Referral links

Unlike other ads on this page, the two links below are to services I use - if you're looking for a new SIM or broadband connection I can personally recommend them, and these are specific referral links that I can get bonuses from if you sign up, so please use them :-)

Get a free giffgaff Sim Broadband from £5.99 a month with an included wireless router when you sign up to Plusnet - terms apply

Monday, 21 April 2014

90/99 minute audio CD writing with Linux

[Short link to this article if you need it: - or retweet me!]

There is an executive summary/how-to at the end of the main article if you're just looking to get on and do it!


It seemed like such an easy thing to do. Use Linux to write a continuous mix audio CD of some tracks of 2013 to a 90-minute blank CD-R with track splits and CD-Text information. Bear in mind that some things I'm covering here are NOT specific to 90-minute discs, but are true for audio CD writing on Linux in general. I'm writing this to document my experiences since I struggled to find the comprehensive information anywhere else. For reference in this article my use of "wodim" and "cdrecord" are interchangeable - the machine I was using used wodim 1.1.11 - "cdrecord" was symlinked to it.

For the uninitiated, most CD-Rs on the market are 80 minute long, and can sometimes be "overburned" by around 88 seconds. Longer CD-Rs of 90 and 99 minutes are sometimes available at higher cost, although these are technically in violation of Philips+Sony's Orange book specification, so they cannot be guaranteed to work either in your writer or anything that's reading them, and most software doesn't know how to recognise them, hence the need to use overburning to write anything more than 80 minutes long. The ability to overburn effectively is dependent on your drive.


Firstly I fired up the Brasero disk burner (As an aside it's not helpful when typing that name into Unity's Dash that Ubuntu dynamically searches for products on Amazon now - especially when you're 4 characters into that particular program name...) set up the track breaks, add the track info for CD-Text, insert the 90-minute blank and ... it wasn't interested. No, for the purposes of this I really did not want to burn over several discs:

So a bit of searching around got me nowhere fast, other than speculation (and a suggestion that k3b might be a better choice). Either way, Brasero wasn't looking like the universal tool I needed. A friend suggested he'd managed to write 90 minute CD-Rs using cdrecord directly. But my requirements were a little harder than writing a data disc so I tried a couple of things. Firstly I tested with a smaller audio CD with Brasero writing the image to a file (and cue sheet for the track break/CD-Text info) to an image file and trying to burn the image manually to a CD-RW with cdrecord (If you're not familiar with cuesheet use, I'll cover that at the end):

    cdrecord dev=/dev/sr0 -text -dao cuefile=MyAudio1.cue

This seemed to work ok until I went to play it. Random tracks (didn't seem to be a pattern to which ones, and it varied depending on which tracks I'd included) but always the same ones if the same image was burned again) seemed to have a low volume buzz in the background. Quite odd since it was a continuous input file. I never managed to figure out why, so ultimately that was useless.

While having a play around with cuesheets it became apparent that I didn't actually need brasero's image file - just the cue sheet (for the record brasero's track splitting was ok, other than the fact it seemed to always end up splitting with the tracks starting at 2 and put track 1 at the end - bear that in mind when typing in the track names!) I could edit the cue sheet myself, reset the type in the first line from "MOTOROLA" to "WAVE" and change the image file name to the source .wav file.

Good plan, but that didn't quite work either. I got this:

   Inappropriate audio coding in 'MyAudio1.wav' on line 1 in 'MyAudio1.cue'.

So cdrecord claimed the wav file was invalid - did I need Brasero's image after all? Was I back to square 1? Not quite ... turns out (and this is not unreasonable given the format of CDs) that cdrecord won't accept a .wav file that isn't in 44.1kHz, and my source file was in 48kHz. The error message above from cdrecord is a little ambiguous in that respect and I may raise that with them.

So the next step: fire up audacity, load the file, use the drop down in the bottom left of the screen (as per the screen shot on the right) to switch it to 44.1kHz (44100Hz) and re-export. NOTE: It's worth pointing out here that Brasero didn't care about the source file being 48kHz and would auto-convert behind the scenes when writing to a normal sized CD:

   sxa@sainz:/dev/shm$ file *.wav
   MyAudio1.wav: RIFF (little-endian) data, WAVE audio, Microsoft PCM, 16 bit, stereo 48000 Hz
   MyAudio2.wav: RIFF (little-endian) data, WAVE audio, Microsoft PCM, 16 bit, stereo 44100 Hz

Much better - it got rid of that error message but once again it still didn't work. This time cdrecord objected that the amount of data in the final track didn't end on a CD-frame (2352-byte) boundary:

   wodim: Bad audio track size 42302672 for track 25.
   wodim: Audio tracks must be at least 705600 bytes and a multiple of 2352.
   wodim: See -pad option.

Sadly it's suggestion to use "-pad" didn't seem to do anything useful and I still got the same error message - I'm guessing that probably doesn't work when the track info comes from a cuesheet. So back into Audacity, set the time counts at the bottom to work in CD-DA frames instead of seconds (as per screen shot above left), highlight the whole thing, manually drop the "end" frame number by 1 from whatever it was (you'll lose up to 1/74 of a second but I think you can probably live with that!) and export the selection to a .wav again.

So now I have a 44.1kHz CD-DA framed .wav file and a brasero-generated (slightly edited to point at a .wav) cue file. For the record, I tested with a smaller .wav file first to my CD-RW and it did solve the "buzz" problem from earlier - I figured it was better to try that before potentially wasting a 90-minute blank!

I'd seen reports that overburning (required for anything over 80 minutes) was much more reliable at slower speeds, so I gave cdrecord the parameter to reduce the write speed to 2x:

   cdrecord dev=/dev/sr0 -text -dao cuefile=MyAudio1.cue -v -overburn speed=2

Now the drive (an LG GSA-4120B) seemingly wasn't interested in hanging around and so the speed was increased to 4 (automatically, this was still using the above command). It completed and - I'm delighted to say - seemed to work. Played in the three players I tried, and the CD-Text information was there!

I also have 99 minute blanks but haven't needed them yet - I assume they'd work as well as the 90s as long as your drive is happy with them. The audio I had was only about 89 minutes long so it wasn't worth using the longer ones.

I remember playing with, and running a very early website dedicated to digital audio extraction (DAE - now more commonly referred to as "ripping") and MP3 files before most people knew about them, and here I am looking at lower level CD-DA stuff again. It's all coming full circle...


