Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Book Software

Collecting books, in my case those about certain aspects of the Cold War and nuclear energy, has eventually meant buying a database to keep a record of them, not least to prevent me from buying the same book twice. My needs were simple:

  • Recording the books themselves;
  • Using my phone as a bar code scanner to enter some of them;
  • Being able to export the data to agnostic formats like CSV;
  • Being able to look up Bibliographic data.

In the end, nothing too fancy. The first one I looked at was Book Collector from http://www.collectorz.com/book/. I wasn't terrible struck by the name “collectorz” which seemed a bit low-rent to me. Unfortunately it was the complexity of the whole deal that made it a non-starter: various bits of the product looked like endless paid-for extras:

  • Book Collector
  • “CLZ Barry” to scan bar codes
  • “CLZ Mobile App” to have the database on your phone
  • Cloud CLZ Account with a paid for option to edit entries on web

Not impressed – having to buy an expensive iOS App to have the database on my phone (around £10) was pretty bad, but even the appallingly named “CLZ Barry” just to scan barcodes for around £5 was out the question. I just felt like I was being shaken down for money. The CLZ Mobile App was hardly impressive for £10, it was a basic database version of the desktop one that really should be free/inexpensive. The names of the products are horrible, they don't look great and didn't represent a good deal to me.

I then looked at Readerware which seemed a much better deal (http://www.readerware.com/). This was much the same money as Book Collector but the Mobile app was part of the price. In some way it is less functional on the phone as you can't edit, but that was never a function of value to me. As long as it could scan and upload barcodes and produce a simple version of the database I was happy.

Like Book Collector, Readerware isn't the prettiest application. Also its ability to connect to iOS to upload barcodes/transfer the database could do with some serious refinement. However what it does do, it does well. All it needs to do is record the books I collect and use my phone as a means to scan their details. It does allow me to add library books in an “aim to read” list for later. Sometimes when I'm browsing a library shelf I'll scan in barcodes of books that look interesting that I intend to read later.

Part of the issue is that this is a specialised product and there really aren't many around so unfortunately you have to put up with what ever limitations they have. Ideally you'd be able import lists of books bought electronically from Amazon, Kobo, Google etc but unfortunately this isn't possible. Having a pre-configured “Library List” of books you've borrowed or would like to borrow would be very handy for book collectors and scholars alike.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Stolen Photos

There is currently great hullabaloo about stolen/hacked photos of Jennifer Lawrence and others in various states of undress supposedly stolen from their iCloud accounts (and possibly other as yet unconfirmed sources).

The key question is who is responsible and to what degree. Is it just the criminals who are responsible in a blatant act of theft, do technology companies have responsibility and do the actual owners of this material bear any kind of responsibility or is this "victim blaming"?

In the first instance there is no right of access to private property; no one has any right to obtain these materials by criminal or deceptive means which is obviously the first place to start. What has been quite surprising is that some of the loudest commentators on the right to private ownership of these materials are surprisingly much less vocal about the theft of other privately owned materials such as music, films and TV shows. There is no material difference in who owns what. No one is allowed to make copies of something you don't own whether you can or not or how easy it is, is irrelevant - is the victim actually to blame?

iCloud Terms and Conditions

One very obvious gotcha in all of this are Apple's Terms and Conditions of using iCloud. They specifically say:
You agree that you will NOT use the Service to:
a. upload, download, post, email, transmit, store or otherwise make available any Content that is...obscene, vulgar ... or otherwise objectionable;
On balance it's hard to make an argument to say photographs of a prurient nature don't fall foul of these terms; "otherwise objectionable" covers a multitude of sins and its extremely likely that nude photos sent to others or stored (and certainly rumoured sexually graphic video) will break these terms and conditions.

As a private service it's impossible to say how much objectionable content Apple removes and the Terms and Conditions make it extremely subjective how they may be applied. However it looks impossible for this kind of adult content not to be in breach of their Terms and Conditions so from the very beginning these individuals should never have been using the service in such a way.;

It's impossible to reconcile reasonable protection from prying eyes from something that shouldn't have been happening in the first place otherwise criminals the world over would be demanding their privacy. A reasonable expectation of privacy does not grant you the right to behave in breach of conditions of you've agreed to, let alone laws that define your behaviour.

I think the key point is this: had these individuals actually obeyed the rules of iCloud they would not be in such a panic about their stolen materials now; it does not excuse a crime perpetrated against them and they do not deserve any humiliation but they do carry some culpability.

