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Tag: uk

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted by Andrew at 1:25 PM on September 20, 2011

This year’s BBC Reith lectures came to a close today with the last of three lectures on Securing Freedom, presented by Eliza Manningham-Buller. The name may mean nothing to you but she was the Director-General of Britain’s Security Service, aka MI5, between October 2002 and April 2007, and she reflects on 9/11, the wars in the Middle East and how the world has changed in the last ten years.

The three lectures are titled, “Terror“, “Security” and “Freedom” and a give a British perspective on the role of the intelligence services and the relationship with the US during a period both countries were under attack. If you are a seasoned spook-watcher, there’s probably not that much new, but I personally found it revealing and reassuring that the British Security Service is more measured and ethically-minded than the media would have us believe.

Baroness Manningham-Buller doesn’t shy away from controversy either, steadfastly refusing to accept torture as an intelligence tool, and suggesting that the US’ use of waterboarding was a “profound mistake”. You’ll have to listen to the podcasts to understand her reasoning.

The lectures are available as podcasts and also as transcripts for those who would prefer to read.

The London Underground but Overground

Posted by Andrew at 12:51 AM on September 14, 2011

The map of the London Underground is world famous for its linear representation of train stations and lines. It was created by Harry Beck in the 1930s and subsequently became the standard by which other metro and subway maps were designed. The map uses a simple set of rules to great advantage, such as coloured lines, stations equally spaced, lines can only go horizontally, vertically or diagonally, curves always have the same radius and so on. Here’s a small section of the map showing some of these features (the whole map is copyright Transport for London).

However, we’re now so used this particular version, that it’s easy to forget that it represents a physical geography. With a mashup of Google Maps and station co-ordinates, Jonathan Stott has put together a representation of the London Underground, showing where the underground lines are in the real world. The image below is just a screenshot – if you go over to his website, you can play with the map.

It’s interesting to see where the underground lines actually go but it’s also worth reflecting that this is exactly what Harry Beck was trying to get away from 80 years ago.

Big Telcos Ignore Customers’ Needs

Posted by Andrew at 10:34 PM on August 29, 2011

Here in the UK, the big telco is British Telecommunications Ltd., otherwise known as BT. Every few years, it produces a physical telephone directory (“White Pages” for our North American cousins). Each house gets a free copy for the local area.

When the directory arrives on my doorstep it goes straight in the (recycling) bin.

It’s not because paper directories are an anachronism in the Internet era, it’s because despite living in a village less than 8 miles from the capital city of Northern Ireland, Belfast, BT thinks I would be better served by being in the South Eastern area. It’s a strange decision because my postal address says Belfast and the nearest South Eastern area town is actually further away by about a mile. Regardless, BT thinks a Belfast directory and listing would be no use to me or those looking for my number.

The last time I complained about this I was given utter twaddle about “aligning boundaries”. I know that it’s nonsense because I also know which council, constituency and healthcare authority I fall under and there’s no alignment of boundaries there as far as I can see.

However, I struggle to find a reason for this stupidity. Is it simply to keep the subscriber numbers up in a given area so that they can sell more advertising? I don’t know and I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. In the morning, I’m going to opt-out of receiving the telephone directory and I’m already ex-directory. Who needs a phone book in the Internet era when directory enquiries are but a mouse click away?

eBooks Available in Northern Ireland Libraries

Posted by Andrew at 5:14 PM on August 7, 2011

My daughter and I are regular visitors to our local public library. She loves getting new books for bedtime reading and I love reading them to her. Sometimes the simple pleasures are best.

For my own reading, increasingly I’ve been reading ebooks on my Nook, either purchasing from Waterstones or finding free novels elsewhere on the web. Previously I had checked the library’s website for ebook loans but they weren’t available.

However this weekend, a flyer on the library’s noticeboard announced that ebook loans were now available to all members of Northern Irish public libraries. Yay! Apparently the service went live in mid-July according to the press release and it uses the Overdrive platform, which mostly uses Adobe .epub with DRM to loan the ebooks for a few weeks.

I hope the service is a success here, but the ebook reader market in the UK is totally dominated by the Kindle which doesn’t work with .epub. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has an ereader that isn’t a Kindle. There are clients for most of the mobile OSes, such as Android and iOS, so there might be some take up there.

Ok, so a bit of a niche post but I’m just pleased to get books for free!