I'm adding this section as a summary checklist for the next time I need to do this - it just summarises the rest of the article. Here's how to burn a continuous audio file with CD-Text to a 90-minute CD-R under Linux (assuming your drive supports it)
  1. Ensure your source audio file is in a CD-native 44.1kHz sample rate
  2. Make sure your file has a size that contains a number of CD-DA frames equal to a multiple of 2532 bytes
  3. Export to a standard uncompressed PCM .wav file
  4. Create a cue sheet with the CD-Text details (Brasero makes this fairly easy)
  5. Write the disc using the lowest possibly speed for increased reliability:
    cdrecord dev=/dev/sr0 -text -dao cuefile=MyFile.cue -v -overburn speed=2
For steps 1 and 2 you can use the "Audacity" editor - make sure your screen looks something like this before saving with File->Export Selection - ensure it's an exact number of total frames (I suggest setting it to one less than whatever it was originally when you highlight the whole waveform with CTL-A):

If you've never used a cue sheet before, there Wikipedia article is a good reference, but here's a quick example of the start of one in case you want to bypass creating it with Brasero showing the first three tracks. Just add as many as you need (although as mentioned, the track PERFORMER entries don't get picked up by cdrecord):

  FILE "/mnt/scd13/2013top34-90minues.wav" WAVE
  TITLE "sxa's 2013 top tracks mix"
  PERFORMER "@sxa555"
   TITLE "Mozart's House"
   PERFORMER "Clean Bandit"
   INDEX 01 00:00:00
   TITLE "Royals (Zoo Station Remix)"
    PERFORMER "Lorde"
    INDEX 01 03:32:24
    TITLE "All I Want Is You"
    PERFORMER "Agnes"
    INDEX 01 06:56:24


  1. Cue file format
  2. CD-DA frames tip from billw58 in audacity forums
  3. cdrecord man page with the "88 second" overburn reference (search "-overburn")
  4. Ubuntu's inclusion of amazon search results into Dash
  5. Article which gave me the hint about the missing PERFORMER entry

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Which music streaming service to choose to replace WE7?

[Short link to this article if you need it - or retweet me ]

I've written before about the reasons why I'm more than happy to pay for music streaming services and how it hasn't diminshed the amount of music I pay for, but recently WE7 discontinued it's "on-demand" subscription service. With it's demise occurring after it's acquisition by Tesco and a move exclusively to a zero-cost "radio station" model after the rebranding to BlinkBox Music I had to start looking around for an alternative (Thanks to the team at Gareth and Georgie at WE7 for recovering my playlists! I do still recommend BlinkBox to those who don't need explicit selections). Spotify was the obvious one of course, but part of what I liked about WE7 was supporting the underdog, so my preference would be to support a bit of competition and go for an alternative. So what are the options?


Everyone knows what this is, and most people have probably tried it at some point, so not a lot more needs to be said.


The less said about this service the better. While they've now got agreements for a lot of the music they're streaming that was not always the case, so purely on that basis I can't really support them. However the interface is nice, clean and easy to use


Deezer had an offer running at the time where you could get the "full" service (including mobile use) for the price of the desktop only one. That looked like a pretty good deal.

Youtube Mix radio

There's always the option of trying the option that a lot of people now use for consuming music - youtube!
Of course from a bandwidth perspective it's not ideal since it's streaming video but still ... Unfortunately this doesn't let me pay to remove adverts so it was a bit of a non-starter for what I was looking for but I'm including it as it might be useful to others, and youtube probably the easiest way to share playlists publicly.

I'll be honest I hadn't heard too much about rdio previously, but a colleague recommended it to me. It seems to have a similar range of artists to the other options, and the prices were the same too, so that became another option.

While I use for scrobbling I was looking for more than just a radio service, so ultimately it went the same way as blinkbox music and was eliminated early on.


With all the services being the same price (£4.99/month desktop, £9.99 desktop+mobile) there was nothing to choose between them on that basis, so I personally drew up a list of pros and cons for each service. I'd tried all of them, I didn't want to use a native application (Part of what made me subscribe to WE7 was that it was browser/flash based so would work on the Solaris desktop I was using at the time). All three can work in a flash-enabled browser. scrobbling was also a requirement and all did that (as well as posting your plays to facebook). I also tried using playlists on all the sites too (My near-complete 2013 playlist exists on all of WE7/BlinkBox, Spotify, Deezer and if you want to try each of them)

  • The biggest name
  • Lots of playlists
  • Most people sharing streams/playlists give spotify links
  • While not the case at the time I was deciding, you an now use the mobile app without paying
  • Facebook integration seems most advanced
  • Still mostly based around a native app
  • Picky about browser versions on
  • Peer-to-peer protocol
  • Allows uploading of your own MP3s
  • Cute "mixing desk" feature, but needs quick machine
  • Desktop version (just) works under Dolphin+flash on Android
  • The numbers suggest it actually has more members than Spotify
  • Good range of "smartTV" support
  • MP3 uploads don't scrobble to
  • Seemed harder to find some specific tracks than on the others
  • Always seemed to auto-play when loaded
  • Too easy to accidentally start play of a track when browsing
  • Only native desktop app is for Windows8 (although I didn't want one anyway!)
  • Search seems very good, even on mobile
  • "Remote control" lets you use mobile to control playback on another machine
  • Radio stations have "Artist only" -> "Adventurous" slider (Something I always wished WE7 had added)
  • User interface feels easiest to navigate (although not perfect)
  • Social aspect - recommendations and "following artists" nicely integrated (although limited artists are on it)
  • Memory use seems about double that of Spotify/Deezer
  • No way to play your own tracks from the UI
  • Search box sometimes seems to fail to respond to the backspace key
  • Doesn't appear to have a "queue this next" feature - only "play later/last" or "play immediately"

In terms of "killer features" my decision was made by the following summary points:
  •'s memory usage was a concern
  • Deezer's MP3 upload option was offset by the inability to scrobble them, so that wasn't the advantage I'd hoped for
  • My home PVR was still on Firefox 11 (don't judge me!) and Spotify didn't like that
  •'s remote control was very slick and allowed control of hifi playback from tablet
  •'s "adventurous" slider was something didn't appear to exist anywhere else.
So all were flawed, but ultimately (and I procrastinated for a while!) I decided that for me's other features outweighed the large memory usage, and so that's the one I now subscribe too. It just seemed like the most innovative product in the market so was worth supporting on that basis. A decision backed up by the fact that they teamed up with Shazam (the original iPhone "killer app") to dynamically create add "shazamed" tracks to an playlist - an rdio exclusive for now!

It's worth noting that even though I've only subscribed to the desktop offering, I can still use the remote control from the Android app so I don't need to have the PVR screen active to control playback from there, although it does nag you to upgrade when you start the app. Another point to note is that when you're on the free trial of you can't use it from a remote country (Deezer doesn't have this restriction). That restriction goes away when you start paying, and you get the ability to access all the tracks available from your home country when connecting from elsewhere.

[P.S. After drafting this article Spotify completed a purchase of The Echo Nest, which amongst other things provides a "radio" recommendation service used not only by Spotify, but also some of it's competitors such as rdio and Pandora. Is this an aggressive takeover to cause trouble for their competition? Maybe but let's hope not - here's a positive view of the takeover from an Echo Nest employee. I worry that any company that gets sufficiently big in any sector will be able to make such purchases and have control, and Spotify's recently had a $250M injection while it's competitors have been laying off staff. So I don't think such things are good for competition in the marketplace, and therefore I'm even more happy to continue to support rdio - I like to put my money where my mouth is]

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Android - if I'm honest, it's a bit disappointing ... 10 reasons

[Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me]

Another old article - drafted nearly a year ago now but it's time to post it! There is a separate companion article about problems with the device, but this one is about the OS.

DISCLAIMER 1: This is written from a perspective of someone who's bought their first Android device.
DISCLAIMER 2: I bought the tablet because I don't have a laptop, so some of these are issues in using it as an alternative to a laptop to highlight the limitations of doing so.

