Category Archives: internet
I’ve just taken delivery of a new phone, to replace the one that drowned. A similar model, but I won’t dwell on that in this post. What impressed me today was the delivery.
It wasn’t cheap. The retailer (Handtec) didn’t offer a free delivery option, and I decided to pay a couple of quid extra for next day delivery rather than spend several days potentially in limbo.
What happened next was rather good, and suggests that online shopping may be finally taking the problems of delivery seriously. On placing the order I got the customary acknowledgement email, followed by the email telling me my order has been cleared and is being dispatched. Another hour and a message from the delivery company (GPSK) telling me it would be delivered on Tuesday, but giving me options to select another day. Better still, this morning another message giving me a one-hour delivery time window (12:43-13:43), again with the option to request a different day. So on hearing a diesel van pull up at 12:53, I looked out of the window, saw the logo, and went down to take delivery. All very smooth!
Both the messages from GPSK came both as text and email to maximise the chance of reaching me in good time, if I had wished to make a change. And both contained embedded reply mechanisms to request a change. This attention to detail is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been asking for, and suggests that the business of online ordering and delivery is finally reaching a decent level of maturity!
I recently installed an update of a software package running on an Amazon EC2 host.
In the configure step I found there was an unsatisfied dependency: it wanted ossp-uuid, which was not available on the system. Neither was yum able to find it: there was an alternative uuid, but no hint of anything from ossp. Turned up some problems with yum too (a hung security-update process from weeks ago and a corrupted database), but that’s another story. Checking my box at home, the reason I hadn’t stumbled on the dependency is that ossp-uuid is installed as a standard package here. A case of different distros having different packages in their standard repos.
In the absence of a package, installing from source seemed the obvious thing to do. So I made my way to ossp.org, from where navigation to an ossp-uuid source download is easy. Reassuringly I see Ralf Engelschall is in charge (whois lists him too), but worryingly none of the packages are signed. A summary look at the source package reassures me it looks fine, though I don’t have time for exhaustive review. In the unlikely event of a trojan package having found its way to the site, I expect some reader of my blog will alert me to the story!
Anyway, that’s getting ahead of myself. The unexpected problem I faced was actually downloading the package, which is available only through FTP. Firefox from home timed out; lynx or perl GET from the ec2 machine returned an unhelpful error. Looks like a firewall in the way of FTP building its data connection. Installing an old-fashioned commandline ftp I found neither active nor passive mode would work, meaning neither the client nor the server could initiate the data connection.
Before going into an exhaustive investigation of those firewall components over which I have control (my router being #1 suspect at home), I decided to try other routes. The problem was resolved when I was able to access the FTP server from my own (webthing) web server, then make the package available over HTTP from there to the ec2 box.
In the Good Old Days™ before the coming of web browsers and bittorrent, FTP was THE protocol for transferring files. In 1990s web browsers it shared equal status with HTTP and others, and even into this century it was widely seen as a superior protocol to HTTP for data, particularly bigger files.
Now by contrast, the widespread use of blind firewalls requires me to jump through hoops just to use the protocol. The rant I once published about everything-over-HTTP is coming to pass, and is not a good thing.
I guess once wifi hotspots became a strategy for big telcos, it was only a matter of time before they reached us here. And so this week it has come to pass: two new unprotected wifi access points labelled BTFON and BTOpenzone-H. They provide a decent signal level too, second only to my own router from where I type.
So I connected to one, then the other, and took a look. They appear to be offering the same service: evidently like buses they’re social and cluster together! Indeed I suspect they may be no more than different aliases for the same physical router. Unsurprisingly they’re a BT service. Equally unsurprisingly there’s a catch: all they actually connect to is a sandbox. A website promoting a BT service, and inviting me to pay for access to …. what exactly?
In principle this could be an interesting offering. Indeed, if sufficiently reliable, such a service together with VOIP phone SIP exchange might even replace the landline and ADSL connection altogether. But its value depends entirely on whether it provides full internet access. If it’s one of those mickey-mouse services that blocks everything but web (and maybe mail) ports even after I’ve gone to the trouble of paying and logging in via the sandbox I can access, then no thank you!
