Saturday, 31 October 2009

Google Barometer: UK consumer confidence recovers

It seems from Google Barometer that, as far as the UK is concerned at least, consumers seem to think that the recession is bottoming out, based on searches people make and the like (fewer searches on "repossessions", for instance).

Of course that's not to say that they're right…!

Thoughts from Google's interviews with people on the economic climate, online shopping etc are in the video below:


Friday, 30 October 2009

Climate change: map of 4°temperature rise

Here's a superb Flash map produced by the UK Met Office (see more info and the full size interactive view) which shows the likely results for different regions if the world's average temperature rises by just 4° C.

The map was presented to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría by Dominic Martin, British Ambassador to the OECD, ahead of UN climate change talks in Copenhagen in December.

Source: OECD press release 22 October 2009, which has some frightening figures:

"OECD analysis suggests that unless action is taken, global greenhouse gas emissions will rise by about 70% between now and 2050, and by 2100 there could be 4-6 C global mean increase in temperatures above pre-industrial levels.

The map shows that, for instance, as the Himalayan glaciers melt, 23% of the population of China could be deprived of the vital dry season glacial melt water by 2050.

It explains too that an estimated mean sea-level rise of 53 cm by 2075 would result in floods affecting an additional 150 million people, with Asia being particularly badly hit."

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Students: save money - tips

This post isn't on technology, but has some tips which I think may help people going (back) to "school", so I'm posting them here.

These tips apply to all students, but are particularly aimed at people going back to study full time as a mature student, who may not know about all these tips - you want a career change, you've lost your job and decide to retrain, whatever the reason, as a fulltime student there are some key things you can do to save money given that you'll be on a tight budget with fees to pay and living expenses etc (the main focus is on the UK especially London):

  1. Look out for general student discounts like (currently) Microsoft's student discounts on Windows and Office products (e.g. Windows 7 at £30 for UK students with valid email addresses - but it's only until 11:59pm GMT on January 3rd, 2010 so grab a copy ASAP if you need it - see eligibility conditions). And similarly US students can get Windows 7 cheaply too.
  2. Apply for a council tax discount or exemption - if you live alone or only with other full time students, you could be exempt altogether; but if you live with others e.g. non-student flatmates or partner, you can still get a discount - check out your council's website for details and (often) a downloadable form. Find your local authority.
  3. (London) Apply for an 18+ student Oystercard. This gets you a very helpful 30% discount off a 7-day or longer travelcard for travel on the Tube, buses etc.
    1. Extra tip: the card generally lasts until mid October of the next year. Apply ASAP because the discount starts as soon as you get the card. Some colleges are helpful and will validate you with London Underground online from the beginning of September even before you've arrived at college in person; some make you go through lots of painful red tape before they add you to their system, even as late as October.
    2. If you get the card at the beginning of September, consider buying a travelcard for 2 weeks, then an annual one in mid-October to last you the rest of your year of eligibility. Prices usually go up around the beginning of the calendar year, so buying 1 year then 2 weeks the following year will be more expensive than 2 weeks + 1 year. Not much more, but everything counts.
  4. Get an NUS Extra card. You have to order it online, then collect it in person from your local student union (they'll email you when it's ready, takes a couple of weeks on average). It costs £10 but entitles you to discounts at participating retailers.
    1. A key one is Amazon, for (at the date of writing) a 5% discounts on books and certain other products up to a pretty decent cumulative total spend (but not on electronics unfortunately, though Apple, Philips, Comet offer a discount on those, and there's e.g. a 3 Mobile Broadband student offer).
    2. A discount on Staples or Ryman stationery supplies may come in handy too. And Superdrug, Body Shop, Pizza Hut, Moss Bros, Warehouse, Topshop, Miss Selfridge, JJB Sport, Joe Browns, Firetrap, cinema tickets at Odeon, Ticketmaster gig tickets etc - see the NUS Extra page for details of all discounts.
  5. (Added) Check with your college whether there are any special offers, e.g. many offer their students free or cheap anti-virus software to install on their own computers; cheap computer consumables; etc. You may have to hunt round your college website's student pages as they're not always obvious.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Google search results redirection - rightclick won't copy direct URL? Solution

When you rightclick a link in Google search results (especially in the Firefox browser), do you find that instead of the "real" direct link to the webpage concerned, you get a very long link with "google.../url?" in it - something like ?