Now that I've got both of those things out of the way, I'll continue. I bought a Nexus10 because I not longer have a laptop in the house. I figured the stuff I'd do on a laptop would be more practically served by a tablet. For me the disadvantage of any sensibly priced laptop on the market has always been the screen resolution - it's all very well saying you have a 15" screen, but why do  they headlines never list the screen resolution? It's a shame it's taken Apple's "retina" marketing machine to move things forward though. So 2560x1600 for £319? I'll have some of that please ... And I've got an external keyboard for more comfortably writing blog entries and the like. The Surface would have been tempting at the same price point and resolution, but it wasn't good enough in the first generation when I was looking.

So what's the problem? Honestly, there are several. And I'm surprised at quite how many. I'll point out that none of these are related to the specific device (I'll save those for elsewhere) but are just about Android (initially 4.2.x, now 4.4) generally from the perspective of someone using it in lieu of a laptop.

Let's get started:
  1. When you first power it on (or after a factory reset) it won't do anything until it's connected to wifi and registered itself.  If the wifi authentication requires you to type a username/password over an HTTPS connection it will fail (without a useful error) because - as far as I can tell - the clock is set to well before the SSL certificate was valid. So you're stuck until you find a wifi with another auth method.
  2. Partially related to the first point, my second attempt was to connect through the AdHoc wifi network access point provided by my Nokia N9. Except that Android can't connect to AdHoc wifi networks, so that failed. And means I can't use the tablet on the network out and about as I was planning to without pulling some tricks. (Pre-4.4, this Android app lets you tether over BlueTooth although it doesn't work with all apps e.g. web browsers...)
  3. The task switcher bears very little relevance to anything in terms of what's actually live and running. It might as well be a "recently started apps" list. In many cases it's really inconvenient as you lose status because an app restarts when you go back to it, and that effect is even obvious in the standard applications like web browser windows.
  4. A controversial one - lack of flash support in the browser. Now you can find it manually and bolt it on by allowing unapproved software (although only with Firefox/Dolphin) that's miles from ideal. I know there are reasons again Flash but as per this thread and again in this thread (which I posted after discovering they've removed APIs in Android 4.4 that Flash requires - here's an unofficial fixed version).  But I don't buy those reasons and I think the devices are worse off for not having it. It was a differentiating factor Android had and was useful for compatibility reasons. Deprecate it if you like, but I like having it there - and in my experience the UX is often better than a poorly-rewritten-for-many-OSs mobile app. But as I said in that first thread, I'm not entirely convinced the reasons for removing it weren't just political or pressure from media providers ... Music streaming services are an example where you're charged more on "mobile OSs", and bypassing that using the desktop flash version makes it harder to justify. It forces an alternate experience on mobile devices when it's not always necessary.
  5. Related to the previous point on flash and desktop/mobile differences, if I'm using YouTube I'm subject to the limitations put on "mobile" devices i.e. some videos are not playable. Which I believe is the same restriction that stops all YouTube videos playing via set-top boxes/BluRay players etc. When I bought a Sony BluRay player I liked the fact it had YouTube support - but the limitations soon had me building a "real" PVR to attach to the TV instead. On Android you can get the message "The content owner has not made this available on mobile devices". The Puffin browser's Flash support lets me get around that (EDIT: As does Dolphin with the Flash plugin if you set it to identify with a Desktop User-Agent instead of Android) but it's ridiculous that I have to do it. 
  6. Again on multimedia - video streaming apps such as BBC iPlayer, 4OD etc, don't seem to continue to play when in the background. I don't expect to see the video when it's in the background, but the audio could easily continue. That's the experience I'd get on a laptop, why not on a tablet? Maybe I'm switching away to tweet during a broadcast, or while adverts are on (I have no problems with adverts and don't use AdBlock). I just don't want to have everything pause by default as though I can only handle one thing at a time (Sadly the same is true if you bolt on Flash into an Android browser - it will pause when not in the foreground).
  7. The facebook app looks suspiciously similar to - I wish they'd make a bit more effort with the app since there doesn't seem to be such a huge advantage of it other than integrating it into the Gallery's "Share" options and the like. And despite what Zuckerberg might claim, HTML5 is quick enough for the purpose. Just ask Sencha.
  8. UMS (USB Mass Storage) has been removed in favour of MTP/PTP for the built-in storage.  The reason for this is that there is no longer a separate FAT block device that can be exported. Fine if you're on Windows which supports MTP. Less fine if on Linux which doesn't always have support for it (out of the box before anyone suggests otherwise!). The reasons are technically sound but a use case I have is being able to put music/video on my device and plug it into my car, or someone's SmartTV, and play it back. And I can't with my Android device. HDMI playback is all well (if a bit of a battery drain) but I'd like to be able to control the playback from my TV remote control. Wouldn't be so bad if the Nexus10 had a memory card slot (which would be exported over UMS) but it doesn't.
  9. I never realise quite how bad this issue was until I started using Android but I'm now sick of the "Do you want to download our app" popups when I go to half the friggin' web sites on the internet. It's horrible. People install AdBlock and the like to get rid of intrusive nonsense but this is far worse. NO I BLOODY DON'T WANT YOUR APP - it's not that hard to just put a banner at the top advertising your app, but please don't intrude on my use of your site.
  10. Device-locked applications. I'm particularly looking at you SkyGo and itvPlayer. Is it really that hard to open up to all Android devices (possibly non-rooted if you must)? And even when they do work, some services lock out the external HDMI port when streaming (4OD explicitly displays a separate message on the external screen) This really doesn't feel like a laptop replacement.

So there you have it. A list of ten things that I really don't like about Android given my use case. About half I knew about before, and pretty much all weren't true of my pure Linux (as opposed to the "Yes I'm Linux but abstracted away by Dalvik" thing that calls itself Android) Nokia #N900. For me, the customer experience isn't quite what I'd hoped for given my use case. I wonder how the Surface or Playbook would do on all of these points?
Don't get me wrong, I don't think Android is inherently bad. It's just that for the use case of a desktop replacement, it is quite some way from perfect, and I feel some of the restrictions are in place for commercial reasons "because we are big market leaders and we can" as opposed to because they're right for the users.

(Don't forget to also read the article in my customer service blog about my experience with the Nexus10 and Google's support)

[EDIT 25/02/2014: Copied from a comment I made on G+ tonight:
I've just tried to stream the #NME awards at - it managed to fire up at first but wouldn't go full screen (about 300pixels wide on a 2560x1600 screen is pointless). It now won't restart at all now in chrome. Fired up first time on my Linux laptop via #flash (with a 720p stream). Can't verify flash on #Android tablet because it's 4.4 #usabilityFail Maybe I'm being unfair in expecting it to work on my big brand tablet ... Oh wait a minute ... 


Sunday, 12 January 2014

Does Facebook (and other social networking) lead to increased depression?

[ Short link to this article if you need it - or retweet me ]

This is an article that's been in draft form well over a year now (it was written as the final entry following my previous two articles about Facebook - one on the frequent appearance of unsourced "scandal" posts and social engineering and another on technical issues with the site - and I initially intended to post it shortly after the others near the end of 2012!) It wook a while because it's a tricky one to balance the article correctly and frankly, it was hard at the time to come by non-anecdotal statistics to back it up effectively. But I now need to get it out of the way so I can post some more blogs :-) Unfortunately I may have missed the boat slightly by delaying it since there are a few similar articles that were posted during 2013 by others!