Now, guess what information I can’t find anywhere on the sandbox site, after following every remotely promising link like “technical information” and “FAQs” (erm, yeah, right, everyone is frequently asking questions whose answer is immediately obvious to anyone who can formulate the question in the first place). Yep, that’s right, they’re not going to tell me whether they supply any bloomin’ service beyond a bit of point-and-drool.
What do you do when you’re anticipating a long session on the ‘puter, naturally including ‘net access, only to find your connection is dead? A call to your ISP gets you a recorded message about a major ‘net outage, though only after you’ve listened through a tedious spiel telling you please use their website to deal with problems(!)
If you have any sense, you get on with something else once you’re done cursing and swearing at it. Something you can do offline. And so I eventually tried to do: started hacking on something I could do quite a lot of without having to google anything. It didn’t work: my concentration span was shot to pieces by wanting to look up the latest updates from my ISP (which I could access from the pocket-’puter over O2′s mobile data network). And, worse, I felt a perverse need to browse all my regular websites using the small screen and inadequate keyboard.
Is that a symptom of addiction? It’s not at all so bad having planned offline time, e.g. when travelling without the laptop.
(This was Wednesday evening, from early evening through the night to Thursday morning, when the problem was finally fixed.)
King Canute famously failed to prevent the tide coming in. I can’t help wondering if Eben Moglen is setting himself on a similarly futile course, when he calls for decentralisation of our information infrastructure.
The subject of Moglen’s opening keynote at FOSDEM was liberty, and how technology can work for or against it. He spoke of current and recent topical events, from Wikileaks to the role of the ‘net in Egypt’s (so-far) peaceful revolution. And of how technology can serve those who might threaten freedom: how much sensitive information could a heavy-handed government pick up from something as simple as a legal action on Facebook. How Data Protection in Europe has merely served to outsource handling of personal data to countries like the US with no such protection of privacy.
His call to developers was to build decentralised networks, where we can publish, communicate, interact as we do on the ‘net without submitting all our data to any centralised database that might become the focus of malign attention. Examples of tasks he spoke of ranged from Facebook-style networking to building a citizens cellphone network from $20 base stations in people’s homes. Tasks which are at least technically feasible to prototype and develop.
Listening to this, my reaction was that he’s battling against history here. History on the ‘net has shown different media and channels becoming more, not less, centralised. The once-popular Usenet medium for public discussion has given way to web-based fora: a wholly inferior medium for the task, and one for which I must admit my small measure of guilt (though it seemed like an interesting thing to implement in 1995). IRC discussion remains popular amongst geeks, but elsewhere there came chatrooms, and now we even have Twitter making a grab for that space. Every time, the geek medium gives way to an inferior one because the latter gets the mindshare. Non-technical journalists will routinely invite us to ‘tweet’ them, or mention a web forum relevant to a topic under discussion, so the public learn of these media. Meanwhile the old, decentralised, shared, and in both these cases altogether superior, media are relegated to enclaves of geekdom (or, in the case of much of usenet, to wastelands of spam and other abuse). My suggestion to him was, you need to concentrate your efforts not so much on legislators, but on communicators. Journalists in mainstream media!
OK, ‘net history is short. Why should a campaigner for freedom not call for trends to be reversed?
A wider perspective tells us that the online centralisation trends of which I have written are merely examples of similar trends backed by far more history. The most striking parallel in English history is the Enclosure of the Commons. The absurd valuations given to some websites (headed by Facebook) tell us a new aristocracy is profiting from enclosing an online commons, albeit an ephemeral and transient one.
And I plead guilty to hosting my blog at another aristocrat of web-land, WordPress. Yep, my rantings are centralised as a matter of simple convenience.
I’ve been invited to offer my thoughts on rural broadband, and its effect on business. On the grounds that I’m both a techie and a user, and might therefore have something more to contribute than those who are one but not the other. The audience for this exercise might even include some of our elected politicians!
So here are some thoughts.
Politicians have spoken of a new generation of high-speed broadband based on optical fiber. An admirable goal subject to cost constraints, but a completely separate issue to basic, always-on ADSL-grade connectivity. The latter is what really matters, and we want it now, not ‘eventually’.