Responsibility of Technology Providers

It's probably crucial at this point to understand the role of the technology providers like Apple. I don't think you'll find any technology provider who will warrant your data as being protected from all security threats. In fact most of them will explicitly deny any responsibility to the safe keeping of your data. Apple's Terms and Conditions make their responsibilities towards your data explicit (caps in original):
APPLE DOES NOT REPRESENT OR GUARANTEE THAT THE SERVICE WILL BE FREE FROM LOSS, CORRUPTION, ATTACK, VIRUSES, INTERFERENCE, HACKING, OR OTHER SECURITY INTRUSION, AND APPLE DISCLAIMS ANY LIABILITY RELATING THERETO.
For any company storing your data it seems reasonable to me that their attempts to safeguard your data will not open them to unlimited liability. Most data is protected by fairly weak security: a username and password. There is no physical protection, there is no encryption and two-factor encryption is optional. If you can work out someone's username you're part of the way there to unlocking their password, through phishing, malware or even brute force attacks. Password recovery is also notoriously weak. Just look at the story of Mat Honan and his epic loss of personal data in 2012. There is literally a simple password (and people are terrible at choosing them) between your data and people not authorised to receive it.

Responsibility of Users

Clearly most users do not understand the "cloud"; they do not understand the limitations of technology, security and what their responsibilities towards their data is. To broadcast such intimate photographs of yourself across what is a public sphere protected only by a password is incredible if it wasn't true. This is not victim blaming; this is crime prevention. The public have been reminded for decades to lock their doors against burglars and thieves and this is no different yet the repercussions are far worse. Once data is stolen it can never be recovered; perfect first generation copies can be duplicated and circulated ad infinitum.

The cloud itself is relatively new; it is very convenient and very sophisticated but the security of it is well known to have been highly compromised through the Snowden files, the Heartbleed bug and other more advanced forms of criminal activity. There are people that interested to steal your data for entertainment, for the challenge or criminal gain and the higher profile the individual the more valuable they become.

Clearly there is some impact on users which they must learn to think about; we are an extremely long way from good security (I won't even say "perfect") and you have to act with this in mind. Outrageously explicit photos are not suitable to be kept or sent over the cloud and this applies to anyone where the distress and embarrassment of their release will be just as keenly felt whether you're a superstar or not. Data kept in the cloud should be secured at least with two-factor authentication as well as strong passwords. Automatically uploading/backing up photographs should be switched off unless you're confident that your photos wouldn't embarrass you if they appeared appear on the news. Know that just owning an Apple, Android or Windows Phone device already lets people know you have an account with that company so it's giving clues away about your usage.

Ultimately it's your data and yours to protect; no one is going to do this for you.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Regional TV Adverts of the 70s and 80s

Some hilarious comments about regional TV ads from TV Cream that I've resurrected - unfortunately they no longer appear on their own web site. It doesn't sound funny, I'll admit but wait till you read them...

Friday, 4 July 2014

www.thexyz.com - review

I've used Fastmail (https://www.fastmail.fm) for nearly ten years as my main email provider and in that time my uses and needs have changed. They have probably changed more in the last couple of years and now Calendar and Contacts have become more important, particularly in syncing to other devices and storing them online rather than locally. For years I used Palm Desktop (showing my age) and things like Nokia Desktop that allowed local sync via Bluetooth between Outlook data and a S60 phone.

All that's changed and now things like ActiveSync and CardDav/CalDav have become the most popular ways of device sync. For sometime I've been using Google for Contacts/Calendar and Gmail (forwarding my Fastmail account to them) and generally its been a good experience. Unfortunately I am a little troubled by Google having so much personal data on me; I don't mind for a Blog like this one as all the data is effectively public by default. But private data is another issue.

This is where things get more difficult; trying to find a good Email/Calendar/Contacts provider that isn't Microsoft Exchange based is not that easy. My reasons for not wanting Exchange are quite complicated and really not worth going into. As much as I've also had excellent service from Fastmail (and I have no intention of leaving them) they do seem to be struggling with updating themselves to be more than just a provider of IMAP email. Currently they do have a calendar but this is only a few weeks old at this point (July 2014) having just been released.

Ideally I would like both ActiveSync and CardDav/CalDav as well as IMAP and a good web interface. Surprisingly few fit the bill. I finally decided to try www.thexyz.com as a provider for these services. The sign up was easy and I haven't read any negative comments about them. On the whole I was quite impressed. Once I was signed up, I did find some critical problems that were show-stoppers for me:

No CardDav/CalDav:

As far as I can see there is no CardDav/CalDav. This is pretty much a show-stopper there and then. I need CardDav/CalDav for local clients like eM Client and even Windows Mail on Windows 8.1. I also like it as a means to sync iOS and to sync with Memotoo, etc. They do offer ActiveSync that Windows 8.1 can also use for a local client (and possibly eM Client) but without the means of synchronising a local client this was a dead-stop.