I have a concern that social media potentially triggers more cases of depression than is necessarily appreciated. This is, of course, not necessarily an issue limited to Facebook, but I've focussed on it because the sorts of things people tend to post on that site more typically demonstrate the concern as "Facebook friends" are mostly contacts that we know personally rather than the rich and famous or other people you've never met.

Over the last ten years the number of young people admitted to hospital for self-harming has increased by 68% and the rate appears to be increasing. [EDIT: Deaths from suicide are over double those from road accidents (2012 data, 5981 vs 1754 - info via @MentalHealthCop)] Similar increases have occurred with other mental illnesses during the period when the internet has taken a major part of people's lives. This is particularly the case with younger people who are starting to grow up with social media as a normal part of their life. There have also been large increases in parents' reports of their children's depression and anxiety disorders between the 80s and the 00s (see chart below), and while those surveys mostly pre-date the widespread explosion of social networking (although not the internet generally) it does suggest that people are more likely to be susceptible from an earlier age to the effects I'm writing about. (As an aside I thought the charts of when high school pupils use Facebook through the day was quite interesting too!)

With social media it's now far easier, and common, to get a view inside other people's lives. You now get more details than you would have previously had from people who you don't regularly interact with in person - those outside your traditional circle of close friends. And in general people are more likely to be sharing the positives - when they're out visiting somewhere or at a fun event for example. It's far less likely that you'll hear about the more mundane things (except photos of food) or hear from people when they're not actively doing anything interesting. Although saying that, posting self-deprecating posts for others' entertainment can act as an antidote to these issues!

The problem with happiness

So if people mostly post fun stuff, then where am I going with this article? What's the problem with sharing "happiness". Here are a few concerns:
  1. If you see people doing fun stuff and you're not, which can leave you feeling left out
  2. You may feel under pressure to find things worth posting, and if you believe you don't have any suitable things to post, you might think your life is not as interesting
  3. Maybe you'll take it personally if you think people "unfriend" you because you are not also posting lots of positive things
  4. You may see people with hundreds of social media connections but you don't have many yourself, which may leave you feel more lonely and believe you are missing out
All of which I believe are valid concerns that can leave to problems and - tackling each in turn - here's why:
  • Point 1 is a hard one to solve, as you (hopefully!) wouldn't want your friends not to enjoy themselves, but if someone is left with a feeling that you've been actively left out then there can be thoughts of "Why was I left out?" or "I might have enjoyed that too". This problem is potentially worse with location based checkin systems such as foursquare. There are plenty of innocent reasons whym someone may have been left out - it's a private event with their partner, someone else who doesn't know you arranged it, last minute scheduling, or there's only so many people that could come along. Is it even fair to invite you to something that the organiser believes you wouldn't be able to afford? Either way it's best not to automatically assume it was a malicious decision not to include you.
  • Depression + anxiety disorders will not be helped by the extra pressure of point 2. There's an interesting statistic from mental health charity MIND which claimed that depression with anxiety is 3.7x more common that depression alone (that statistic was from a while back - apologies that I can't find the reference link for it any more) I also think that people who post comments like "I already knew that" or "Have you really not heard of that?" and similar comments are more negative than people realise and can put people off posting. Maybe one person did see it before, maybe a few more did, but there's a decent chance that many of your other followers didn't so it shouldn't put you off.
  • The third reason is always interesting because you won't normally know the reason for it. In general I'd recommend that people mute others from your timeline rather than unfriending them if you don't want visibility of their posts. Personally, I'd only unfriend if I wanted to stop them seeing all my posts for some reason, not because I didn't want to see theirs. It's easy for people to take it personally if they're unfriended, as articles like this show. I find it rather bizarre that some people on twitter have a weekly automated post of how many people unfollowed them from tools such as JustUnfollow or fllwrs - how can that be good for your ego? And in the twitter case it's always possible that someone just moved you to a list instead of having you in their main timeline.
  • Point 4 is often a fallacy. There are plenty of "friend sluts" out there who will friend and accept nearly anyone. Other people are much stricter and use Facebook as a medium for sharing more privately than on other networks like twitter or Google+. I'm in that category - I have a lot of unaccepted Facebook friend requests - mostly from work colleagues! The numbers of friends are rarely representative of anything unless you are using Facebook for business reasons. So what if you know fewer people than others - think of it as quality over quantity. Or buy this T-shirt. Sure you might not get the same interaction as others on your posts because of the lower reach, but that doesn't make the interactions any less valuable. This BBC article concludes that the practical limit of close friends you have is between six and 12 anyway. So anything over that are likely to be extras that people have chosen to have as less close social network friends.
So should you be sensitive to these issues when posting? Maybe ... there's always an option of using the Facebook invite mechanism to send out private invites and restrict discussions from those you might want not to see them if you want to. Facebook has made the use of groups (which has been there for a long time) a more integral part of the site as they've moved forward and it's good to see those options available on mobile platforms now too as they used to be excluded from the APIs. And despite all the Facebook privacy concerns you hear about, they have been better than most other social networks at providing options to control it. But overall we need to ensure that we understand that not everyone is posting great positive things all the time. It may sometimes look like it from your feed (and if you're suffering from an illness such as depression it's easier for your view to be skewed towards that way of thinking and think "why can't I be like that?" or "How can I compete with my own posts?") but the majority of people aren't necessarily so prolific in their positivity sharing.

It's important to try and retain a sense of perspective and not drown in the belief that "everyone" else is doing such things all the time although it is easy to think like that and for it to get you down. It's also easy to think that just avoiding it by deactivating your social media account will resolve things, but would it truly change anything? I used to advocate restricting certain people's likelihood to appear in your facebook feed, but unfortunately Facebook seem to have removed the feature.

Looking at the whole topic another way, is point 2 above a reason why people might choose to overshare? If they crave the extra interaction and feel a need to compete with others then it's a possibility. The following quote refers to "the line" of what to decide to share. It wouldn't be right to compromise your principles to share something you don't want to just to make yourself appear more exciting, although the reasons above might superficially encourage people to overshare:

Social media and headlines

There have been a few stories of "Facebook-related suicides" (or bullying in all it's different forms) in the news and Facebook even have a specific reporting page for concerning posts but I don't think that blaming social media sites themselves for this is sensible or scalable in a culture of free speech - even if it does make for effective tabloid headlines. At worst the social networks are merely a catalyst to such outcomes. Knee-jerk "We must put a stop to [something we've seen]" reactions usually haven't considered the wider picture and can lead to a lynch-mob mentality which is neither positive nor objective (a topic I may write a separate article on at some point). Suicides and bullying happen as a result of life in general and not just to social media participants and I believe that people trying to put all the blame on companies running the sites for the behaviour of their users is utterly ridiculous for several reasons:
  1. It ignores the digital age of the internet and how people interact now - more online than in person. It doesn't change the rules, it merely moves the communication to a different medium and makes it more open. That isn't the sole cause of any underlying problems, and being open means it's easier to obtain evidence if required. Surely that's better than driving such behaviour underground?
  2. Blaming large companies is symptomatic of a modern day lawyer-obsessed compensation culture where everyone's happy if they can find someone to sue in a legal loophole rather than tackling the underlying issues of society. It's an easy option - not the right one.
  3. If the people are committing crimes, then if anyone it should be the police dealing with it.
  4. Is the alternative - personal data being held by more companies - actually preferable? (See my G+ post for more on this topic from a recent example from actions towards footballer Stan Collymore))

Celebrities and social media trolls

I still find it somewhat surprising when celebrities complain about "twitter trolls" - does that behaviour really surprise anyone with human nature being the way it is? Not everyone's going to like you, and some will vigorously say so. Abuse is not nice, but it's life and unfortunately it's a strong part of being in the public spotlight for celebrities, although it would be preferable for people to stick to attacking the points they object to rather than the person making them. James Blunt seems to acknowledge that it's not likely to change and deals with trolls in a smart way on twitter, but it's usually better to just ignore general insults. Or if it's genuine negative criticism see if you can learn anything from it, but don't think that everyone has the same view just because of one comment:

Would you recognise a genuine cry for help?

