Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Saving money online - shopping deals etc

I notice that, which offers members cashback for online shopping have got rid of their annual admin fee and will be trying to make money just from ads.

They offer deals from retailers and manufacturers you've heard of (like 2.5% cashback from the Apple Store when I looked, and discounts for Dabs, Dell, HP etc products), which is good! I haven't tried buying anything via them yet, but I plan to.

Separately but in a similar vein, I hear that Yahoo have recently launched Yahoo! Deals for the USA (still seems to be Kelkoo in the UK), which they called:

"the first website to provide daily deals, online coupons, grocery coupons, local coupons, store circulars and exclusive deals all in one place"


In a recent Yahoo! survey, 43 percent of participants said they are using coupons more since last year. They also cited that easier access to coupons would motivate them to use coupons more often, a sentiment stated by 76 percent of women. That said, the majority of people polled feel that there are not currently enough coupons for things they want to buy and nearly half actually think coupon hunting is a chore. Less than a fifth of consumers have a "go-to" online site and almost 80 percent think the process of finding coupons is difficult.

Yahoo! Deals even have a Twitter feed for realtime offers / deals.

Both interesting signs of the times, but it can all be only good news for us consumers.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Opera by Twitter

For anyone who hasn't heard of it yet, you can contribute to the Royal Opera House's experiment to engage Twitter users to help write a new opera. The BBC's covered it.

"We’re investigating how short, 140-character contributions can build upon each other to create a non-linear narrative – like a Choose Your Own Adventure story or a game of Consequences"

If you've not contributed yet, there's still time - just tweet your line with the hashtag #youropera or else tweet it to @youropera (someone else will be setting it to music, so they only want only contributions of lyrics, or should I say libretto, not music).

A very clever way to get publicity and promote the Garden! Kudos to their PR/advertising people - anyone know who they are?

Now if only ticket prices go down...

Not yer average privacy policy (& what about third party cookies / web beacons?)

Hot on the heels of starting a couple of new blogs (A Health Experience, A Human Experience) on topics not related to consumer technology in order to keep this blog more targeted, I decided I ought to revamp my privacy policy and extend it to all 3 blogs, and make the link much more prominent (see the right sidebar).

Here's my new privacy policy.

It's a bit tongue in cheek but hopefully more readable for non-techies and non-lawyers than most, and hopefully it's also accurately compliant with both English and US requirements.

If anyone thinks otherwise or has any other comments, please let me know.

In fact I think it's more compliant than most because I decided I needed to factor in the use of blog widgets, in my case MyBlogLog and Delicious tagometer, as well as Google AdSense, Google Analytics and Statcounter of course. And the use of Google / Blogger for search, and logging in for comments.

(With thanks to Out-Law's cookie laws and data protection guides, the ICO's privacy notices code of practice and privacy policy, and the EFF privacy policy - I figured if anyone has tight privacy policies, the ICO and EFF will!)

The third party widgets issue - cookies / web beacons

It's an interesting question how you can write a proper privacy policy or privacy notice for your blog or site when you include third party widgets / Javascript which plant cookies or web beacons on your visitors' computers.

Your privacy policy needs to cover their cookies or web bugs. But - you can't control what their scripts do!

Some of them provide enough information about what info their widgets collect and what use they make of that information, but others don't, or don't do enough - e.g. Google AdSense is fine (except for being unclear about web beacons - do they or don't they?), but Yahoo only give info about MyBlogLog's Recent Readers widget, not the click tracking, and nothing at all about the Delicious Tagometer. For more details about this lack of clarity, see my new privacy policy. (If anyone from Google or Yahoo! is reading this, maybe you could get it looked at?)

If the third party widget provider doesn't give you, the blog owner, enough info about their data collection, all you can do is refer your visitors to the third party's own privacy policy. But if theirs is incomplete, who is responsible by law, who gets lumbered with the swingeing fine?

Hopefully it'll be them, the third party widgeteer, not you, the mere blog owner. But if you voluntarily chose to include their widgets on your blog, could you be held responsible?

