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

Sunday, 4 June 2017

#GE2017 Conservative NHS spending openness and "real terms"

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

I'm slightly apologetic for posting a non-technical post in here but I'll make a thin connection by saying that in an era of openness and transparency where we can now use the internet and social media to interact and scrutinise policies more closely than was ever possible in the past, this makes for a curious case study. And it's one which the traditional media (from what I've seen) haven't yet taken them to task over. I should point out that in no way is this post intended as a general indication of any party policies or affiliation on my part, it's just the one that got my attention when I started spotted conflicts in the messages.

I'm confused, and I've read all of the manifestos. At the time of writing there is less than a week to go before the 2017 UK General Election, and I cannot figure out what on earth the policy of the incumbent Conservative (a.k.a Tory for those not in the UK) government is regarding spending on our National Health Service over the next parliament. The other major parties are each proposing somewhere around £30bn extra cash for the NHS to be paid for by increases on income tax. In contrast the Conservative manifesto (PDF) says:
"We will increase NHS spending by a minimum of £8bn in real terms over the next five years, delivering an increase in real funding per head of the population for each year of the parliament"
Now there are a couple of issues with this. Firstly it talks about £8bn over five years. That's not £8bn per year (which would be higher than the other parties) yet they say there will be an increase in real funding per head for each year. And that's before I get started on the ability to bend political statistics with the phrase "real terms" and variants thereof, which allows people on opposing sides to make conflicting claims using exactly the same data by including that phrase.

So assuming the population will increase - a topic that I'll come back to later on - there will be a real increase each year so the most obvious scenario is that they plan to put it in evenly so £1.6bn extra per year.

Except that 40m20 into the leaders debate - just after being laughed at for claiming they can be trusted - Amber Rudd, deputising for Conservative leader Theresa May who didn't want to appear, made this claim:

"[NHS] is getting £8bn/yr by the end of the next parliament"
Curious. Was this a slip of the tongue? Or is there really a policy to start throwing £8bn per year in? It appears to conflict what's in the manifesto.

On the Andrew Neil interview (13m08 in), Theresa almost reiterated the manifesto wording:

"There will be £8bn more money going into the NHS at the end of the parliament. That's a real terms increase, per head, every year"
I said "almost" because their seemed a crucial difference with that quote - she used the phrase "at the end of the parliament".  Which might suggest, taking Amber's comments into account too and on the assumption no-one made a slip-up, that they plan to put in a policy of £8bn/yr in place during the last year of parliament. So that would mean nothing for the first four years if it's going to be £8bn total as per the manifesto suggestion. But how does that tally with "real terms increase per head every year"? Maybe by drastically reducing immigration we'll end up with negative migration (we already have that in Scotland, though it's unlikely in the next parliament since even the Conservatives are only tentatively aiming for 100,000 net migration by 2022) which would increase per-head spending without actually putting money in. It dropped by 49,000 to 273,000 in the year to September 2016 which may be the start of a "brexit effect" with the value of the pound sterling dropping making us less attractive, or pro-EU citizens leaving the UK. The Conservative manifesto also proposes to double the "Immigration Skills Charge" for employing migrant workers, which may help with such a decrease. The only other option I can see is that "real terms increase per head every year" will be an average over the parliament, as opposed to a real increase in each year.

Also, unlike the other parties there's no publicised policy on where the £8bn will come from. The suggestion is that it is not new funding, but will come from redirections from elsewhere, or possibly from vague "blind faith" continued improvements in the UK economy - something that can't be guaranteed while we're going into the brexit process. If it really will be £8bn thrown in during the final year, that at least gives them some time to figure out where to take the money from. And cynically, it'll let them say "We're putting £8bn/year into the NHS" when they put their next manifesto together, unless they call another early election before five years - quite possibly since they also plan to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act. So if money is only going in during the final year of parliament, would we ever see it?

I did try asking my local MP but didn't get a reply ... To be fair I don't want politicians to be wasting time on potential twitter wars, but it would be nice to get a response to a clarity issue:
On the plus side, and to come back to providing a small justification for posting this on a technical blog, I've written and published this article before the Conservatives start trying to clamp down on the internet and regulate it more widely because "It is in no-one’s interest for the foundations of strong societies and stable democracies [...] to be undermined." - another manifesto quote from within their digital economy framework section. I really hope this doesn't start sending us down a road similar to China's State Subversion laws.

