Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Fri, 10 Sep 2010

Linux and Facebook

Saw an interesting post on Planet Ubuntu about whether Debian needs to be on Facebook.

Obviously a lot of people who like Linux are on Facebook, but when a large portion of the developed world is on there that's inevitable. Not that it means they are getting useful information about Linux. Whoever owns the Debian page is doing nothing with it. I've found it common that certain pages can have thousands or more people 'liking' them, but there's no involvement.

That said, there are many people for whom Facebook is the main thing they use on-line. They can see what their friends are up to and get updates from bands or other things they 'like' with none of that messy email or RSS stuff.

I'm on Facebook because enough people I know are on there to make it useful. I can reach them via it, e.g. with interesting links or automatically when I upload music I've made. They can respond there if they want without having to register on yet another site.

I don't think Facebook is perfect by a long shot. Lots of things about it annoy me and I think people who mostly use it are missing out on a lot, but for now I'll exploit it for all it can give me.

There are people working on more open alternatives suck as Diaspora, but a social site is of limited use without a critical mass of users and it's going to take a lot to get people to move away from Facebook. identi.ca is big enough to be useful, but I still use Twitter to reach others.

[20:23] | [/Internet] | Comments | G

Fri, 03 Sep 2010

Singing for my supper

For most of life I haven't considered myself a singer. I did some at school when I had to and would sing along to records in private, but never really performed. A couple of years back I did some singing with the Secret Bass drum group and did a few performances that I quite enjoyed. I've also done a couple of singing workshops at the music centre my kids attend. Then last year I started going to the Plough pub sessions and performing various covers. I've not been that happy with my singing there. Either I run out of breath, can't hit notes or just can't get my voice to do what I want.

So I decided I needed professional help. I found local singing teacher Liv McNeil. Tonight was my first lesson. I spent 90 minutes doing all sorts of exercises and singing a bit of Muse. Overall I'm not terrible, but I have some bad habit that's creating a grating tone at times. She said she hadn't come across this problem before, so we're trying to work out what to do about it. It may just be that I don't relax properly. I've got a CD of exercises to try before I go back in a fortnight.

Normally when I sing at home it's done fairly quietly and at the pub I don't really project, but in the lesson I could make a racket. It felt good, even if it didn't always sound good. I don't anticipate being the next Freddie Mercury, but I think I could improve on what I've been doing up to now. You can follow my progress on my Soundcloud page. There's some songs I did over the last few months. I'll try to do some using what I've learnt.

[21:51] | [/Music] | Comments | G

Wed, 18 Aug 2010

Getting Pretty Gnarly

I've written several times previously about encryption. I've had a public key for several years now, but haven't used it too much. It's been signed by lots of people, giving it fairly good provenance. I sign the occasional email, but there are few people I would send anything encrypted. At Herts LUG last week a friend of a friend came along, partly to do some keysigning. I was not well organised and didn't manage to print off my whole key signature, so I'm not sure he's going to sign mine, but I signed his and emailed it back to him.

Part of the reason I've not been encrypting or signing is due to problems getting this working in Kmail. Since I did my recent fresh install it hadn't been working, but it is now thanks to some help I got from Ubuntu Stack Exchange, a welcome addition to the Q&A network. I still feel that encryption is still a bit technical for the average user. If it's not used correctly then will be getting a false sense of security.

Encryption would be used more if integrated into more of the email tools people use. I didn't realise that Gmail had experimented with signature verification last year, but it doesn't look like they decided to keep it. That's a shame, as is the end of development of FireGPG, a browser plug-in I looked at a while back. We all rely on encryption to secure financial transactions on the internet, but few seem interested in the possibilities of secure communication and the ability to verify their identity. I wonder if the growth of Facebook and other systems is moving people away from conventional email. I know that spam could put me off if I was starting now.

Back at Herts LUG, we had an interesting demonstration by Malc of installing Sidux using the latest GRUB facilities to boot an ISO image directly from a hard drive. It didn't all quite work, but the principle was proved. He made it hard for himself by using an ancient PC that wouldn't boot from anything other than a floppy. I also had my first hands-on with an iPad. A slick device, but not one I'm desperate for. You read more on the owner's experiences on his 'flog'.

[21:35] | [/Internet] | Comments | G

Thu, 05 Aug 2010

Useful tools

The internet is full of all sorts of servies that can make our digital lives easier. One problem is just finding out which exist that are actually useful. Here's a couple I've started using lately.