Maybe the safest, least risk-averse approach would be simply not to include third party widgets from any site that doesn't properly explain their widgets' personal data collection and use, even though that would really limit the features on your blog.

I really don't know the answer to that. If enough bloggers ask Google, Yahoo etc to clarify their widget usage, maybe they will? We can but hope.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

How Blogger changed my life (& my new blogs)

Here's my contribution to Blogger's 10th anniversary search for stories "about what Blogger has meant to you over the past decade."

It's not as exciting as blogging while rowing across the Atlantic, but Blogger's still helped to change my life. Or at least, change career.

The "A Consuming Experience" story

I haven't been using Blogger quite as long as a decade. It's been since the end of 2004, nearly 5 years now. Originally I wanted to write a consumer issues blog - hence this blog's title (and yes, I love puns!).

Mercenary that I am, I followed the trail of the most hits (and being sent or lent cool stuff to review!). I switched to blogging mainly tips and tricks about blogging on Blogger - my first big hit, though no longer the greatest, was my introduction to Technorati tags, it's still up there if you search Technorati tags tutorial; and ACE was even added to Blogger's Blogs of Note a year later. Then I switched to mainly consumer technology reviews and tips and Windows tips and problem solving. Which is where this blog is now.

I have no science background except maths/science A Levels years ago, so I had to work everything out from scratch. Which means that if I can understand something, anyone else with half a brain cell can too.

The main attraction of this blog seems to be my howtos, particularly fixing issues with Windows or mobile phones. (At least, I don't think it's the consumer rants, bad puns, tech innuendo or my love affair with nominative determinism…).

I hate technical jargon, which I think is exclusive in the worst possible sense. Just because people don't understand a technical term doesn't mean they're stupid, and it doesn't justify being patronising or treating them as stupid. It just means no one's explained to them what that term means, yet.

So I try to write about stuff in a way that I can understand - which means lots of other non-technical people can follow my how-to or troubleshooting instructions, too. Importantly, I don't skip basic prelim stages which too many other writers gloss over, as I don't assume the high base level of technical knowledge too many other writers do. Step by logical step is king.

The result

That attitude has paid off. ACE gets about 2500 unique visitors per day now on average (fewer at weekends), and has reached over 2 million visitors in total since its inauguration. ACE was even approached for syndication via Corante (which I left), then by Newstex, and asked to join the LG Blogger Relations programme, and now some things with 3 Mobile Buzz.

Most of all, though, I enjoy being (as I like to think of it) of some real use to society. I love analysing things, finding solutions to problems and sharing them, demystifying stuff that shouldn't be made a mystery in the first place, helping people in a concrete and immediate way. It makes my day to get comments e.g. on my post on how to add MP3s to Blogger, like:

One of the most useful, concise and informative posts I've read this year. Thanks

Or on this horrid Windows - no disk Exception Processing Message c0000013 Parameters 75b6bf9c 4 75b6bf9c 75b6bf9c problem:

You took the time to explain it in a very practical,full & simple way.
And most importantly: IT WORKS!
Thanx a million times.

And this on rotating mobile video 90 degrees:

oh, awesome instructions you gave. Was drowning in the internet until you came along....brilliant, you have made a whole family happy!

A particular favourite is a comment, on my post on no sound in Windows Vista:

I can't thank you enough - some of the other solutions were like cutting your arms off and sewing them back on!
This took me 10 seconds!

To my readers, thanks for the feedback and please do keep your comments coming! Even negative but constructive ones. (Though I haven't had many negative ones, thankfully. Except for spam.)

The big change

As this blog revived my interest in computing, technology and science, I started going to geek events and meeting technologists. Many of whom are interesting, fun people. That I can talk gadgets and computers with, without being looked at funny!

Soon, I began preferring blogging to my day job in the City of London.