Hovering over the initial search results link without trying to click anything shows the correct direct link in the status bar (outlined in red below):

And clicking to open the link works.

But if you rightclick the search result link, e.g. in order to choose "Copy Link Location", you get the very long link instead:

This can be very annoying if you're trying to copy and paste links from Google search results for notes, emails, blog posts or slides etc.

It's not just you and me, others have noticed this too.

What's happening?

Why is this going on? It's because Google have randomly selected you, yes, lucky you (now one of the chosen many), to have this search redirection happen to you every time you do a search via Google while you're already logged in to a Google account (e.g. Gmail or Google Reader).

Link redirection. The search results links of the chosen many will then get turned into special Google "redirect" links, so that when you click on a link it will send you to the right place eventually - but meanwhile it's been redirected through Google, so that they will know (and presumably store a record of) exactly which links you clicked on.

This redirection happens even if you don't rightclick on the link first. Just keep an eye on the status bar as you left click a search result, and you'll see the long Google URL flash up there for an instant before the "real" page comes up.

Also note that this happens with "normal" search results in the main body of the page. In other words, they don't just track clicks on advertisements (which is expected and catered for), but clicks on any (non-ad) search results.

Rightclick broken. Now, tracking which Google search results you click on has privacy implications in itself and may be creepy or scary to some, but for many the main issue is simply that this link redirection breaks the rightclick functionality in your browser - you just can't copy direct search results links properly anymore.

Privacy - no opt out. A big problem is, once you've been chosen for this special treatment, you may find it happening all the time while you're logged in, whether you like it or not - Google don't alert you to it, and Google don't seem to provide any way for you to disable it or to opt out of this click tracking.

Personally I think this practice might well give rise to a legal risk for Google, because the initiation of the tracking isn't notified to the chosen many (who are signed in to their Google account at the time, and therefore probably personally identifiable) - and not only is the user not told about the tracking, but they aren't given the opportunity to consent to it or to opt out either. Nor are they told how the info from the tracking is to be used.

So for their own protection and for good PR as well as to help users, I feel Google should provide an opt out for this. There are indications that the redirection is going to happen automatically for all Google searches eventually, so maybe they'll update things then.

Anyway, until an opt out is available, if you're one of the chosen many there are a few things you can do to sort this out for yourself.

Solutions to the problem

Log out of Google! To fix this problem, the easiest solution is simply to log out of Google first before you search. A gotcha: if you do, though, make sure you sign out of all Google accounts first e.g. Google Calendar as well as Gmail etc, as signing out of just one of them, like Gmail, won't necessarily sign you out of the rest, like Calendar.

Use another browser for searching. However you may not always remember to log out of everything, and you may well need to have access to your Gmail etc during a search. One workaround is to open another type of browser (e.g. Opera or Internet Explorer, if you're logged in to Google via Firefox), and search in that browser, making sure you're not logged in to Google on that browser. Or use Bing to search!

Greasemonkey script. The easiest solution, if you use Firefox as your main browser, is to install a Greasemonkey user script. This fix is what I personally use.

I looked at the source and noticed the "onmousedown" event handler associated with every search result link. Rather than write a script to get rid of it, being lazy I did a search and sure enough others had already written scripts to address this issue.

The one I tried, which I know works, is the Google Search - Remove Redirection userscript.

(If you're not familiar with Greasemonkey, here's how to install the Greasemonkey extension and how to install a userscript. Both are free, as is Firefox.)