UK to Rewrite Copyright?

Posted by Andrew at 12:42 AM on August 2, 2011

Channel 4 News is reporting that the British Government will put forward changes to the UK’s archaic copyright laws on Wednesday. Format shifting for both music and video is expected to become legal as will sharing  with family. Parody works will gain protection.

The proposals will be announced by Vince Clarke Cable, Business Secretary on Wednesday, and while file sharing using peer-to-peer and similar technologies will remain illegal, the legalisation of format shifting will allow companies like Amazon and Google to offer online music services which store copies of the owner’s music collection. This is currently illegal under British law which is why none of the current offerings are available here.

The protection to parody works (spoof music videos) is also good news as several popular songs such as Newport State of Mind have struggled to stay on-line in the UK where parody doesn’t have the protection it might in the US.

Overall, very welcome news for consumers in the UK and fingers crossed that the proposals don’t get too watered down before they become law. More news on Wednesday.

Gamer Dies From DVT

Posted by Andrew at 12:30 AM on August 1, 2011

The BBC is highlighting a campaign to warn gamers of the risk of deep vein thrombosis caused by long gaming sessions in a sitting position. Chris Staniford died earlier in May from a blood clot which formed in his leg before moving to his lungs. Chris was a keen gamer and would play his Xbox 360 for up to 12 hours at a time.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can happen when people stay still for long periods, typically sitting, and there have been several cases involving long-haul flights. It’s easy to see that certain games and consoles can lead to prolonged sitting and presumably the motion-controlled games are suitable antidote.

Chris was 20 when he died and DVT is easily avoided by short breaks and exercise, so it makes sense to highlight the risks to the millions of gamers out there. Microsoft also has a website, Play Smart, Play Safe that provides guidance to parents and gamers on a range of issues that can affect players.

“News of the World” Phone Hacking Scandal

Posted by Andrew at 3:45 AM on July 7, 2011

News International today announced that this Sunday’s edition of the News of the World newspaper would be the last edition and that the newspaper was closing down. Ostensibly the reason is that a phone hacking scandal had a irretrievably stained the name of the newspaper but the suspicion is that there’s far more to the closure.

For non-UK residents, it’s an astonishing story that involves several alleged crimes and some disgraceful behaviour. First of all, News of the World (NOTW) is one of the biggest selling Sunday newspapers with around 40% of the market and 2.8 million readers. It’s been going for 168 years and while considered a tabloid paper, it has been instrumental in revealing other scandals involving politicians and other well-known figures.

The scandal itself is that around six years ago, a private investigator used by the newspaper is alleged to have hacked into the voice mailboxes of over 4,000 people, including royal aides, sports stars, celebrities and politicians. Even worse, it is further alleged that the mailboxes of soldiers killed in Iraq and murder victims were hacked into. In particular, the alleged deletion of messages on Milly Dowler’s phone is suggested to have given hope to her parents that she was still alive when she had been killed.

Rumours of the hacking arose when the newspaper published stories that could only have been discovered from personal messages. The private investigator and the journalist involved were sent to prison back in 2007 and at the time, a police investigation suggested that the two individuals involved acted alone. In 2009, the Guardian newspaper claimed that thousands of mailboxes had been hacked and that the practice was well known and routine. The Metropolitan Police refused to re-open the investigation. It has also now been alleged that NOTW made payments to the police in return for information. The hacking of the mobile phone’s voice mail was not sophisticated. The private investigator simply relied on the fact that most people did not bother changing the default PIN on their voice mailbox.

Over the past week, as the revelations of the alleged hacking continued, public opinion turned against NOTW. Major advertisers in the paper withdrew their contracts, unwilling to be associated with the unfolding scandal. It was perhaps inevitable that the NOTW would have to close but it seems harsh to punish the current staff for the activities of their predecessors.

The intrigue continues as the parent company, News International, is keen to buy out the remaining shares in BSkyB. However, this had raised concerns that one single company would own too much of the UK media – News International owns the The Times too. The suggestion has been made that by closing one newspaper, NOTW, this will reassure the regulatory authorities but there are also now questions about whether News International is fit and proper to take over BSkyB. It is rumoured that News International will launch a Sunday edition of a sister newspaper The Sun. The domains “TheSunOnSunday.co.uk” and “TheSunOnSunday.com” were registered two days ago, though it’s not clear by who registered them

It’s an amazing scandal and totally despicable – some of the stuff you couldn’t make up. If there’s one thing to be learnt from the scandal, it’s make sure you change the default PIN on your mobile phone’s voice mailbox.