Politicians have tended to confuse the basic essential with the more ambitious goal. They need to be clear. Rural areas don’t need motorways, but we do need basic access, and we don’t want to be kept waiting while the new motorways are rolled out!
My own experience is that ADSL arrived in about January 2004. 2004 is the year my circumstances moved away from poverty, before completing a turnaround and generating good money in 2005. Since then it has helped me to work for clients and later an employer on distant continents, and to work with a US publisher on my book. ADSL has made all the difference between poverty and prosperity!
The Sword of Damocles
The biggest issue facing rural business is the risk of moving to a new home or premises and finding there is a problem with broadband. We desperately need to be able to get a reliable indication of whether broadband will be available at a prospective address. This has improved since the days of no guarantees anywhere, but that leaves large no-go areas where BT’s checker is ambiguous.
For areas where ADSL (or other terrestrial solutions) are irredeemably uneconomic, might a better solution be satellite broadband? Not to be confused, of course, with the one-way-only data used by satellite TV and optionally supplemented by other means (usually ‘phone lines). Promoting satellite broadband more widely could help bring costs down (economies of scale), and policymakers could perhaps encourage it – e.g. with tax breaks or even rural development funds. Could be particularly useful for a rural hamlet too small for a telephone exchange, where a satellite connection could serve as a shared hub. This is something where we (locally) could seek to ally ourselves with other rural areas more widely: at EU-wide level (for instance) it could have real weight.
 My definition of business here includes self-employed and employees working from home or from a small rural office, as well as more traditional business premises. The arguments apply to everyone short of bigger-biz with the resources to provide their own broadband connection privately.
We all know that the old-meeja go on at length about filesharing, copyright theft, internet piracy, call it what you will. So it was no surprise to hear it rehashed on the beeb yesterday evening. Usual format: an interviewer, and two people with opposing views to debate it.
I only caught bits of it: I was cooking my supper and not really listening. But one thing struck me: one of the debaters said that everyone fileshares. This was quite an emphatic everyone, and he clearly intended to distinguish the sense from a typical apologist’s appropriation of everyone to a manifest falsehood like “everyone supports the olympics”. Nor was it an Orwellian with-menaces everyone, as in you’re misogynist racist pedophile terrorist scum and beneath contempt if you dare to question us.
Since it clearly is an apologist’s everyone, that must be a bit of willy-waving (“my everyone is bigger than your everyone”). But more striking is that neither the interviewer nor the opposing debater made any attempt to challenge it: indeed, they seemed to agree with it. Perhaps it really is true in meeja-luvvie circles?
Then it struck me: this is exactly like the meeja discussion of online porn was ten years ago. We’ve got used to the Beeb being our (UK’s) self-proclaimed leading website. But for a few years after they first noticed the ‘net, you’d never hear it discussed without someone blathering about online porn. If you didn’t know better, you’d have thought that the ‘net revolved around porn and everyone was into it.
As someone with an altogether different vision of the ‘net, I found the association rather distasteful, and some aspects downright offensive. Like, ratings for websites having an implicit assumption that every site might need them, without even a default category for “no sex or violence not because we’ve toned it down and pitched it at children, but because this website is all about coffee, computers, or astronomy”. Should I declare my websites as having mild/inoffensive sex and violence (the lowest PICS category) just to avoid the risk of being blocked by family-safe services that block unrated sites to protect children? Absurd and offensive!
Worse, the association with porn put barriers in the way of those of us who wanted to promote the ‘net for altogether good, constructive purposes.
So if filesharing is the new porn, what lessons can we draw? The optimistic view is ignore the hot-air and it’ll go away, just as the meeja’s porn-fixation went away when the BBC decided it was going to be top-website itself.
But maybe it’s not the same: the porn message was rooted in the ‘net being a “new frontier” for the meeja and their mass audience, while the filesharing one is driven by powerful commercial interests, some of whom are the world’s biggest unauthorised profiteers from other people’s efforts (“thieves” or “pirates”, in their own language). And I don’t just mean things like Disney famously copyrighting everything from common cultural heritage (fairytales) to african music in the lion king: people better-informed than I describe altogether more sinister practices like identity theft.