[ EDIT 7/6/2017: See also the BBC "reality check" summary of the parties'  NHS spending commitments and how they relate to spending over recent years ]

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Britain-EU referendum and why I'll be voting to remain

[Short link to this blog if you need it - - or retweeet me!]

Personally, I'm going to be voting for the UK to remain in the EU. And here are my views on why. If you disagree that's up to you, but however you feel, do get out there and vote!

Laws and safety 

In part it's about scale. A lot of our laws around minimum levels of employment rights, safety standards, consumer rights etc. come from the EU. Without them, we'd have to devise our own. It's easy to criticise health and safety and consider it "red tape" and "the cost of EU legislation", but I think it's good for us overall. For the UK to be able to contribute to consistent widely agreed sensible policies in these areas has to be a good thing, and it would cost us to do it ourselves. And things like environmental laws "keeping us honest". Yes, we could devise ones ourselves, and perhaps we wouldn't even have come up with laws on banana curvature (Regulation 2257/94Only applicable to "Extra Class" bananas), or allowing 4kcal/100ml to be "energy free" or "zero calorie" (Page 14 of EC1924/2006), but why not make them consistent with other countries and get involvement from other cultures in our laws? And bear in mind we can make stupid laws without the EU, such as the requirement for BC3 light fittings in new home builds (Apparently part of BS 7671:2008 - I'm not sure "BS" really means "British Standard" in this case...)

Politicians, facts and scaremongering 

Both sides of the campaigning have got out of hand. Scaremongering and exaggeration to "ultimate worst case" scenarios on both sides on what would happen if the other side won. It's disappointing that the media and politicians haven't stuck to the facts. Boris refusing to discuss the misleading "fact" that we give £350M/week to the EU is a good example. And statements like "We'd give £100M/week to the NHS if we left" while making a good headline, seem overly simplistic to me, and that's hardly taken the form of a promise that the NHS would get everything that was available after leaving the EU (and it likely wouldn't be sensible)

The arguments aren't helped in the slightest by politicians taking extreme views of the opposing sides. In many cases it's led to video footage of them giving seemingly contradictory views in the past. If a bit of balance was shown then it would probably give them more respect, but may also be seen as a sign of weakness in their argument - and perhaps to a certain extent this has happened with Jeremy Corbyn.

Trade with the EU if we left 

We get money from the EU to support critical sectors like farming - when we're in trouble we can get help from our "friends" in the EU by being part of it, and our money can help others when they have problems. We can help each other out when times are hard.

If we were to leave, then yes we may be able to negotiate our way back to trade agreements with the rest of the EU, but to believe that such an agreement wouldn't have caveats and that we could just pick and choose the best bits from EU membership from outside is surely naive at best. Yes, Norway and Switzerland (for example) have agreements but still have to accept migrants, (some) EU laws, and pay a fee. And would all member countries really choose  to agree to trade with us as openly as before? The current Switzerland model is certainly one that I can't see the EU agreeing to again with another country.

Allowing the trade with the UK may be in the interest of a few of them (Germany for cars, France for wine/cheese) but that would have to be weighed up against the tide of people who'd like to keep us away if we choose to leave such as Marine La Pen who has quite a bit of support in France at the moment. The amount of effort required to sort out the agreements out would surely be very significant, and I find it hard to see what the benefit would ultimately be compared to what we have now. We currently have a pretty good deal inside the EU by

   (a) not being part of the Euro
   (b) being outside the Shenghen area
   (c) having a clause that lets us have a referendum on any extra powers being transferred away from us.

Why go? 

Many of the people I've personally spoken to who want to leave have said "I just think we need a change" or "We can do it better ourselves" - that's the "blind faith" approach in thinking we'll do it better. I'm not convinced. Would you want one of our political parties able to fully change things when they get in power, or have the "balance" we get by working with the EU? It's not like everyone is singing the praises of the current UK government at present ... Do we honestly believe our government - whichever party that may be at any given time - would always make better decisions than the EU would (even if they are not always directly elected by the public - and we have the House Of Lords in UK gorvernment ...)? Staying in the EU just feels more progressive and encompassing to me.

