at all. After even more investigation, it turns out that in Windows, a faulty mouse can knock out your keyboard. Go figure. Of course, that could lead to a full post about mice.—JY

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Posted in internet, technology | 2 Comments »


Remember when you could post, comment and like on Facebook? Those were the days

29.05.2015



Let’s see: Facebook doesn’t work on Wednesdays and Fridays. Check. Thursdays are OK though.
   It’s another one of those days where the Facebook bug that began on Wednesday (though, really, it’s been going on for years—including the famous outage of 2013 where what I am experiencing happened worldwide to a large number of users) has decided to resurface and spread. Not only can I no longer like, comment, post or share without repeated attempts, I cannot delete (Facebook makes me repeat those attempts even when a post has been successful, but doesn’t show me those till an hour later) or upload photos to messaging without repeated attempts.
   The deletion is the hardest: while commenting will work after three to twelve repeats, deletion does not work at all. The dialogue box emerges, and you can click ‘Delete’. The button goes light for a while, then it’s back to the usual blue.
   And this happens regardless of platform: Mac, Windows, Firefox, Opera, Android, inside a virtual machine, you name it. Java’s been updated as have the browsers on my most used machines; but it seems the configurations make no difference.
   I am reminded how a year ago I had even less on Facebook. Quite a number of users were blocked for days (Facebook isn’t open on weekends, it seems), but eventually the message got through and things started working again.
   My theory, and I’d be interested to learn if it holds any water, is that older or more active accounts are problematic. I mean, if spammers and spambots have more rights than legitimate users, then something is wonky; and the only thing I can see that those T&C-violating accounts have over ours is novelty. Facebook hasn’t got to them yet, or it tacitly endorses them.
   As one of the beta users on Vox.com many years ago, I eventually found myself unable to compose a new blog post. It’s an old story which I have told many times on this blog. Even Six Apart staff couldn’t do it when using my username and password from their own HQ. But, they never fixed it. It was a “shrug your shoulders” moment, because Vox was on its way out anyway at the company. (The domain is now owned by another firm, and is a very good news website.) Unlike Facebook, they did have theories, and tried to communicate with you to fix the issue. One woman working there wondered if I had too many keywords, and I had reached the limit. I deleted a whole lot, but nothing ever worked. It suggested that these websites did have limits.
   Computer experts tell me that it’s highly unlikely I’ve reached any sort of limit on Facebook, because of how their architecture is structured, but I’m seeing more and more of these bugs. But we are talking about a website that’s a decade old. My account dates back to 2007. Data will have been moved about and reconstituted, because the way they were handled in 2007 is different to how they are handled now. There have been articles written about this stuff.
   What if, in all these changes over the last eight years (and beyond), Facebook screwed up data transfers, corrupting certain accounts? It’s entirely conceivable for a firm that makes plenty of mistakes and doesn’t even know what time zones are. Or deletes a complainant’s account instead of the pirate’s one that she complained about. (This has been remedied, incidentally, the day after my blog post, and a strongly worded note to Facebook on behalf of my friend.)
   The usual theory I hear from those in the know is that certain accounts are on certain servers, and when those are upgraded, some folks will experience difficulties. That seems fair, but I would be interested to know just what groups us together.
   Last time I downloaded all my data off Facebook, and this was several years ago, I had 3 Gbyte. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest that that was now 6 Gbyte. That’s a lot to handle, and when you multiply that by millions, some will result in buggy accounts. Ever had a hard drive with dodgy fragments? Or a large transfer go wrong? Facebook might have better gear than us, but it’s not perfect.
   I don’t believe for a second that certain people are targeted—a theory I see on forums such as Get Satisfaction, with Republicans blaming Democrats and Democrats blaming Republicans—but I do believe that something binds us together, and it is buried within the code. But, like Vox, it may be so specific that there’s nothing their boffins can do about it. You simply have to accept that some days, Facebook does not let you post, comment, like, share, delete or message. The concern is that this, like random deletions, can happen to anyone, because these bugs never seem to go away. Looking at my own record on Get Satisfaction, they are increasing by the year.

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Posted in internet, technology, USA | 6 Comments »


Farewell, Manhattan: switching to the Cooler Master Storm Quick Fire TK Cherry MX Brown

10.04.2015

QuickFire TK
The Cooler Master Storm Quick Fire TK, with white case.