But let's look at it from the other side - not the negative view of the victims being bullied on social media (which includes sites like Little Gossip who's anonymous approach to posts made it easier to victimise people) but in terms of other people using it as a cry for help when in a troubling situation. Social media can undoubtedly make that side of it easier (here's one such article about that subject) and there are plenty of support channels out there - here's an article about how mental health topics are discussed on twitter. However it's not always easy if the person doesn't want to take the steps themselves to resolve any negative situations. When you see such a post of someone potentially suffering what do you think:
  • Are they actually merely "venting"?
  • Do they want some friendly emotional support?
  • Are they genuinely in serious trouble and need quick action?
It's hard to determine which of those three is true with any degree of accuracy from just a status update (especially if the person has a history of "crying wolf" or has a reputation as a "drama queen"). And if you don't necessarily know the person too well it may be hard to determine which of those three categories any given post is in, and it's also tricky to ascertain what reaction someone is even looking for. What you might perceive as a critical situation from a post may not really be that way. And how should you react when you spot that such a post or thread is deleted as occasionally happens? Domestic abuse is also a serious issue, and forced self-censorship on social media is one way in which it can show up (although the internet has made it easier to find resources to help with domestic abuse). I'd argue that as part of moving to a digital age our ability to react to these things appropriately are the new skills we need to improve on, not finding organisations to blame.


Unfortunately I don't believe there's one easy solution to social media potentially increasing problems but let's be honest - we're not going to go back to an unconnected pre-digital world and anyone seriously suggesting we need to is not in touch with today's reality. Previously you'd have the support of the community and people around you who you'd see on a regular basis, but nowadays a higher proportion of personal interaction occurs online on social media sites, and that does change the interactions and support available. The "Why The Sudden Increase" section of this article includes the quote:

   "Traditional communities naturally meet many basic needs for emotional support"

and the move towards online interactions means we've lost a significant amount of that nowadays (Thanks to @MentalHealthCop for that link - I recommend following him if you're interested in the topic)

But perhaps we just need to get better at reading the problem signs and having an awareness and sensitivity to the issues I've written about in this article, although nowadays in a 140-character bite-sized world of low attention spans when it's trivial to move on to the next thing that comes around on our screens, it might be harder to actually spot them. Let's just try and retain our humanity and react sensitively instead of just being a label on a screen. You may be in a digital age, but remember that you are not just a number.

EDIT 30/6/2014: Facebook ran an experiment in 2012 that has generated a bit of controversy now with adjusting posts in people's news feeds to modify the priority based on certain emotionally charged words. See this article for details.

Footnote: I haven't really used Facebook for over six months now (actually the same is true of most other social networks too, but FB is the one I miss least). It's not for the reasons in this article, but mostly because I've got a bit bored of the non-optional feed filtering which Facebook have now removed as I mentioned earlier (they were useful for semi-muting people just sharing ten links a day - something hopefully improved if edgerank is now really preferring text posts) and the seemingly increasing number of content-free posts (such as the dinner photo example). Plus of course there are the reasons in my last blog entry. And I really wish that SMS messaging worked for PMs - it makes staying away harder (so maybe it's intentional!) The site seems to have gone downhill since the IPO (although I think timing-wise that's just coincidence) and it's no longer retaining it's user base as well. I'm missing more of the useful content now in my feed, unless I use lists as my main feed. And GIVE ME THE DAMN TICKER! - They still haven't added to my account. But maybe I'll go back, if only for the people who've said to me that they miss my style of posts :-)

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Facebook - in 2012 you've been pushing your luck

[Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me]

My previous post on Facebook may have seemed too harsh on some of it's users. To rebalance that I'm going to go into a bit more about what's REALLY wrong with the site to give those people some real things to complain about. Facebook has got a lot of stick over privacy concerns and other such things over time. In my opinion they've almost always responded and improved their security model to the point where I happen to believe it's now pretty good - they've got many things right, and that's why it's the only social site where I'm comfortable with not posting things publicly. The exception list for posts is something that isn't on any of the other major networks (e.g. share with "All friends except my children list")

But it's far from perfect, and recently it's finally started to irate me to the point where I have to wonder whether it really is worth sticking with the site at all. My current feeling is that the only thing keeping me there is the existing network, and that may not be enough to sustain it into the future. So what's gone wrong? Here's my personal list ...

Choosing what appears in your feed

You've probably already noticed this, but if you leave facebook with the default settings, then you won't get all posts from your friends and pages you've liked. I think this was a shocking decision (and along the lines of IE10's default of having "Do Not Track" enabled which Yahoo! is already ignoring, but I digress).

For some friends (i.e. those that are posting all the time and start seeming like spam) this change is a good one as it lets you filter out most of the rubbish and let you see other people's posts, but the filtering (Facebook's algorithms for this are called EdgeRank and are quite complex) should be something you opt into for certain friends, not have to opt out of. As per IE10, the default is wrong. Here's how to get back to having all of a particular friend's posts appear in your feed (at the time of writing, it may change):
  1. Go to the friend's page
  2. Click the 'Friends' button near the top
  3. Click "settings" under "Show in News Feed" on the drop down list
  4. Select "All updates" instead of the default which is "Most updates". Of course if you have an extra-spammy friend, you could decrease what you see of them by selecting "Only important"
For pages you've liked the same problem occurs, but it's harder to get around it. What you have to do is add the page to an "Interest list" that will show in the left panel of the facebook page. It will still only show you some posts from them in your main feed, but at least it will let you get all the posts if you want them. You could add all "companies" to a single list or separate them out into topics. Interest lists can also be shared with your friends as you build them up, so they can follow them too, although oddly you can't share a list with a custom subset of friends:
  1. Go to the page that you've liked
  2. Press the "Liked" button
  3. Select an existing list name or click "New list" to generate a new one
  4. Run through the panels to create the list
  5. Add more pages to the same list (you can actually add users as well, thus along with sharing lists they've actually brought back the friend group concept that disappeared a while back)
After doing this, by clicking the list name under "INTERESTS" on the left, you'll be able to see all posts by the pages in that list. To be honest, the whole mechanism is horrible, but as far as I can tell it's a way of allowing facebook to charge companies to get more exposure news feed. Having said that, here's an explanation of the concepts used for choosing which items are important enough to show.

But it also creates more work for the end-users to follow the brands and companies they want, and that's concerning. It actually encourages brands to create "user" accounts and become "friends" with you as that's the only way you can see all the posts from the companies you've chosen to "Like" short of them paying facebook. I don't like being "friends" with businesses, but I'd understand it with what facebook is doing...