I've got loads of passwords for all the different sites I use. I've tried various apps on my PDAs and phones so that I can have them with me. These store them encrypted with a master password. The KeePass file format is supported by apps on just about any platform. I've used the same file on Windows Mobile, Linux and Android. This still leaves you having to look up the passwords each time you need them and type them in. I recently read about LastPass which does a similar thing, but stores the encrypted file on-line and allows access via browser plug-ins. I've been using it for a few weeks and it's great. It encourages you to use more secure passwords as you don't need to remember them or trust them to your browser, which generally stores them unencrypted. I'm not using it for critical things like banking.

Since my recent hard drive crash I'm thinking more about backup. The main things I lost are some recent photos and a few documents. The rest was on a USB hard drive. I needed something that would automate the backing up of new and updated files. I'd been using Ubuntu One, but the KDE support was a little lacking and so it didn't get the most recent files. I recovered some files from it. Dropbox offers a very similar service, with very similar price plans, but has support for more platforms, including Android. The free option gives you 2GB, but you can get more by inviting others to join and by playing with some of the facilities. I only really need a few GB. The 50GB for $10/month is a bit expensive for my needs. It seems Dropbox and Ubuntu both use Amazon's S3 storage, so I expect they control the cost. I would hope to see prices drop. Anyway, Dropbox silently gets on with backing up my files and even keeps old versions in case I mess something up. If you want to try it then please consider using this link that will get us both an extra 250MB.

The other thing I've been playing with is Google's Chrome/Chromium browser. I've been using Firefox since it first appeared as Firebird, but fancied a change. Chrome seems to do all I need. There are a fair number of plug-ins for things like mouse gestures, LastPass, delicious and other things I use. I'm sure Firefox will develop further, so I'll be keeping an eye on that. Brownsers are one of the easier apps to move between as there's so little local data, I don't use much in the way of local bookmarks.

I was disappointed to hear that Google are dropping Wave. I've played with it a few times and could see uses for it. In the last week or so I've been using it for real to plan a trip with some friends from the Six String Bliss forum. There are not too many tools that would allow us all to easily update a common 'document' that includes maps etc. Some listed here, but I have yet to try any of them.

This is my first post in a couple of months. I need to find time to write and a topic that justifies it. I hope my loyal reader has not been too bored.

[20:07] | [/Internet] | Comments | G

Fri, 11 Jun 2010

Data overload

Now that I have a phone that is capable of doing usable internet I've been considering how I would use it away from wifi. I don't make many calls or send many texts, so I get by with a PAYG account with Virgin that costs me a couple of quid each month. This allows me to use up to 25MB of data for 30p each day, but the next MB after that costs £2! That seems ridiculously excessive. There's an alternative of paying £5/month for 1GB, but I'd probably only use it for a couple of days each month. Basically I'm generally by a PC at work or home or I'm driving. When I'm out with the family I'm not too bothered about checking email and microblogs, That said, there will be times when I want to use those services or upload a photo. I would expect that I could send a load of emails etc with my 25MB. It would be cheaper than sending more than 3 texts a day. I just need to checking how much data I would get through in a typical day with various apps pinging the net. I may have to disable some.

So I've been looking at options for my Android phone that will prevent me being hit with silly charges. This article suggested some free applications that look possible. I'll be trying out 3G Watchdog. I've put a question on an Android Q&A site. I like the Stack Overflow system for building up a knowledgebase.

When I'm on my home or work wifi, then I have practically unlimited data. I need that on my phone in order to download various podcasts with Google Listen. I'm probably not going to use streaming audio or Google's satnav system on the move.

Looking back I've been through using acoustic couplers (school Teletype), various modems (on Amiga and PC) then various speeds of cable modem from 512kb up to my current 20Mb. There's been a progression from simple text, through static images to HD video and decent quality streamed audio. We seem to find ways to fill the available bandwidth. There's talk of 100Mb and higher speeds coming in a few years, but are already in some countries like Korea. I'm not sure what you would use that for.

On another front, I keep playing with various services that might enhance my web site. The Disqus comments work well. I thought I'd try Google Friend Connect as I'm a bit of a Google addict. I've added the Javascript for their widget, but instead of appearing as a box on the right hand side it spreads itself across the bottom of the page. My html skills are very limited and I suspect I've just not got the right code in there. Can someone have a look and make some suggestions? Thanks.

[20:05] | [/Internet] | Comments | G

Sun, 09 May 2010

Paranoid Android

I'm not a big mobile phone user, but I do like to consolidate my mobile gadgets. My last attempt at the perfect mobile was a bit of a compromise and didn't work out as well as I hoped. The Benq E72 was cheap, but limited. Operating complex apps without a touch screen was clunky and the proprietary USB audio connector made it tricky to use in the car. I was also still having to use the old Acer n35 as a GPS/navigation device.