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Mobile phones: Universal Charging Solution (UCS) - universal chargers at last!

The ITU standards body have just approved:

"an energy-efficient one-charger-fits-all new mobile phone solution… enables the same charger to be used for all future handsets, regardless of make and model. In addition to dramatically cutting the number of chargers produced, shipped and subsequently discarded as new models become available, the new standard will mean users worldwide will be able to charge their mobiles anywhere from any available charger, while also reducing the energy consumed while charging…"

"Based on the Micro-USB interface, UCS chargers will also include a 4-star or higher efficiency rating - up to three times more energy-efficient than an unrated charger."

Of course it will be a while before cellphones and chargers based on the new UCS standard start to be produced, but this is great news for consumers and will save a lot of space as well as wasted "old" chargers.

See also reports on this by Computing and BBC.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Free Skype on 3 (Three) - review & thoughts

A few months back I took part in a free trial of 3 UK's internet telephony via Skype, thanks to 3MobileBuzz, but didn't have a chance to write it up till now.

Most mobile network operators see Skype as a threat to their revenues, and so they won't let you make Skype calls on your mobile handset at all - or else they'll charge you for the privilege of using Skype (maybe even more than for a "normal" phone call).

3's selling point is that they actively encourage you to use Skype on 3 phones, for free, and 3MobileBuzz tell me that Skype calls won't even count as part of your 3 data usage.

3MobileBuzz lent me 5 different makes of Three phones to try Skype on, with a few friends. I distributed the phones as follows (I hadn't recorded all the exact models before distribution, my bad; I've only mentioned names where I've had explicit permission to do so):

Key lesson - usability

In my view the key finding, and message for 3 and Skype, is that usability on the phone is essential if they want to facilitate and increase the use of Skype on handsets.

None of my testers are tech novices. Even the City executive, who professes not to be technical, was told by her IT Department that she was a lot more au fait with computing than most of their other users.

And yet, there were still problems with finding Skype to launch it (it was in a very weird menu location on the Sony Ericsson phones - the icon really should be on the home screen), while the N96 claimed that Skype wasn't installed at all and my friend had to keep trying to download it, taking several tries before it worked.

So I think it would be near impossible for non-technical users to use Skype on some handsets.

Where it has been thought through and fully implemented, though, the Skype integration is impressive. Notably, the INQ phone worked very well - but that's not surprising as INQ are part of the 3 group and so they make phones that work particularly well on 3 networks, with superb Skype integration.

And yes, if you're logged in to Skype, when someone calls you it will ring your phone, just as you'd expect with a non-Skype call.

Another clever integration point is that if you're logged in to Skype, missed calls usually go to your Skype voicemail rather than your "normal" 3 voicemail - although we found that sometimes it was hit and miss as to whether this happened.

However, except for the INQ phone, none of the phones tested will log you in to Skype automatically when you turn on the phone, so you have to remember to do that every time you switch it on.

The final major issue is the noticeable time lag, which is worse than when using Skype on a computer. Skype on 3 is like using a walkie talkie. You'll find that you and whoever you're talking to on Skype will often be talking at the same time or talking over each other.

We found that we had to resort to old fashioned voice procedure techniques, saying "Over" to indicate when we'd finished speaking so that the other person could start talking. One of my testers, who in fact used to be in the Territorial Army, was grateful for her knowledge of those terms when calling her ex-Army friends on Skype using the 3 phone, as they too had to revert to using "Roger" and the like!

Verdict for consumers

Skype on 3 is great for making free long distance Skype to Skype calls, but you'll have to get used to the time lag. If you don't have an INQ phone, get a technical friend or the shop (or 3 Support) to show you how to find Skype on the phone. Also note that the 3 coverage has to be good for it to work fully; one of my testers found that in certain areas she just couldn't get through on Skype.