My job was financially rewarding - only token bonuses if any, but a better salary than the average Londoner's; regular hours, which allowed me time for outside interests like singing and blogging; a team with great people who were good to work with; and interesting, intellectually challenging work, with a chance to figure new things out and help others learn them. Indeed one of the best moments in my life, ever, was when my boss forwarded me an email from a very senior, very smart and very respected executive about a talk I gave on a new technical area, saying that only after my talk did he finally understand that topic for the first time. Wish I'd kept a copy of the email.

A dream job, some might say. And it was, for years. But I'd been doing the same type of job for a long time and while some things changed from time to time, my work essentially stayed the same. And I knew the job would pretty much stay the same for the foreseeable future, even if I moved to another outfit.

So, what did I do? Just as a recession was starting, I decided to quit one of the very few secure, well paid(ish) jobs left in London, in order study technology properly. All because of this blog.

And happily ever after?..

So thank you, Blogger and Google! You really have changed my life.

Ideally, I'd now like to try to make a living as an analyst / writer / adviser on things technological, maybe with some programming on the side (I still prefer writing English to code, though as it turns out I'm actually not a bad programmer judging from my marks). It will mean much less money than I was making in the City, but that's not what matters to me anymore.

Before anyone asks, writing this blog just isn't enough. Despite the volume of traffic ACE gets, my Google AdSense money's nowhere near enough to live on. It just about covers blogging-related expenses if I'm lucky.

So, am I mad to try to switch careers? Time will tell.

In a few weeks, partly in honour of Blogger's 10th anniversary, I'm going to do what I've been planning to do for the last nearly 5 years - start a series for the beginning blogger on how to blog using my favourite Blogging platform, Blogger, step by step.

I know there's lots of blogging tutorials or introductions out there; this will just be my personal take on it. I recently convinced a (very technical) friend switch to Blogger, and realised there were still tips even technical people could benefit from. As well as the main people I write for, of course, i.e. the intelligent non geek.

I'm still going to write about things consumer, particularly consumer technology, here on ACE.

But to try to make ACE more targeted on computing and technology from a consumer angle (which also helps for SEO!), I'm starting separate blogs for the odds and ends on other subjects I'm interested in which I want to record for myself or to share. I'll probably keep the occasional funnies on this blog, though.

So say hi to -

Meanwhile, if anyone has any tech writing / technical advice / coding jobs going in London from mid-late September - part time only, for now - please feel free to get in touch! Open-mouthed

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Sweetter: see Twitter tweets on any website

To see what people are tweeting about the website you're currently viewing, you can use a bookmarklet / favelet for your web browser, built using Kynetx Apps.

Get the Sweetter bookmarklet free from Phil Windley's blog post (on Kynetx site too).

(For anyone not familiar with bookmarklets, just dragging it doesn't work with Internet Explorer: for instructions see what's a bookmarklet or favelet and how to install or add it, and how to edit a bookmarklet.)

Then, when you're on a web site and want to check out tweets about the site, just click the Sweetter bookmarklet and wait a bit (be patient, it can take several seconds) for a popup that shows recent tweets about the site or blog you're on.

Sweetter makes use of BackTweets and picks up links to the current site which have been shortened via or other link URL shortening services too.

Here's what it popped up on clicking the link for my blog.

As you can see, it's scrollable for viewing older tweets (there's a limit to how many it can pick up though) and the X is of course to close it. You can't resize or move it, just use the scrollbar.

It does seem to show some repetition of some of the same few tweets though, I'm not sure why.

A useful and fun tool, and it's free too - so no reason not to go get it!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Open Word documents as read only

This post is on how to get particular Microsoft Word documents to open as Read Only, as standard.

If like me you've accidentally overwritten important stuff in certain Microsoft Word files that you use mainly for reference, you'll want to set those documents as read only!

These instructions are for Word 2003 but it should be similar for other versions.