I'd been admiring phones based on Google's Android operating system, but most were cost more than I wanted to spend. The HTC Tattoo seemed to offer all the features I wanted at a good price. It actually cost about what I paid at the time for my Palms. It compromises on screen resolution and touch screen technology, but I decided it would still do what I wanted.

It took a while to get the phone as the supplier didn't seem to have stock, but after I called them it was immediately shipped via France and Germany. It's smaller than other smartphones, but that makes it a good size for my pocket. The screen is perfectly usable and readable. So far I love it. I splashed out on a protective sleeve and screen protector to keep it safe. It's working great as a podcast player in the car, but I do need to get a holder to place it somewhere conveniently in reach. There's loads of free and cheap apps available. Some I have tried so far are:

I'm looking into apps for navigation. AndNav uses OpenStreetmap data, but I've not used it yet. I also want something to let me contribute back to OSM.

I'm not a big mobile data user. I don't spend that much time away from either wifi or my home PC. My Virgin PAYG scheme allows me to get data on any given day for 30p, but that's limited to just 25MB. I guess that's enough for a bit of tweeting, email and basic browsing. I could get 1GB/month for a fiver, but I just don't see me using it too often.

[18:11] | [/Gadgets] | Comments | G

Fri, 16 Apr 2010

Hi and Drai

Our old Rover car had been showing its age and so we had been looking at getting a replacement. Our diesel Zafira is a perfect family car, so we wanted something small and economical to get me to work. The Zafira did pretty well with 47mpg, but with fuel getting more expensive I wanted better than that, without blowing the budget.

We could have gone for second hand, but the government's scrappage scheme could give us £2000 off a new car in exchange for the Rover, which was worth a lot less than that. The most appealing option was the little Hyundai i10. It comes with all the features you need and worked out cheaper than a second hand Toyota Yaris. We did test drive a new Toyota Auris, but I couldn't see why I would pay that much more money for that, although it did offer better mpg.

So we ordered the i10. We went for the mid-range 'Comfort' model to get features like a height-adjustable driver's seat and remote central locking, but I wasn't really fussed about getting alloy wheels and coordinated trim. We opted for the stability control system. It took a few weeks to arrive from India and I'm very happy with it after around 1500 miles. I'm not a 'sporty' driver and it moves along perfectly well in traffic, including on the motorway, without too much noise. The quality of finish is better than most cars I've had in the past. Having an aux in on the standard radio is great for me to plug in something to play podcasts.

So far I'm getting economy between 50 and 54mpg calculated when I fill up. I'd have loved a real-time economy meter to optimise my driving, but that was not available. I'll also be saving money on road tax as it's only £35/year. I'm still getting used to driving such a small car. Yesterday I ended up some way from the petrol pump when guestimating where the filler cap would be. Mind you, the old Fiat 126 I had in Germany was smaller, but much more basic.

[10:20] | [/Motoring] | Comments | G

Chickens

We decided a while back hat we'd like to get some chickens, partly as pets and also for the eggs. We're not meat eaters, so their ultimate fate is uncertain. We have a large garden with plenty of room for a big run. Before we built the new house there used to be a big chicken house here that was used by my wife's grandparents, but we had to demolish it.

It took a few weeks to build a run with strong mesh buried in the ground to deter foxes. I converted our old wooden playhouse into a coop, rained on a platform made from some decking that used to be our front door ramp. I didn't have to buy much materials due to having lots of wood and other bits lying around.

We're fortunate to have a very good poultry supplier a couple of miles away at Thorne's. They do lots of fancy breeds, but we went for hybrids who are better for eggs. They were very helpful there in advising us on what to do. We picked up our birds this week. We went for a selection of breeds, including one that lays green and blue eggs. So far the older two have been laying an egg per day each. The other two have not started laying yet as they are a bit younger. When egg production ramps up we'll start supplying a few friends.

The kids are still enthusiastic about this project and have been doing some feeding and cleaning out. Let's see if they can sustain that.

Chickens settling in
[10:19] | [/Chickens] | Comments | G

Sun, 28 Feb 2010

Social pruning

I'm a big fan of on-line communities. The ability to form a group of like-minded people who may never have met and who may live in different countries is a wonderful tool. I've joined loads of forums and social sites over the last few years. Most forums are fairly limited in their social functions. You may be able to mark certain people as friends and send them private messages, but the overall population will be limited to those interested in the topics discussed there.