Spammers playing the system

I mentioned this in my last blog post, but there are too many "chain posts". Almost exclusively full of nonsense, drivel, lies, or things just designed to be a nuisance. Two types in particular are starting to annoy me.
  • Pictures being shared just displaying a few short words of text. Superficially this just takes up more space, but actually Facebook's EdgeRank filter which filters out drivel and decide what to show you tends to prefer images, and it appears that it's more likely to appear in my stream than if you just clicked "share" on some text quote.
  • "Look at this picture than write some word/phrase in the comments". Serves no purpose other than the same as the last point. People believing something clever will happen. It won't. The only real such trick with coments I know if is the one where you can insert control codes to expand stuff into names, and that's got nothing to do with images. Please, if you do something like that - remove your comment so others don't get sucked in. You don't want to be a nuisance to your friends do you?
These are the sorts of things I covered in the last blog. Misinformation. If you want to spread a serious fact, quote the source, don't just blindly repost something which is probably nonsense or which you can't back up, and definitely don't let an app post it until you've verified it's doing what it says it is.

Facebook's bleeding privacy settings

I mentioned facebook's good options for controlling privacy, but at some point over the last couple of months (I think) facebook has done something exceptionally stupid. If you share a post with a custom list of people you've created, it used to just say "custom" if one of your friends hovered over the permissions icon. Now it actually displays the full list of people who can see the post. I was utterly shocked when I discovered this. Previously, the exact list of people was hidden. Now it's not. The list name is, of course, still hidden (at the time of writing ... The screenshot on the right is an example from the first time I saw it. Note that if you use "Friends except ..." then it DOESN'T currently show the list like this)

Leaking your data to friends' applications

This is one that I'm including purely to highlight the option to fix it. It's something that shouldn't be necessary, but with all the scams and so on that people seem to click on (if you've ever seen a "free iPad" post or some outrageous video with a comment that your friend probably didn't write) it is, sadly, probably a good idea to tighten up on what your friends' dodgy apps have access to.

At present the options are under "Privacy Settings" - "How people bring your info to apps they use" - here is what it looks like by default:

Under there you can control what information from your profile is available to all your friends' dodgy apps - and given how many people click on the apps I suspect there's plenty of money to be made in building databases for identify theft. On that basis, I'd clear of the following checkboxes:

  • Bio
  • Birthday
  • Family+relationships
  • Current location
  • My status updates

Because if you keep them hidden from anyone who isn't a friend, you certainly don't want whoever put tog that ether some dodgy app to scam people getting access to that info.

Finding your friend's comments in the masses

There are a number of posts that go become very popular and get lots of likes and comments. While there's nothing wrong with things going viral, if you see a message that your friend has commented on such a post along with 334,410 others however, it isn't at all easy to find your friend's post. Facebook shows you the post they've cos too much to ask and all you see under the posmmented on, so why not include the friend's comment, and possibly the few before in case it's useful for context. No, apparently that's too much to ask and all you see under the post in your news feed is something like this:
And if you click the comments you just get the last few, not necessarily including your friend's one. By the time you've found it, you've likely lost interest entirely .

est making it available to opt-in?

Difficulty of sharing posts with links

Have you ever tried to hit 'Share' on a post with a web link? Unlike plain text status updates, if you share a link then it doesn't let you share the original post's text, which may in many cases be the useful part. Its no wonder people prefer to cut+paste bogus chain letters instead of using the share button (although, of course, such chain letters generally don't have reference links anyway)

The ticker - creating classes of users

Ahhh the ticker. The actual source of many of those rumours about facebook "leaking" information to your friends by making it more obvious to you when your friends comment on things etc. If you don't already know, the ticker is the "mini news feed" that appears in the top right of your page if you have it, and it can't be turned off. But get this - the ticker does not reveal anything you didn't have access to already - it just makes it easier to see. The same is, of course, true of the timeline which so many people complained about. It primarily just made the info that was already visible to people easier to get to.

But that's not what I have a problem with. I object to it not yet being available to everyone. For some inexplicable reason, unlike the timeline which has been rolled out to pretty much everyone now, the ticker is not. And facebook's FAQs just say something about usage amounts. Well I'm sorry, but the ticker would make the service more valuable to me. It's not on my account - I'm less likely to use your site without it. And what would be the disadvantage of just making it available to opt-in?

Recommendations on mobile

On mobile sites, speed is of the essence. You're usually on a low-bandwidth connection, and so getting the data to the device and rendered as quickly as possible is of utmost importance. I understand the need for adverts on a free site, and as I've said before I don't object to them so much. But what I don't want is to log into your site on my device and find the first screenful of data is filled with "recommended pages" and none of the content I want. Please facebook, put ONE advert on the screen, preferably at the top, not multiple "recommended" pages followed by a section of "recommended" friends. . That's not smart even if you ignore the fact I'm not sure I've added a recommended friend in years. That just makes me want to close the window and not scroll down to find out what my friends are doing.

Sponsored posts

As mentioned in the previous section, I don't have a problem with adverts. But it becomes a problem if you're tailoring adverts based on my friends' "Likes" and not my own ones. We know that facebook is using EdgeGraph to hide certain articles as I mentioned earlier , and that companies can pay to increase their chance of being displayed. But what I don't like is when I get objectionable injected into my feed, and there doesn't appear to be a way of blocking a certain page from appearing.

And more importantly, do the people who've "Liked" the pages know that they've triggered this? The sponsored stories include the name of the person who "Liked" the account, thus triggering the ad, above them, but they may not realise it. There appears to be no obvious indication on any of the pages with sponsored posts that they are using the feature, so you'd have to have a friend tell you that a page you'd liked is generating them (if you cared).

[2014 EDIT] In fairness to Facebook, you only have to go to that Settings-Adverts menu to see exactly what they're doing and an explanation. I don't subscribe to (i.e. "like") many corporate feeds such as Amazon, and I'm happy for the products or artists I endorse through a "Like" to tell my friends that info, so I don't have those options disabled, but the privacy (and potentially legal) implications around this have caused a lot of controversy.

And what I've listed are the examples of problems that facebook are making themselves. The scams and other nonsense referred to in my previous post are all things that make the site less fun to use, and if facebook isn't fun to use, then facebook is nothing.

Facebook, please, sort some of this out. I'm seeing more facebook users giving twitter a shot. MySpace is relaunching, Google+ isn't (so far) making the same mistakes, and you now have shareholders to answer to. The fact you're not giving me control of what's in my fed is inexcusable when competitors aren't doing the same filtering. And since you don't have too many other products to fall back on if you start hemorrhaging your user base by alienating them with the things I've just described.

Facebook security - hype, false rumours, and why the ads are fine

[Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me]

This may become a multi-part post about facebook and social media as I've got quite a lot to write.

This part is about setting the record straight on some of the fact-free nonsense that's regularly seen on the site and what you can do to avoid spreading what is little more than spam on the site. I'd like to think that everyone on facebook could read this and think twice when they see anything like this in the future. In various forums I've already commented about how many people don't seem to understand about online security and privacy generally. And I've also mentioned how many people are willing to spread misinformation based on apparently not bothering to check and fully understand the facts. Or "crying wolf" by spreading false information risks, which has the negative effect of desensitising people to the real issues, which can only make it harder to explain real risks and scams to people (Claim you're free £150 Tesco voucher here - only 75 left).