For local calls, until the lag is eliminated and integration is improved, "normal" phone calls will offer a better user experience than Skype - unless of course you positively want to walk around looking secretive showing off your military speak! Also, if you want to be always contactable on Skype via your mobile, you should get an INQ, otherwise you're bound to forget to login to Skype sometime (you have to do that manually with the other phones).

Suggestions for 3 and Skype

  1. Include a clear Skype icon on the home page / desktop screens of all 3 phones, so users can find it easily.
  2. Preinstall Skype on all 3 phones to avoid downloading problems.
  3. Make it obvious and easy for the user, once logged in to Skype, to save their username/password (if they wish), and if possible let them opt to auto-login to Skype whenever the phone is switched on (otherwise login has to be done manually each time you turn the mobile on, which is a pain and may be forgotten; even if it's saved your Skype username and password, you still have to launch Skype manually after you turn the phone on, every single time - with the sole exception of the INQ phone, which did autologin to Skype).
  4. Reduce the lag - with technology improvements, hopefully this will happen anyway in time.

Full disclosure

Particularly given the US FTC guidelines affecting bloggers, I want to make it clear that neither 3 nor 3MobileBuzz (or indeed anyone else) has paid me anything for this review.

They did involve me in a previous trial of 3's Huawei E169G dongle, but I'd bought the E220 mentioned in that review myself for blogging or researching for the blog while on the move, and I've returned the E169G.

As part of the 3MobileBuzz "Setting Skype free" promotion they also sent me (and I've kept) a paper cootie catcher, a chocolate cake (since eaten, wouldja believe it) in a plastic box with a file tool, and also a trowel (escape theme, geddit?) plus a little cage with a padlock to imprison my usual phone in while trying the Skype phone. With a key, fortunately, as they now have the 3 phones back! There was a London Dungeon event to tie in with the jail/break theme, but I couldn't go.

3 also kindly invited me to their event on the 3 Mifi device, which looks a very desirable piece of kit, but I haven't had a chance to trial it yet (I have something specific in mind for that), so stay tuned for a report when I do.

This was Improbulus speaking. Over and out!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Carnival of the Mobilists #196: handsets, learning and lucre

ACE is again hosting the Carnival of the Mobilists this week, for the second time.

Regular Steve Litchfield from AllAboutSymbian has a post on The Top 5 Phones that aren't actually IN the Top 5, aka "Why choosing a phone in 2009 means choosing the one that sucks the least"! This is a comprehensive review of a big batch of current mobile phones - Nokia N97, Apple iPhone 3GS, HTC Touch Pro 2, Palm Pre, Nokia N86 8MP, HTC Hero, Nokia E75, Samsung i8910 HD, Nokia E71, Nokia N96, Nokia N95 8GB, Nokia E55, Blackberry Bold, Nokia E90 and the Nokia 5800. Whew! His conclusion is to counsel patience - and wait for the Nokia E72, Nokia N900, Nokia N97 mini, Nokia X6, HTC HD2 or Motorola DEXT and other qwerty Android phones (though not the Sony Ericsson Satio with its dire battery life).

Moving on from hardware to applications, several detailed reports on the Handheld Learning Conference 2009 ("about learning using mobile and inexpensive access technologies") come from Mark van 't Hooft:

But let's face it, there's less focus on learning and more on lucre: the increase in attempts to monetise mobile is evident from the many posts around this issue.

Mark Jaffe of MobileMandala discusses Ten Reasons Why Mobile Advertising Has Not Reached Its Potential, suggesting 2 marketing approaches for the mobile phone grounded on consumer behaviour and usage, based on the mobile phone being a medium of immediacy and a medium of relationships.

From advertising to m-commerce, in Amazon Raises The Stakes; Making Mobile Shopping Less Hassle, Alfred deRose of MSearchGroove, noting Amazon's recent launch of their Mobile Payments Service (Amazon MPS), points out the importance of easy payments to mobile commerce, providing 3 do's and don'ts for integrating online and mobile businesses.

Appstores are a potential source of revenue that's getting serious attention following the success of Apple's iPhone appstore.