I think that the first proper social site I joined was Multiply. I liked their focus on sharing stuff with friends and family rather than talking to the whole world. The way you can restrict access to any item is the best I've seen, but it hasn't taken off in a big way. I got a few people on there and it has proved useful. Much later I gave in to Facebook as there were lots of people I know there. There are just so many things I don't like about it, but I can see why those are part of why people find it attractive. It's a real walled garden that protects you from the wider internet. They do set very low thresholds for forming new communities (groups), but those I have joined do not seem to be used much. People join and then do nothing to contribute. Facebook Pages can act like RSS feeds to keep you updated on your favourite band or other organisation. I just prefer more open technologies that don't tie you to a single site.

I've also joined other networks like Twitter, identi.ca (the Free Twitter), Friendfeed and now Google's Buzz. They all offer the ability to communicate and have mostly been useful to me. I've been suffering from duplication due to people posting to multiple services to reach the largest audience and so have been cutting back on my connections. I've dropped those on Facebook who just posted their Twitter updates and those on Twitter who I had followed at some point, but did not converse with and who were not posting anything I really needed. I'm following a few extra people on Buzz as it doesn't demand immediate attention like the microblogs. Buzz needs more ways to filter and priorities updates. Being able to group people would be good. I do this with Google Reader so that I can read posts on a given topic.

A discussion elsewhere was inspired by a friend who doesn't like using social sites as he feels they expose too much personal information to potential or actual bots that could pull together all sorts of data about us and draw conclusions about our movements, relationships and activities. I'm not as paranoid as him, but I do limit the amount of personal data I release. I don't talk much about family and usually only mention friends who are active on-line anyway. Others are posting every little detail of their lives on Facebook and Twitter. Either they don't care about the risks or just don't consider them. I don't really know how real the risks of identity theft are that you hear about in the press. I've played with semantic technologies like FOAF that make it very simple to harvest personal details, but also limited details of names, locations and dates there. It would be great to be able to build your address book from publicly published data, but it's likely to be abused. That said, I know people who have put their personal telephone numbers on web sites and not suffered from abuse.

I wanted to write more about how I was rationalising my networks, but I still haven't worked out the details. I don't follow hundreds of people, but I'm trying to keep the flood of incoming updates to manageable levels. I don't want to spend all my time reading them. I've got other things I want to do, like making music. I've been doing a few experiments with my guitar and uploading them to SoundCloud.

[22:02] | [/Internet] | Comments | G

Fri, 12 Feb 2010

Buzz off

The internets have been 'buzzing' (sorry) this week with talk about Google's latest product, Buzz. I seemed to get it straight away as it doesn't require invitations as Wave still does. It appears as an extra folder in Gmail. There you can post status messages that can include links and images. You can 'connect' various types of sites that you have in your Google Profile and then updates on those will also appear in your stream. People can then comment on them there and you can follow those people to see their updates.

As many people have been saying this is very like FriendFeed. That does almost exactly what I describe above, but has a few more features. You can opt out of certain parts of a person's feed, e.g. if you don't want to see their Youtube favourites. You can also create a 'virtual friend' in case someone you know doesn't join FriendFeed, but you still want to aggregate their various feeds. Plus you can create a group based around a set of people and allow others to subscribe to that group. FriendFeed does some removal of duplicates so you don't have to see when someone posts the same item to multiple sites.

I've used FriendFeed for a while and like it, but not many friends have joined. I can still use it to keep up with things and have it as a gadget on my iGoogle page. Facebook bought the site recently, but I've not seen any signs of integration yet.

Facebook is still the big player and is reaching a much wider audience than anything else. Smiles were raised at the ignorance of some Facebook users when they ended up on the wrong site and couldn't log in. Facebook aims to be usable by anyone and wants to be a safe walled garden for them so they don't have to go anywhere else. Features like Pages act like RSS so users can get all their news without leaving the garden. I use some of these features, but stay away from all the silly games and useless applications. I think Facebook lowers the barriers for non-technical people to build communities.

A common meme amongst all of the above is the Like button so show you enjoyed an item, whatever that may mean. I don't see a Dislike button. You can also comment using all of them, but some people, including my friend Wulf don't like the way this divides the comments across multiple sites. I'd also prefer comments on my blog posts to be on my site. Maybe we need a standard that allows comments on aggregating sites to feed back to the original post. Part of the reason I started using Disqus comments was to get more control over my comments and to track those I make on other sites, but it's not that widely used.

I'm reserving judgement on Buzz for now as it's very early days. I do like Google products and use a lot of them. If they can get the integration right and satisfy the various demands for privacy then it has potential. I don't know if this means that Wave is being dropped as it doesn't seem to have evolved much since the launch.

[13:27] | [/Internet] | Comments | G

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