But what if you want to reduce trade (not something that Vote Leave seem to want to as they seem keen to set up new agreements - even they seem to consider that just being members of the World Trade Organisation would not be enough)? That could help UK suppliers, albeit potentially by increasing prices by reducing EU competition. then maybe leaving is the way to go, and maybe the supermarkets will be more inclined to buy British instead of importing all the time. And if you consider the EU legislation on employment and safety is just "red tape" then sure, choose to leave, but you'd be assuming that our government would not retain similar laws, like my BC3 bulb example.

Sure there are things that we do better in the UK than the EU overall. There are things where we fall short. You can pick and choose all the facts you want (and of course the politicians and media have done just that) but I think on balance that being able to learn from, co-operate with, and be consistent with, our EU counterparts is positive. And while the people making the rules may be appointed rather than elected, the countries still get to vote on them.

Immigration and freedom of movement

This has obviously been a hot topic, but the issue isn't purely down to us being in the EU. Despite the relatively open borders with the EU, over 50% of the people coming to this country are from outside the EU. So at best, shutting the doors to the EU would only reduce the perceived problem, not eliminate it.

The potential for increasing paperwork when travelling across Europe seems like a horribly regressive step, especially when we've made good strides recently on roaming mobile phone costs and the like too recently.


I struggle to think of anything that the EU has done that has had a direct negative impact on my life, but I feel safer being part of a larger community. I work with people globally each day. In the internet age the world is smaller - we're getting closer and we deal with more and more diverse cultures and I think that embracing the diversity of the EU adds to that. And I don't see the sense in trying to separate ourselves and believing "We can do it better than the others". And our current EU agreements are pretty good for a country inside the EU.

I didn't want Scotland to become independent and in the EU referendum I'll be voting for unity and co-operation. I plan to vote remain on the 23rd June. Whether you agree with me or not, please get out there and use your vote. It may be the most important one you ever make.

[EDIT: I made a follow-up  post on Facebook a day after the leave result was announced - you can read it at]
[EDIT2: I used a temporary profile picture with a comment thread in the following week. It's at]

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The McDiet: Is fast food really evil?

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

Slight divergence from the technical posts in this blog but I wanted to put it somewhere.

I eat fast food. There you go, I've broadcasted it. I quite often get criticised by people when I say "I'm going to KFC" or the like, but frankly I don't give a damn, and I disagree completely when people tell me it's fundamentally bad or wrong for me to go to such places. And I'm going to explain each of the reasons people give and why they are nonsense:

1. It's unhealthy? While it's true that such places often provide calorie-laden food, it's probably no worse than your average meal from a restaurant. Fast food outlets places provide a 'menu' from which you can select any items you want. And unlike most restaurants the nutrition information is usually available (online or in the venue) so you can select based on nutritional content. You don't have to choose the limited edition "Big Tasty with Bacon" from the McDonalds menu with over 100% of your RDA of saturated fat, but the values are very clearly laid out and on the boxes so you can see:

I also recently saw a study on the fact that fast food is as effective as some of the "sports supplements" and the like, and frankly that doesn't surprise me. You look at the typical "Whey Protein" shake that available and it will contains around 20g of protein. A KFC Fillet Burger has almost 50% more (28.8g) and I know which I'd enjoy having more. Sure it'll contain more fat etc. too but being cynical, sports nutrition manufacturers can make more money if they sell you a variety of different products each with a specific purpose, and balanced diets are generally the best for you ...

2. It'll make you fat Ultimately it makes more of a difference how you balance it with your food intake in the rest of the day. I'll admit I have been through periods where McDonalds have given away free glasses with meals and I've had one McDonalds meal almost every day through the promotional period (I'll go into that later). So what? If it's the only meal I eat during a day and/or I have it just prior to performing some physical exercise then it likely doesn't matter. You could argue that only one meal a day isn't too clever, but I feel that's less significant than monitoring your intake.