How to set a Word .doc document as read only by default

  1. Open the document you want to make read only.

  2. Go to menu Tools > Options:

  3. Click the Security tab and tick "Read-only recommended" (outlined in red below) and click OK:

  4. Save the document.

In future, when you try to open that document (whether direct or through a shortcut), it will come up with a box like this:

Just hit Enter (or Alt+y) or click Yes, in order to open it as read-only.

Then, if you've inadvertently highlighted stuff in the document and your keyboard goes haywire but you don't notice and it wipes out important stuff and you save it anyway without thinking (you can tell I've been through that!), it won't let you overwrite the original document - it will make you save it as a new document with a different name.

This still works if you've password protected the document. After you've entered your password, the "Open as read-only?" box will pop up.

How to edit the "read only" Word document

If you later want to make changes to that document, just click No when the "Open as read-only?" window pops up.

That will open it up in such a way that you can edit it and save your changes as normal.

But do make sure you close it quickly again after you've done your deliberate individual edits, in case something goes wrong and you overwrite other stuff without realising it!

Troubleshooting tip - still read only?

If it won't open for editing (i.e. won't let you save the original document) but keeps trying to make you save your "readonly recommended" document as a new document even after you've chosen "No" to "Open as read-only?", here's one trick to try.

  1. Close all open Word windows (not just that document but any other open Word documents too).

  2. Open the read-only document again, clicking "No" to "Open as read-only?".

  3. This time it should work. (If not, try restarting Windows. If that still doesn't work you have a bigger problem!).

Friday, 7 August 2009

Bobby McFerrin shows pentatonic scale is universal

This video is brilliant, & fun too. UPDATE: the pentatonic bit is 3 minutes in.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

Via LuckyVoice blog.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Consumer products: footprint matters, packaging matters

It's astonishing how many manufacturers just haven't cottoned on to basic consumer needs for usability and practicality, which mean that minor changes to their product or its packaging could make all the difference between selling it - or not.

Fact: most people don't live in mansions with unlimited space. Even when you're not in Japan, footprint matters.

Hard drives, printers

I have some external hard drives for backup and I only buy ones which are made to stand up vertically. I simply don't have enough room on my desk to lie them down horizontally, and the risk of overheating means I can't stack them one on top of the other.

I just saw a hard drive at a decent price from a good brand that I'd like to buy because one of my hard drives has just packed it in - but I won't, I can't, because it only sits horizontally.

The same goes for all sorts of other gadgets - if the price is about the same, I go for what has the smallest footprint. Not even the most reliable brand that I'd prefer to buy if I could; I just don't have the space to.

Printers too - I don't mind tall, just reduce the footprint!

Clock radios

That's why I haven't got any Pure Digital clock radio like the Chronos (pictured below), even though I am a huge Pure fan for DAB radio (see reviews etc on the Bug, Elan, Oasis, all 3 of which I have. As well as the Highway and Evoke etc).

You can't stand their triangular clock radios up on one edge of the triangle - they only lie flat, and my bedside cabinet just isn't big enough to squeeze something like that in, with all the other stuff I need to have on it.

Face cream etc!

Practicality matters, and not just in gadgets. It matters in other consumer goods too.

Take something as simple as face cream. Packaging can matter there.

I used to buy Nivea. It came with a pump so you could easily dispense some out of the shower.

When my local Boots stopped selling Nivea bottles that had lids with built-in pumps, I tried something else that was sold with a pump (E4), found it was fine, and have stuck with it ever since.

I don't know if Nivea stopped selling their product with those types of bottles, or if it was Boots which decided to stop stocking that type.

Whatever the reason, a small difference in packaging got me to switch product.

Even washing up liquid bottles that are rectangular rather than round are better, so you can turn them sideways to take up less room on your window sill. And I prefer storage containers that are square so you can cram them side by side and use the space better than round ones.

I have a glasses container on my bedside table so I can find my spectacles when I wake up. Guess what? It stands up vertically (like a holder for pens, but smaller). It took me years to find one like that.

I don't know if I'm alone in being influenced by the shapes of containers and how much room something takes up. But it can't hurt manufacturers to take practical issues like that into account, and in these tough economic times, anything that can give that extra edge can help.