Ajit Jaokar of Open Gardens expands on the opening talk he gave as the chair of the CTIA mobile appstores event in San Diego, entitled From Intel inside to appstore inside and the rise of the Mobile Grandpas.., on what he calls the trend towards the "Appstore inside" which he thinks could be truly disruptive.

Franciso Kattan has 7 recommendations for developers on How to Merchandise Your App 2 Years Ai (after the iPhone), again following CTIA, summarising key lessons shared there for developers wanting to go mobile.

Jose Colucci of Mobile Strategy raises some questions on Mobile Applications and Loyalty, looking at comparative statistics for application downloads and usage of apps by Blackberry and Apple iPhone users - can they be believed, and what do they tell us about the differences between Blackberry and iPhone users?

Finally, a short post by C. Enrique Ortiz from About Mobility On the rise of open mobile takes the view that "the Android market is going to explode globally becoming a predominant mobile platform together with the iPhone".

That's it for this week's Carnival - look out for next week's Carnival, which will be hosted at TamsS60.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Yahoo! Taiwan "Hack Girls" - bad form!

Both Cristiano and Ian and no doubt many others have posted about this, and I am joining in the chorus. Sexism sadly is still alive and kicking.

Offering "entertainment" at a Yahoo! Taiwan Open Hack Day in the form of female lapdancer "Hack Girls" really isn't on. (And simply password protecting the videos after the event doesn't make up for it!)

My attitudes towards sex and sexuality are as liberal as the next person's, if not more so, but some things just aren't appropriate - and this is one of them.

Maybe if they'd included male strippers as well, they might just about have got away with it - but double standards still rule, certainly in the UK. And this sort of thing is still not appropriate "entertainment" for a hack day.

Let's see if the bad PR storm grows, and how Yahoo! will weather it.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Check if your Hotmail etc account is safe; secure your passwords

You've probably seen the tons of publicity recently about lots of webmail account details (e-mail addresses and passwords) being stolen or phished and published online - initially for 10,000 HotMail emails but then it transpired also some 20,000 other email accounts on Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, Gmail and also service providers Comcast and EarthLink.

Heise have provided a link to a page where you can enter your email address (just the part before the @ sign) to check if your own email address is on those published lists or not.

If not, at least it's some relief to know, although that only means your account isn't on that particular list - it doesn't mean your account hasn't been compromised in some other way, so you should always remain vigilant about security and not reply to phishing emails (even the FBI director's nearly been caught out!).

Check your email address on Thomas Springer's ServerSniff.

More secure passwords

Many of the passwords concerned were easily guessable (don't use 123456 or 123456789 and the like for your password!) so follow good password practices, don't use the same one for every account or service; follow advice for choosing secure passwords e.g. Michael Santerre for Gmail, or Elinor Mills on cnet (including this free Microsoft password strength checker page), and of course security guru Bruce Schneier's tips.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

More Acrobat security issues - try Foxit

After yet another report on Adobe Acrobat Reader and Acrobat security flaws for all of Windows, Mac and Linux, I think I'm going to switch back to the free Foxit Reader for PDF files - pictured above.

I'd lazily left it at Adobe when I had to switch my main computer last Christmas, but Foxit seems a lot safer. It's certainly faster at opening Portable Document Format (PDF) files. And did I say it was free?

The Foxit PDF reader has plugins for Internet Explorer and Firefox and, though I've not tried it yet, it seems you can manually integrate it with Chrome in Windows (see rdnetto's post here - note that on my Windows Vista system the Foxit plugins folder in fact had both DLL and OCX files in it, and the Chrome plugin folder was in C:\Users\myusername\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\Application\ - your mileage may vary). You also have to let it through your firewall too, of course.

Try it: download Foxit.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Oh the irony

A general email was sent out to a certain distribution list, containing a subject line starting with the words:

Englich courses

My lips are sealed as to the identity of the sender, or the person who forwarded the email to me!