I'll delineate the case studies in this article with horizontal lines in case you get bored of reading about any particular one :)

Unsourced scaremongering information

In one recent example, someone in a comment thread on a friend's post said this:

"Worse still, if you have the mobile app on your phone, it will publish stuff willy-nilly to your Timeline when you don't have a say in it at all."

When I queried this, they tried to back it up with a couple of links - neither of which had anything to do with the claim. Worse still, when you query some people I've seen suggestions you just "google it" as though their ill-advised beliefs are common knowledge - and in many cases an attempt to do so is fruitless, thus the discussion has wasted everyone's time. Evangelism on security beliefs which aren't based on fact isn't any different than religion, and I'm not a fan of having either shoved in my face as fact rather than belief.

Scams, "view your stalkers" and "authorise this app first"

Survey scams and forcing you to authorise apps are another thing. The Tesco example I mentioned at the start is an example, as is "free iPad" or "click here to view something sensational" or arguably the most common one "See who views your profile". All are examples of the same things - scams. If you see any examples, walk away and clear up any apps you've authorized and remove any posts they've made, otherwise you're contributing to the problem. This is why they should be avoided:
  • You have no idea who's running the "offer" or video
  • The people running those offers are only interested in making money (fairly obviously) so you are not really going to get anything for free. In the case of being forced to take surveys, it's because - surprise, surprise - the scammers make money every time a survey is completed.
  • If you have to authorize an app on facebook to view a video, then something's wrong. Why should you give someone else access (who, as per point 1, you don't know) access to your account. The scams usually post to your account to try and spread themselves and drag in your friends my making them think it was you who have received the offer. If the video's truly gone viral in any sense, you'll almost certainly be able to find it on youtube or similar sites without giving anything away.
Here's an example of what can happen when you authorise such a rouge application on your account. The authorisation screen (left screenshot) clearly says it will be able to "post on your behalf" and it will - on your wall, and potentially the walls of your friends as in the example on the right:

Adverts - they're not all bad ...

Now to adverts - let's get one thing clear - adverts are an important part of keeping the internet free to use. How much do you think it costs to run a site like facebook with the massive of data they process? Far more than your internet connection, that's for sure. And for that reason I have no problem with relatively unobtrusive adverts on web pages which I'm not paying for. Many people use AdBlock, but I consider that morally wrong, If you really object to adverts, you should vote with your business and use somewhere else rather than block it, or pay if that's an option. It's the reason I've said before that I pay for We7 music streaming and it's the reason I refuse, completely, to pay for a pay TV subscription. I'm not going to pay and still endure adverts. If you object to social media sites showing you adverts then you can stop using it and use a service that you pay for, such as

As a case study, the most recent example I've seen was this thread which was a link to a specific article about how facebook would now target specific adverts to you based on telephone numbers/addresses supplied by advertisers to facebook, which would then look them up in their database, and display that companies ads if a match was found. So you get ads from companies you deal with as opposed to random ones.

Now if you sit back and think about it for a moment, if you're going to have adverts, why on earth is that a bad thing? Let's look at it this particular issue objectively with a few points:
  1. If you've allowed a company to share your number with "selected third parties" doing it with facebook isn't violating privacy in any way whatsoever
  2. Surely you'd rather have adverts from companies you're interested in instead of things you might not be, so why on earth would you use this as a reason to put a fake number on facebook if this is likely to enhance the advert quality?
  3. Unless you've blocked them, you already have this sort of things via cookies from sites you've visited, this approach is better as it's from companies you've ALREADY SIGNED UP WITH, not just the ones you've merely visited (As an example I wish I never clicked on Brennan as I'm sick of being bombarded with their ads, but at least it's something I'd shown an interest in)
  4. Frankly, the many people com who think that this specific topic means Facebook are giving away your phone numbers to anyone are idiots. (Whether they've done that for another reason isn't the point, but think about it. Would people playing Facebook games prevent authorisation if it got access to your phone number? Probably not.
  5. The may people who think this will result in extra spam/cold calling are also idiots. It's driven by the data  that company's already have - nothing extra can happen in this respect compared to what could have happened anyway.
And these are all the flaws in just that one one comment thread I saw. This nonsense and misinformation is all over the place. And I'm getting fed up of trying to educate people - it'd be a full time job fighting people who don't want to change their unfounded beliefs. I did get involved at the end of that thread but I usually don't bother unless it's showing up on a friend's feed. Sites like Facecrooks and AllFacebook have a lot of good information on them - the people running them must despair at this kind of thing.

Timeline exposing private messages

Another one recently is repeated posts about how private messages have been appearing on people's timelines - supposedly visible if you scroll your timeline back to 2009 or earlier. Now I've done a correlation between all private messages I've had at that time, and none of them are on the timeline. What does show up is any posts made on my wall at the time. And I've been unable to find any true evidence to suggest otherwise, but a bit of research shows plenty of articles like this one backing up what I've said - there simply isn't any evidence, other than anecdotal, that it's leaking private conversations.

Look at this ... then write a comment

The other one I think is strange is not a scam so much as an annoyance, but when someone sees a picture with a caption along the lines of "Look at this for a while, then write something in the comments". As though something is likely to happen. Needless to say it doesn't - you're just making a spam comment on a picture. And because that picture is "public", the fact that you've followed those silly instructions just has one effect - potentially spamming other people's news feed with a belief that something might happen. This is far more likely to turn me off facebook than the people pledging to leave every time Facebook's layout is changed (can you even remember, other than the timeline change, what any of the things people complained about were? Do you REALLY miss them?)

Honestly, if you do leave such a comment and nothing happens, DELETE YOUR COMMENT so it doesn't waste anyone else's time. It's often the users that are making me less enchanted with the service ...

"You do NOT have my permission"

The alarming thing is how many new examples have shown up since I originally started drafting this blog. The most recent one is the "chain post" saying "You do NOT have my permission to utilize any of my profile information nor any of the content" with a load of seemingly clever words suggesting that making a post along those lines nullifies any contradictory terms in the T&C which everyone's signed up to.

Clearly it doesn't require much thought to realise that this is false - so I do wonder if people are doing it ironically or something, but I'm not sure I understand why.

It it isn't obvious, then the reason it's pointless is because YOU agreed to the T&C when you signed up for your account. Facebook did not agree to modify those T&C by agreeing to the post you made. It's not that hard to see why it's unenforcable nonsense giving people, as with most of the other things I've talked about, false information.

If you're affected by the issues in this article ...

Of course it can be hard to know what to do when you see any of these examples on your feed. You could ignore it, but ideally explaining why it's false is the best approach, as by doing so anyone seeing the post will hopefully read the comment. Although I think some people get upset when you point out such things, so it can be hard to make the point in an effective way.


Honestly, there have been plenty of valid security concerns on the internet, especially with Facebook. How about we start focusing our attention on checking the SSL certificates when buying things online instead? Do the people worried about adverts also worry about that? Focus on the real ones, and don't spread misinformation. It's easy to accept and believe scaremongering "chain posts" that seem genuine because they're from your friends, but it's no different from pyramid chain letters in terms of authenticity.