And finally, it would also help to have packaging that you can open without being an all in wrestler, and without having to use a very sharp knife (risking damage to the product - as well as your fingers! - in the process).

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Firefox: rightclick menu too slow? how to fix

If the Firefox right click menu (the menu that you get when you right click with the mouse on a web page in a Firefox window or tab) is very slow, taking a long time to appear, the most likely reason for the delay is an add-on or extension.

Try starting Firefox in safe mode. If the problem goes away in safe mode, it was probably an extension causing the issue.

Here's some tips on how to fix that problem, or at least troubleshoot if not solve it.

How to troubleshoot slow rightclick menu in Firefox

First, is the slow down recent? Think back on when it first started happening, say within the last week.

If you can’t remember when, or it was too long ago, then skip to the next section on how to check your Firefox extensions quickly.

If you can remember the date, then identify all Firefox extensions which have been installed or updated since that date. (Go back a few days further than that for luck if you wish.)

If you can't remember which addons are new since that date, how do you work that out? You can check the date from the Addon itself – menu Tools > Add-ons, and on each extension in the popup window it says what the “Install date” is, see this example below (just to show where you can find the Install Date – CLEO wasn’t guilty in my case!). I’ve also highlighted the Disable button:

Go through every one of those extensions that have been added or updated since that date, click Disable for each of them. Restart Firefox. Is the rightclick problem still happening or does the menu come up in a flash now? (Wait a few minutes or an hour just to see, then try the rightlick again).

If the problem’s gone away, then one of those add ons was the culprit. To find which one, enable them one by one – i.e. click on the disabled extension to select it, then click the Enable button, then restart Firefox and check again. Still OK? Enable another one, then restart etc. When it stops working right after you’ve enabled a particular addon, then you’ll know that’s the bad guy, so go and Disable it again. (If you really need it, try checking for an update, or live with the slowness.)

When I had this problem recently, I just disabled all the addon that had been updated or installed in the last few days (like Vanish), and hey presto the problem vanished. I haven’t reenabled them one by one yet, but then I don’t use those particular extensions much, so I’m leaving that job for another time.

How to check your Firefox add-ons / extensions quickly

Here’s a great tip. This trick isn’t original to me, I can’t remember who suggested it to me. But here’s how it works.

  1. Disable all the first half of your extensions – say if you have 20 extensions, disable the first 10. Then restart and check the rightclick menu (or whatever other Firefox problem you may be having).
  2. If it’s all fine, then the guilty party is one of those 10; if not, it must be one of the second 10.
  3. Say it’s one of the first 10. Make sure the first 5 of those are disabled (and re-enable the second 5), then restart and test again. And so on.

This way you can narrow it down to find the problem addon pretty quickly, which will save you having to try each add-on out one by one.

What if it doesn't work?

There may be other reasons why the rightclick menu is too slow - what I've suggested is the most likely, but if that doesn't work try this link.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

DIY home surveillance

I've no time for my own reviews at the moment, but I'd like to point you to Terence Eden's reviews (with pics) of some interesting British gadgets:

  1. Y- Cam - wifi / Ethernet camera you can monitor via your mobile phone e.g. Blackberry, emails you photo on detecting motion, about £150.

  2. Peepr - free, lets you broadcast to the web or mobile via your computer's webcam and mike, tries to send you SMS text on detecting movement.

Not CCTV exactly, but they sound ideal for personal home surveillance. Even if you have a burglar alarm for home security the ability to keep an eye on your home, literally, and to even take and save photos, can't be a bad thing.

See Terence's review and pics.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

More critical Adobe security updates

If you use Adobe Flash (you do if you watch YouTube videos), Adobe Acrobat Reader (for viewing PDF files) or Adobe AIR (for TweetDeck etc), best update all of them ASAP for critical security vulnerabilities.

See the Adobe page for what to download for your own setup.

Via Heise Security.