Alias Support:

The support for aliasing email addresses requires a ticket to be created - in Fastmail (and just about every other provider) makes this just an option in account setup and although this is something you do irregularly, this was also a big problem for me. This should be a user-changed setting.

Poor Identity Support

At Fastmail you can almost set up any alias joe@fastmail.invalid and when mail is sent it will go as this identity with no hint as to the underlying login ID. I find exposing my login name to be a bad idea and sending this with an email as a email address to be just asking for trouble.

No Two Factor Authentication

Two factor authentication is becoming a way of life, especially for email accounts. Email accounts are frequently used as a means of resetting passwords on sites and establishing your identity so protecting them as securely as possible is just common sense.

Conclusion:

With better documentation and more detailed pre-sales information I wouldn't have signed up with thezyx.com as a provider. This isn't actually a criticism of them, I just would have known up front that features I require weren't there and it would have saved everyone time and effort. In fairness to them, their general set up is excellent and the price very fair; with a few additional features noted above I'd be more than happy to go back to them as they are a very complete provider of email and calendar/contacts.




Thursday, 29 May 2014

"Poorest 40% spend more than they earn"

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/29/richest-uk-save-poorest-spend-crisis-post-office-data

Another damning indictment of Britain as "UK's richest can save £18,680 a year as poorest 40% spend more than they earn." In truth it was ever thus; for decades the poorest have spent far more than their earnings; in years gone by it was the pawnbroker (the tales of Dad's suit going on Friday night for a loan and coming out again Monday morning are typical) through the rise of doorstep lenders in the 1980s and now for the payday lenders, cash for gold businesses and even selling their clothes by the kilo. Someone, somewhere has always been squeezing money from the poor for decades.

But it's clear the gap is getting wider as it's always the poor who carry higher hidden costs than anyone else; they'll pay more for pay as you go mobile phones, prepay credit cards and certainly prepay electricity and gas. The better off meanwhile are having a blast: their better credit ratings get effective discounts on contract mobile phones and cheaper rates for electricity and gas, no prepayment surcharge and even discounts for paying via direct debit. The better off are also more likely to buy on the Internet getting cheaper goods and services, they've got the money, the methods of payment and methods of access to better deals. It is expensive to be poor.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Victory for the Isolationists

If you can resist the hyperbole about a political “earthquake” there can be no doubt that Ukip have scored a major victory and that across the European elections the same result has been mirrored. It presents a major challenge to conventional right-wing parties like the Tories and for the left it has echoes of Michael Foot’s defeat in 1983 where the public seem to swing quite severely to the right; although as an irony Foot’s Labour Party of the time was in favour of withdrawing from what was the EEC.

30+ years of professional politicians have opened up a chasm become electors and elected; people do not feel represented and feel managed rather than listened to. As apathy reaches increasingly alarming levels it seems that the public is ready to listen to the kind of arguments that 15 or 20 years ago would have been laughable. Europe looks like its is teetering on the brink of escalating more and more extreme views to counteract what is ultimately a democratic deficit. As always electors swarm around ridiculous simplicities as the answer to all their problems, as if their problems always exist in a vacuum and can be solved on the basis alone. No one it seems ever stops to consider what the unintended consequences of these actions will be.

In a recent interview the actor James McAvoy made an excellent observation (and I may be paraphrasing so apologies in advance) that if you vote for something like Scottish independence, do it because you believe in independence and not because you think your life will be better. The vote is only one question: do you want to independent? And that is the fundamental question of all isolationists. Ukip are ultimately a single issue party: in or out of Europe? If you want to vote for them, fine, but don’t expect the UK to be a land of milk and honey if we leave.

I don’t know of any country that has had a isolationist policy that was worked; sooner or later every country realises it can’t hold the reins of nationalism too tight without strangling the body. The more fearsome nationalism/isolationism becomes the faster that country becomes distressed. The idea that the destiny and the decision making of your country can be at the sole discretion of national parliaments has been dead for centuries and is absolutely extinct in the 21st century. Our destinies are more intricately tied up in global oil and gas prices, wheat and soya production that they ever are with individual politicians. The weakness of single countries has been thee fundamental spur to the growth of trading blocs, the BRIC countries, NAFTA and the EC amongst many.

This global interdependence has seen national sovereignty give way to group membership, to be a member of a certain “club” it’s been the loss of some sovereignty that’s been the price of membership. At the minute there is no viable alternative for the UK than EC membership.