On Tuesday, my Manhattan keyboard, for which I gave a glowing review on Amazon, gave up the ghost. I’m not entirely sure why but through its lifetime, there were two things wrong with it: the first was that regular typing wore off the keys’ markings (not an issue since I touch-type, and they were in Arial, so it was a pleasure to see them gone); and the wiring was conking out, as it would disconnect itself from the USB for about five seconds a day.
   I tend to buy these things based on their practical value, and I’ve gone through my history of finding the right keyboard elsewhere. However, on Tuesday, I found myself needing one pretty quick smart.
   Now, I could have moved another keyboard from one of the less utilized machines, but, faced with the prospect of finishing a book chapter this weekend, I didn’t savour the prospect of typing on a membrane keyboard. Sadly, those are all that are left here, other than the scissor-switch one on my Asus laptop.
   As I headed out to town, there weren’t many alternatives. I looked in the usual places, such as Dick Smith and Noël Leeming, knowing that they wouldn’t have what I sought: a decent keyboard operated on scissor-switches, that was a maximum of 16 inches wide. (I can tolerate maybe an other half-inch on top of that at a pinch.) If anything, I only popped by these stores because they were en route from the Railway Station into town and I was using public transport that day. But, if there was a fluke and there was something that was the equivalent of the dead Manhattan, I probably would have got it.
   To save you clicking through to the old post, I dislike reaching for a mouse (and I’m getting progressively fussier with those, too), and the 16-inch width is something I found I was comfortable with after years of typing. I also need a numeric keypad since I type in European languages, and Windows wants you to use the numeric keypad, unlike Mac.
   I visited Matthew Sew Hoy at Atech Computers on Wakefield Street. He knew my plight because I had told him on previous visits: that’s the beauty of going to a smaller store and getting personal service. He remembered the story instantly. And he had just the thing: a mechanical keyboard for about 10 times the price of the old Manhattan.
   I have long been a fan of the Cooler Master Storm Quick Fire TK, which suits my requirements to a T. The trouble always was the price: I have seen them go for over NZ$200, and I’ve toyed with bringing one in on a business trip. However, Atech had two, starting from NZ$160.
   Over the years I had eyed the TK with Cherry MX Blue switches: the clicky ones. My Pinterest is full of blue-switch compact keyboards. This was familiar territory to me, and probably most people who are my age and up. Keyboards should make a little click noise as the keys are depressed: that’s the mechanical switch getting activated. This is the reason mechanical keyboards cost more: modern ones, the $20 variety you see at Dick Smith, don’t have individual switches underneath each key. They only have a sheet with a printed circuit and contacts underneath, sending electronic signals to the computer. This makes it wonderful for keyboard manufacturers, who can churn these out at low cost, but the typing experience is less than satisfactory, especially if you type a lot.
   Sadly, and this is a consequence of living in a small country, Matthew only had the TK with Cherry MX Brown switches, which need medium force without returning the satisfying click. However, to use, in terms of the strokes and strength needed, it would be roughly the same. I sampled it at the shop, decided it was worth splashing out, and bought it.
   For such an expensive device, the first one he sold me had a fault. The left shift key and the virgule (slash) both thought they were question marks, and the keyboard had to be returned. Matthew swapped it for the other keyboard, which initially was more expensive, without charging me the difference. I’m now the proud owner of a Cooler Master Quick Fire TK in white, with Cherry MX Brown switches, and it’s not quite the combination I had planned on when spending so much on a keyboard.
   But how is it to use? I’ll admit I still look somewhat enviously on those who bought their TKs abroad and managed to get them with blue switches, but I am definitely faster typing on the new one. And that is a good thing when you need for your typing to keep up with your thoughts. I’ve finished off more emails this week than I had done in a while.
   I am frustrated with the odd typo I make and I wonder if this is to do with the lack of familiarity. Because I touch-type, I am hitting the u and the i together on occasion, or the full stop and comma together, and making similar mistakes, and I don’t recall doing that quite as often on the Manhattan. I’m sure these keyboards differ in their positioning by a millimetre or two, leading to these errors.
   The unit is also higher than the very slim Manhattan, which means my wrists are raised. I haven’t found a position where they are as comfortable as they were with the previous keyboard, and the wrist rest itself is too low relative to the TK to make any difference. That is proving a problem.
   The reason for the height, presumably, is for the feature I don’t need: illuminated keys. I’m not a gamer and I’m not typing in the dark. However, for those who use their TKs for such purposes, I can see how they would be ideal. To fit in the lights beneath, I imagine the designers had to raise the entire keyboard by a few millimetres, making it less comfortable to type on.
   The final negative to the keyboard, and one which I knew I would confront, is how the numeric keypad and the cursor keys are all together. You have to take Num Lock off in order to get the cursor keys to work, much like in the old days of the early IBM PC compatibles. This has slowed me down as I switch between modes.
   In this respect, I have travelled back to when I began using IBM compatibles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, the keyboards were mechanical and the cursor and numeric keypads were all in one lot, and there’s a certain retro charm to this arrangement. Without the clicking noises, it reminds me of the mechanical switches on my first microcomputer: the Commodore 64. I really have gone back to the future, appropriate in a year when Claudia Wells (the original Jennifer Parker before she morphed into Elisabeth Shue) has been Tweeting about Lucire.
   I may be one of the few non-gamers to have invested in a TK, with typing efficiency and practicality as my main aims. When I posted pictures of it on my Instagram, I received plaudits from other serious gamers and geeks with expensive computers, calling me ‘Dude’ and making me feel very welcome as a fellow TK owner. Looking online, the white case is a rare one, so I wound up unwittingly with a keyboard that is slightly more cool than the everyday black one. I sense that Matthew prefers the white one as well, and that I didn’t know how lucky I was (although I am very grateful to him for knocking the price down and giving it to me as a direct replacement).
   Where does this leave me? I have a decent enough keyboard which is efficient for the most part, and from which I can expect a far longer life than the Manhattan (Cooler Master reckons each key is good for 50 million hits, five times longer than on the Manhattan, and ten times longer than on any membrane keyboard). I no longer put up with five-second daily outages. The way the keys are designed, I won’t have to worry about the markings coming off (the glyphs are etched). I have multimedia controls from the function keys, which are a bonus, and one reason I liked the old Genius scissor-switch keyboard that got me on this path to finding the right unit. As I type, I ponder whether I should invest in a higher wrist rest, or whether my seating position needs to change to cope with the higher keyboard. I imagine that as my fingers adjust to the minute differences, I can only get faster with my touch-typing, and I’m looking forward to the efficiency gains. But, there are those Cherry MX Blues on Amazon. The grass might look greener there, but apparently the white case puts me up there with the über-gamers and the cool geeks.