On the other hand, Big Pirates never succeeded in getting the photocopier or the cassette tape banned. I expect those who persist in fighting technology will continue to fight a losing battle, and the meeja attention will indeed blow over. Just as it did with porn on the ‘net.
 Nothing against pornographers. Just so long as I’m free to steer clear of their work, it’s live-and-let-live. Same principle as when I was doing research in a department right in the red light district: we (geeks) didn’t bother the ladies of the night, and they didn’t bother us. But I’d have been mildly pissed off if the world assumed that the reason I worked there was because of them, and seriously so if my work was belittled or dismissed on that basis.
+1 to Ortwin Glück!
The greatest virtue of blogs is their support for discussion. Putting silly barriers in the way of comments is counterproductive.
But Ortwin overlooks the worst case. Sure, jumping through hoops is annoying. But what’s altogether worse is sites that appear to accept comments, but when you’ve put the effort in require you to jump through hoops by stealth. Worst: those whose hoops are insurmountable: one of those eye tests (aka captchas) which my client may not even display, or which I may be unable to solve. Or blogs using blogger that expect you to send OpenID credentials, then throw up an error message when you do so.
For the record, no, this is not finger-pointing. I made no attempt to comment on Ortwin’s blog. Had I done so, I’m sure it would’ve been published with no problems.
Dear Lazyweb (UK), can anyone tell me how near I can come to relying on a provisional yes from BT’s broadband availability checker?
I’ve just seen a very nice cottage I’m interested in taking. But it’s in a small and rather remote (by UK standards) village. The current occupier has no broadband, and the agent is clearly ignorant (thought Sky – which the current occupier does have – was broadband). BT’s checker returns a noncommittal:
Your exchange is ADSL enabled, and our initial check on your postcode indicates that your line should be able to have an ADSL broadband service that provides a fixed line rate up to 512Kbps. However, due to the length of your line, an engineer visit may be required, who will, where possible, supply the broadband service.
Our check also indicates that your line currently supports a potential ADSL Max broadband line rate of 1Mbps or greater.
If you decide to place an order, a further test will be performed to confirm if your line is suitable for the service you wish to purchase.
Thank you for your interest.
That’s fine if I can rely on it! But obviously, losing broadband loses me my ability to perform my job, or do other business for which I’m qualified effectively. BT won’t give me anything more definite until the ‘phone line is mine and I’ve ordered ADSL, and this is not a risk I can even insure against! To cap it all, the village is in a valley and has no mobile signal, so mobile broadband isn’t an option either.
Heard on the wireless this morning, some latter-day Mary Whitehouse calling itself the Internet Watch Foundation has decreed that a Wikipedia page should be banned. It seems the page in question includes a picture of a (child) girl in a state of undress, bringing it into witch-hunt territory. It’s about what turns out to be some old (1976 ferchrissake) pop record, and the picture is of the album cover and is on sale perfectly legally in the shops. But I didn’t know any of that until I found the wikipedia page in question via MJR’s blog.
What matters here is not some tacky picture (and I can’t see how anyone could consider it erotic – she’s pretty thoroughly unsexed in it). But the IWF is claiming that they’ve persuaded UK ISPs to block the page, in a coup Mrs Whitehouse could only have dreamed of. Trying it for myself, I could see the page (good). But later in response to another comment I clicked on the image, only to find that had indeed been blocked (ouch). Routing round the block, there’s another page with just a slightly larger version of the picture, again having no merit other than that of having provoked Big Brother.
That’s disturbing. I couldn’t give a damn about some pop group or tasteless picture, but if this is allowed to stand it’s the not-so-thin end of a wedge to things that matter a lot. And when I go to a page that does matter, I want to read that page. In other words, I want to choose Shakespeare over Bowdler, let alone some anonymous nobody without even the latter’s modest talents.
Dear Lazyweb, can anyone tell me what UK ISPs will stand up to vain and stupid censorship?
(Lots of Wikipedia links in honour of their role in this story. One more link: a transcript posted by the author of this wikipedia entry of this morning’s piece).