 

Competition Time – Freecom Mobile Drive CLS

Posted by Andrew at 3:09 PM on June 30, 2011

Congratulations to Rich Costin for winning last week’s competition for G Data AntiVirus 2012 – his prize will be on its way to him shortly.

Disappointingly, the number of responses to the competition was a bit low, though the quality of the response was high, so we’re going to try to attract a few more UK GNC readers and listeners to respond. This week the competition is to win the Freecom Mobile Drive CLS and Dock that I originally reviewed back in December. It’s an interesting take on removable storage for multiple 2.5″ drives.

Again,  simply leave a comment below saying how you think GNC could be more relevant to a British audience, and I’ll draw at random from the responses in a week.

Thanks to Freecom for the prize and remember, postage to UK addresses only. Good luck.

Is Google Stealing Our History from the British Library?

Posted by Andrew at 12:02 AM on June 28, 2011

The British Library and Google have partnered to digitise 250 000 books from the period of 1700 to 1870, an era of political change starting with the French Revolution and ending with the abolition of slavery. The press release from the British Library explains the project well but some are critical that the digital versions of these out-of-copyright books will not themselves be public domain.

Consequently, I approached the British Library’s press office to get an their view on the project and the issue of copyright. Here’s what I found.

First of all, the status of the original public domain books is as it was. They’re still public domain and can be viewed at the British Library: nothing has changed there. Second, the deal with Google is non-exclusive so if another organisation or individual wishes to produce a digital version, there’s nothing in the arrangement with Google that would prevent that from happening.

The non-commerical use wording in the original press release was the source of some concern. To clarify, the digital versions of the books will be subject to a non-commercial-use-only restriction for a period of fifteen years; this is much shorter that the normal copyright period. However, the exact copyright status of the digital version wasn’t made completely clear, but providing the fifteen year period is adhered to, it doesn’t appear if the detail of the copyright ownership will be problem.

The digital versions of the books will be available from Google, the British Library and some other European archives to which the British Library contributes. Broadly-speaking this means that the content will be free (at no cost) to any individual who wishes to gain access to the material from anywhere in the world via the Internet for research purposes.

So let’s get this straight…the public domain status of the original books is unchanged. Google bears the cost of digitising the works in exchange for fifteen years of (potentially non-exclusive) commercial use on books that are of limited interest and are a minimum of 140 years old. Anyone in the world with Internet access can look at the digital books for non-commercial use, instead of only those who could get to the British Library.

Overall, I can’t see that this is anything but a fair deal which balances the cost of the digitisation with commercial rights, while allowing access to those who are likely to actually benefit the most, mainly academics. There’s no doubt that we have to be vigilant for those instances where big business tries to take something to which it is not entitled, but I can’t see that this is one of them.

60 Years of BBC’s Reith Lectures as Podcasts

Posted by Andrew at 5:16 AM on June 26, 2011

Sixty years of the BBC’s Reith Lectures archive have been made available as downloadable .mp3s, a fantastic resource for Renaissance geeks and lovers of 20th century history. The Reith Lectures are an annual short series of lectures on issues of the day pitched to the general public and given by respected individuals. They cover a wide range of topics but are touched by the era in which they were recorded. There’s usually four or five lectures in a series.

They’re named after Lord Reith, the first Director General of the BBC and started in 1948, continuing to this day. This year’s lectures on “Securing Freedom” will be given by Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese pro-democracy leader and Baroness Manningham-Buller, Director General of MI5 from 2002 to 2007. Last year’s were on “Scientific Horizons” and were presented by Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society. As you can see, these aren’t irrelevant boring lectures by dull academics.

Until now, if you didn’t catch the lectures when they were broadcast through the RSS feed, you had to use iPlayer to listen to the lectures and the on-line archive has been expanded right back to the start in 1948. Currently, they appear as three tranches, 1948-1975, 1976-2010 and this year’s, 2011.

Hopefully, the downloads aren’t restricted to the UK as there’s some very interesting content that’s worth listening to, some still relevant to today and other material that will help you in understanding previous decades and the impact they’ve had on today.

I think my broadband’s going to take a hammering this month…