Think about it for a moment. Why do people encourage sharing this information by cut & pasting a message rather than providing a link to a relevant article? Partly because by sharing (often false) information that way, they can make scams seem more authentic because it seems to come from your friends, yet not provide a source or any evidence. If you don't know enough about security to understand what you're posting, please refrain from scaremongering under your own name.

There, I feel better now.

(Despite what I've just said, all comments are welcome of course, even if you disagree with me!)

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Eben Upton Raspberry Pi Visit

[Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me]

An introduction for those not familiar with the Pi ...

Yesterday Eben Upton (the guy behind the Raspberry Pi foundation) took time out of his very busy schedule to give a talk in Hursley. For those who are not familiar with it, the Raspberry Pi (here is the FAQ) is basically a small credit-card sized computer circuit board with a Broadcom BCM2835 chipset and a 700MHz ARM CPU powered via a microUSB socket, HDMI+composite video output, stereo audio output, ethernet port, 2 USB ports, an SD slot used for booting the device, and another proprietary expansion port, and a high performance graphics subsystem that can decode video at full HD resolution with h.264 (MPEG-2 available at extra cost) hardware playback support in XBMC/OpenElec - all for $35 for the "model B" version. They were initially built in China, but much of the manufacturing is now in the UK and is therefore supporting the UK economy! Keyboard/mouse/power/screen/SD card are not included in that price, but many people will have suitable ones lying around to connect to it, which certainly suited me as the last thing I need is more of them cluttering the place up.

As someone who was interested in the project from some time prior to the launch it was great to see Eben in person, particularly as I'm someone who owned a BBC Micro and lost many hours to Elite (co-written by David Braben, who is also involved in the project). If that thought is making any of you feel nostalgic, why not try the ZX Spectrum port of Elite running in a java applet!) The Pi as a project is trying to bring back a bit of that sense of "playing" that the BBC Micro probably did better than any other machine of its time.
(Quick disclaimer: This article is a mix of things that Eben spoke about from the notes I took, plus a few extra pieces of background information and external links that I have added myself)
The detailed background to the original idea was something I had not heard in detail before. A director of studies at St.John's college in Cambridge, he was concerned by the declining numbers of applicants for computing university positions, as well as a drop in the quality of those applicants (basically changing from getting many people of the type who could likely already code in assembler for two different architectures to a smaller number who's experience predominantly "I know HTML" - people who would need more time spent educating them to get to a suitable standard to teach them further) This meant that it would take longer to get them to an adequate standard on the low level aspects of computing - or by throwing them at Standard ML programming for 6 weeks to make them depressed (I remember going through that!)

BBC Micro comparisons

I mentioned the BBC Micro in the opening paragraphs - earlier this year there was a "Beeb@30" event to celebrate 30 years of that machine, and here is a BBC article looking back on it. It hass been well documented that they did try to get the BBC branding on the device, but the "unique way the BBC is funded" means that it was nowhere near as easy for the BBC to support such a commercially available device as happened in the 1980s. Having said that, the ARM-designed processor used in the Pi (and probably, your mobile/cell phone) had is roots in Acorn (here is a brief history of ARM) who built the BBC Micro. And there is a - possibly somewhat indulgent - project to port RISCOS (the OS designed for the BBC Micro's successor - the Archimedes) to the Pi.
The other thing of note on the Pi is the GPIO port. Now one of the things that made the BBC Micro special was the inclusion of easy I/O on the device, through the "user port" and "parallel port". In fact even the "joystick" port was marked as an "analogue in" to plant the suggestion it's use could extend far beyond games. This allowed a good quality of control of external devices and responding to inputs, something that allows many more interesting control projects to be done with it. At school I did a prototype satellite tracking system using it! But I digress, the GPIO port on the Pi even looks superficially very similar to the user port on the BBC Micro. The most popular interface using it so far is the Gertboard. (I wish a could remember the name of the blue boards we used on the BBC Micro - anyone know?)

A squashed marketplace

Another good point raised by Eben was about where the previous marketplace for the BBC Micro and comparable machine has now in modern times. With the home computers of the 80s you powered them on and you got a command prompt for a programming language interpreter that almost begged you to start programming straight away - almost as though, as Eben said, you had to actively choose not to program! It was easy for anyone to go into their local computer store and make them display scrolling rude messages up the screen, and anyone owning one of those computers would have almost certainly had the knowledge to do so!
Nowadays it is less easy. Games consoles have taken over the high performance graphics market, with high barriers to development entry. It a similar story for the consumer tablets on the market at present - from a practical perspective the development needs to be done in another environment rather than on the device itself. Even most consumer PCs do not ship with any reasonable programming language out of the box. While that is less of an issue in the high download speed internet of today, during the 90s it took real will and effort to be able to program. The concept of having to choose not to program got completely lost. And that is some of the spirit that the Raspberry Pi is now trying to recreate. It does appear to be a bit of a gap in the market, even ignoring the Cambridge admission quality problem. There are real low-level boards around, but not so much of an all-in-one device like the Pi. And one interesting thought was that the aforementioned relatively simple bloat-free non-content-enriched RISCOS with the ease of switching to a traditional command line from the desktop, could rekindle some of the mentality from the 80s home computers.

Interest and getting to market

The amount of early interest in the Pi took the foundation by surprise - 600,000 views on Rory Cellan-Jones (BBC Tech correspondent) brief video with Braben - could that really be an indication of how big the market was for such a device? And could they deliver that many at the target price point, which was pretty much set at $25 from the start (At the time of writing only the $35 model B mentioned in the first paragraph - which includes a 100Mbit ethernet port, 2 USB ports instead of one and the 512Mb upgrade recently announced - is shipping). But the foundation has kept to the target price point for the units, and the 512Mb upgrade for the model B has not resulted in a price change. The other remarkable thing was the number of downloads - in the tens of thousands - of the SD-card operating system image for the Pi that was released some time before the device was even on sale, so no-one could use it!
The vendor partnerships with Farnell/Element14 and RS were important as it allowed them to move from being a risk-averse charity to more of an IP licensing company to get the number of units they were going to need. And it was a good decision. The first day on sale, as those like me who were up at 6am to order will be aware, was a bit of a disaster (and I blogged to vent my frustration at the time, questioning the motives of many of those buying and how it was pitched by some parts of the media). 100,000 orders were placed by the lucky people who even managed to get to the manufacturing partners (Farnell/Element14 and RS) websites. Both crashed badly under the load, preventing people from buying their resistors or other electronics from those suppliers, not just Pis! A lesson in robust scalable web sites for those two companies.
Another interesting point for those who have been interested in the Pi is that although most of them used in relatively rich countries such as the UK and will therefore make use of the on-board HDMI output (HDMI-DVI-D adapters can be had for under £2 on ebay if needed - make sure you get male/female as required for your setup!), the Pi also has a composite analogue video output. For me, this is convenient as it allows me to attach it to my in-car screen, but as Eben pointed out it also allows it to be sold in much poorer/emerging countries in the world, where second hand analogue TVs are still in use, and the Pi can give them a new lease of life for a price point far less than, for example, a tablet.
So it was good to have the talk from Eben, and I chatted to him about some other things afterwards. Fantastic to get his time, and of course this blog has been written in a browser running on one of my Pis :-)