English nationalists/isolationists peddle the same fantasy that outside the EU will be able to trade with Europe on better terms. It is absurd to imagine that if the UK repeals the Treaty of Rome and all the underlying legislation Britain will be able to trade with Europe equitably. All the red tape of decades gone by will return, there will be no access to the single market, there could be customs duties and customs charges in every EU member state. The EU might decide it might only want to trade with the UK in Euros. What imperative with Europe have to trade with Britain in anything other than the terms it stipulates? British workers in EU states may lose their rights to reside there and vice versa. Given that the EC will be much larger and richer than the UK how will we deal with them at an economic level. Will changes at this fundamental level jeopardise all the European owned factories and businesses in the UK? Or do we give these certain businesses protections from intra-Europe trading that we don’t give to private citizens thus reinventing the original electors complaint about privilege for the powerful?

And of course once we do end our membership of the EU and with it the right to live in other countries of the EU, we do have sufficient housing and jobs for the nearly two million Britons who live in these countries who now have to come home?

I personally believe that Scottish Independence is not altogether dissimilar, though the final divorce will be messier still; in the same way an Independent UK will be at the mercy of the EU, Scotland’s 5 million citizens will be at the receiving end of the UKs 55 million remaining. It’s a pipe dream to think your much smaller country will not be massively chided by its bigger brother but you’re at an even larger disadvantage as you no longer have any voice South of the border and being outside of the EU could mean an extremely unpleasant post-Independence hangover.

There is nothing inevitable about EU membership; for one it would probably take many years and the UK could exercise its veto to Scottish membership. Being in Europe but not being able to trade on other same terms as the other countries is the same disaster British isolationists are walking in to. Politicians on either side of the border can take all the gambles with our lives but none of the risk which makes them inherently dangerous. This is why Mark Thomas among others have suggested political manifestos should be legally binding and I agree.

An additionally huge problem to think about is if independence fails in the sense Britain leaves the EU or Scotland leaves the UK any attempt to return to these groups could be difficult and/or impossible. You can’t even begin to imagine the kind of punitive terms that would be demanded by either Brussels or Westminster in such a circumstance.

There is no doubt there is a lot wrong with both Westminster and EU politics and to this extent isolationists do have some points however their remedy is to let the patient die rather than save it. Isolationists and nationalists do not have history on their side as they are often unable to define themselves in any other terms.

Friday, 16 May 2014

"Self-employment" accounts for 80% of the increase in employment

From: http://www.blog.rippedoffbritons.com/2014/05/self-employment-accounts-for-80-of.html

Now this is an interesting one: for decades self-employment, from my own parochial point of view, has generally meant it's something better than unemployment or the dole for an awful lot of people. It kind of becomes peoples' Plan B when they finally exhaust all other options though probably somewhat less comedically than Adrian Mole's Dad when he was churning out spice racks.

Although these statistics/facts show how we are today they go an awfully long way to explaining the self-employment industry since the early 1980s. Of course I'm not saying that self-employment is a dead-end for everyone but the fact remains that an awful lot of people turn to it because they've ran out of other options. It seems to me that there's a large minority of people get talked into some pretty dismal business ideas that either lead to an absolute dead-end, low wages, financial ruin or all three. People at the more desperate end of the employment ladder ultimately have the most to lose.

Ultimately there is limited demand for mobile hairdressers/beauticians, niche retailing, pet groomers and the like. The more highly skilled jobs like tradesmen, electricians, construction and the like are the more obvious sources of more secure self-employed work but even in this the general satisfaction of self-employment seems to be pretty low with up to 28% saying that they'd prefer to be employees rather than self-employed. If more than a quarter are saying then self-employment is approaching something of a crisis with many who are working themselves facing a 1 in 3 chance of business failure within three years (in fact an article on Forbes but business failure at 80% within 18 months).

One of the key issues is that it's been found that the self-employed can earn 40% less than equivalent employees and work long hours which doesn't take a genius to work out how this will eventually turn into a death-spiral. With the general entry costs of many self-employed jobs being so low and an almost inexhaustible supply of people to fill them you can very easily end up having too many people chasing too little work with the one who will work for the least winning, until they are financially and literally exhausted and then being replaced by new entrants to the same line of work. This is when a market becomes too competitive and is a bloodbath for all concerned.

There is a case for saying that a lot of self-employment is nothing but a pipe-dream and there are too many losers with too much to lose being thrown into the mixer. Self-employment probably isn't the best choice for many people, however tempting it looks politically to use self-employment to massage the unemployment statistics (i.e. just because someone is registered as self-employment doesn't mean they're any better off). It's clear there's been an enormous slump in the value of self-employed income, averaging out at something like £11,400, bring it to less than minimum wage on a 40 hour week. Although it has been a topic of dispute that at what point does your income make you a net contributor, it has been suggested that this threshold is at or about £27,000 making many self-employed jobs a negative contributor, borne out be recent research showing that "The total amount of self -employed workers' income as a proportion of GDP has also tumbled from almost 11% to nearer 8.5% of GDP, despite a rise in the number of people in the sector."