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Posted in business, China, New Zealand, technology, Wellington | 2 Comments »


Je suis Charlie

09.01.2015

I was watching France 24 about half an hour after the Charlie Hebdo attack and made the above graphic a few hours later, in support of press freedoms and the victims’ families, and showing solidarity with other members of the media. One friend has made it his Facebook profile photo and I followed suit about a day later.
   We have come across the usual, and expected, ‘Everyday Muslims should say something and be openly against extremists. Silence means they endorse these actions.’
   Some have, of course, but no more than Christians came out to condemn the actions of Protestants and Catholics groups during the Troubles (although at least the IRA told you to get out of a building), or white American Christians came out against the KKK prior to the Civil Rights Movement.
   I wonder if there are double standards here.
   Perhaps this Muslim writer put it best in a Facebook comment: ‘I was just making a larger point about how easy it is to make the assertion and equate “silence” to passive aggression. Most Muslims are from non-English speaking countries. Just because they don’t tweet in support and aren’t given enough media coverage, doesn’t mean they directly/indirectly propagate the oppression conduced by radical Islamists.
   ‘I’m a Muslim who vehemently opposes attacks such as the one in Paris. I can only say this to you because I’m equipped with the privileged circumstances to do so. Most people on this planet (let alone Muslims), do not. Claiming that I have a stake in these attacks, however, is blatantly unfair too.’
   I’m not denying that those engaged in acts of terror do so in the name of Islam, just as the Klan proclaims itself a Christian organization. They have been able to spread their hate more readily because of where we are in history, namely in an age of easy movement across borders and the internet. But had the same technology been ready 100 years ago, it isn’t hard to imagine Chinese terrorists taking it to the west for what western colonial powers were doing inside China. Would the PLA have been more widespread for the same reasons? Probably. It’s hard for me to have it in for any one faith since we’re not that far away from doing the same, and the fact we aren’t is down to winning the lottery of where, when, and to whom we were born.
   I definitely have it in for those who are committing atrocities, and they need to be identified and dealt with. We can debate on whether we have a suitable legal framework to do this, and that is another topic.
   Simon Jenkins should have the last word on this topic:

[The terrorists] sought to terrify others and thus to deter continued criticism, and they now seek to reduce the French state to a condition of paranoia. They want to goad otherwise liberal people to illiberal actions …
   Osama bin Laden’s attacks on the United States, culminating in New York in 2001, were exceptional. Since he could not hope for an American capitulation, the intention must have been to scare the US into a hysterical reaction … [Y]ears of war ensued, years that realised al-Qaida’s wildest dreams. Western nations plunged into battle, at a cost of some $3tn. Thousands of lives were lost and regimes were destabilised across the region. Democratic governments lurched towards authoritarianism. Almost willingly, it seemed, governments tore up many of the central tenets of their liberties. In the more belligerent states – the US and Britain – habeas corpus, private communication, legal process and even freedom of speech were curtailed or jeopardised. The forces of state repression suddenly found themselves singing the best tunes.
   Bin Laden was handed his triumph. For a decade he was able to rally supporters to his cause. He boasted at the vulnerability of this supposedly superior society. He taunted democracies that claimed immunity from the devious tactics of militant Islam …
   Terrorism is no ordinary crime. It depends on consequence. It can kill people and damage property. It can impose cost. But it cannot occupy territory or topple governments. Even to instil fear it requires human enhancement, from the media and politicians.
   That is why the most effective response is to meet terrorism on its own terms. It is to refuse to be terrified. It is not to show fear, not to overreact, not to over-publicise the aftermath. It is to treat each event as a passing accident of horror, and leave the perpetrator devoid of further satisfaction. That is the only way to defeat terrorism.

Autocade hit 3,000 models before December 31 was out. The 3,000th: the Renault Espace V.
   There are still some big omissions (for instance, all the full-size Japanese sedans, all the Toyota Celicas, and it needs more Corvettes, Ferraris and Maseratis) but a lot of the mainstream model lines are there (all current Geelys, all the Volkswagen Golfs, and more and more current model lines). For a site made primarily out of personal interest, it’s doing reasonably well, with a few thousand page views daily.
   A quick summary then, based on the stats grabbed in early December:

March 2008: launch
July 2008: 500 (four months for first 500)
December 2009: 1,000 (17 months for second 500)
May 2011: 1,500 (17 months for third 500)
December 2012: 2,000 (19 months for fourth 500)
June 2014: 2,500 (18 months for fifth 500)
December 2014: 3,000 (six months for sixth 500)

March 2008: launch
April 2011: 1,000,000 page views
March 2012: 2,000,000 page views
May 2013: 3,000,000 page views
January 2014: 4,000,000 page views
September 2014: 5,000,000 page views

Currently, it’s on 5,473,963, so the rate is increasing slightly, probably helped by a new Facebook fan page (with a mere 60 members).
   We have been chatting about some radical changes to Autocade in 2015. Should this happen, I’ll blog about it when I am able.

Finally, the resolution to my problems around Linux was putting Linux Mint 17.1 on to a bootable USB stick using Rufus, which happily (and unlike a lot of programs) does what it says on the tin. (The allotted hard drive space for Ubuntu 13, which was determined when I installed 10, became insufficient for 14, hence the Christmas project of trying to upgrade.) Neither Ubuntu 14 nor Mint 17 allowed itself to be installed without hard drive partitioning—it is not poor memory when I say that Ubuntu 10 presented no such hassles in 2011—and that is too risky based on my computing knowledge while I have data on every hard drive that I need to keep. (Again, this is down to experience: an earlier attempt following instructions—that old bugbear—cost all the data on one hard drive and having to Dial a Geek and pay NZ$100.) I could not put either on to the hard drive I wanted, despite selecting the ‘Something else’ option. Putting either into a VM Ware virtual machine made little sense, though I tried it at the suggestion of a good friend, only to find that the only screen resolution that was possible was a tiny 640 by 480. (Going into display settings did nothing: it was the only option available; trying to force different ones through the Terminal also failed, while downloading new drivers for the screen did not make any difference.) After hours—possibly even days wasted if you totalled up those hours—none of the usually helpful forums like Ask Ubuntu had answers that matched my circumstances.
   The USB set-up is good for me for now, since I do not get that much work done in Linux, but I cannot believe how complicated things had become. As with the browsers I have, there is very little on my computers that is so customized that they would be considered extraordinary—I do not have those computing skills to make changes at that level—so it makes me wonder why there is such a gulf between the claims and the reality when it comes to software, constantly. Yosemite taking 12 hours to upgrade, browsers that stopped displaying text, and now Linux requiring a computing degree to install, aren’t good signs for the computing industry.
   Unless you are in the support business, then they are wonderful signs for the computing industry.

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Posted in media, politics, publishing, technology, UK, USA | 3 Comments »