The point is, I don't believe that fast food is inherently unhealthy. Done to excess, as per the 'Super Size Me' movie, you're clearly going to suffer problems, but even that film claims that what he's doing makes no sense whatsoever in the real world and that it was just an experiment.

3. It just doesn't taste good - Everyone has food that they like and dislike. I'm not personally a fan of most sauce-laden Indian food - nothing to do with spiciness as many people initially think, I just like to be able to see what I'm eating. To me, a Burger King 'Bacon Double Cheeseburger' just tastes better than food where most of the flavour is from the sauce it's swimming in instead of what's underneath it. In many cases I admit that fast food can taste bland. It's certainly mass-produced and 'generic' but that doesn't inherently mean 'not tasty'. And with the next topic I'm going onto - it's certainly likely to be tastier than many of the other fad diets out there.

The McDiet

Going back to the "it'll make you fat" issue, one of the biggest 3 weeks of successful  weight loss I've had was during one of the "free Coke glass" promotions from McDonalds that I mentioned earlier. For every day over the 2-3 weeks of the promotion I had one large McDonalds meal - and nothing else on the day that had any calories. Rationing myself like this means I'm taking in a relatively small amount of calories. A large Big Mac meal is quoted as only 1164 and that's even including full sugar Coke as the drink which has over 200 on it's own. If you want to try the McDiet and you're not doing it to take advantage of a special offer like the one I mentioned then you can get some variety by choosing to eat the single meal a day at different fast food outlets. Most of the "meals" on offer are no more than 1500 calories, which is still sufficiently down on an adult's recommended daily intake (And potentially less than your RMR - mine's just over 1500). In my opinion, managing your food intake generally is more important than any particular item you eat or where you get the nutrition from. It's a way of dieting without just eating lettuce or starving yourself for two days a week. Basic calorie control. And if you're bothered about the relative unhealthiness of the McDiet, take a daily multivitamin too to balance it out. For those with a busy lifestyle it's a low effort way to go.

Obviously I'm not expecting or advocating that everyone runs out and start living off a diet of Big Macs - I just want people to appreciate that it's not inherently worse than many other types of food, and when the companies say you have to be sensible about consumption, it's true. But that's true of all food. I believe that people should be able to do whatever they want to their bodies, and if you're dumb enough to want to eat excessive amounts of fast food that's your decision, and it's your decision to make. People who want to raise lawsuits against fast food companies for making them fast are missing the point - don't criticize the company for meeting a demand for something that isn't illegal. That's called 'business'.

The BBC did a three part documentary recently on life at KFC restaurants covering many aspects of the company, including some insight to the random "CER" checks they do on stores to ensure quality and consistency of the food.

Another related article is this one I saw recently from a list of people from across the world and how much food/calories each of them consume in a typical day - some of them could probably handle the intake from "Super Size Me":

And now in the interest of balance, here are some articles which will make you wonder how any of this could possible be healthy:

The Telegraph: Burger King USA's 'Pizza Burger'

LA Times: KFC's 'Double Down' sandwich

Hungry Horse's now discontinued double donut burger (Sorry, that's a Daily Mail link but it does have the nutrition details - here's a proper review from the Guardian instead)

Guardian (UK): Tesco's Lasagne sandwich

Gizmodo: The pink goop that makes your chicken nuggets

Nando's advert based on Sugar Hill Gang

15 Facts About McDonald's That Will Blow Your Mind

McDonald's and PepsiCo to help write UK health policy | Politics | The Guardian

What 5 days of junk food does to your metabolism (Amusing because they said "a McDonald’s diet isn’t even saturated enough compared to what we fed the people in our study"!)

Nutrition docs for [KFC] [McDonalds] [Burger King] [Pizza Hut] [Nandos - click (i)]

Thanks for reading ;-)

Friday, 28 November 2014

Black Friday participation in the UK: What's the problem?

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

I've seen a few posts on social media today along these lines:
The UK reference in that wikipedia entry has since been removed at the time of writing.

I don't get why people are so upset about it. While the Black Friday sales happen to be next to the US "Thanksgiving" it is on a different day, and it is a different event. No-one's expecting British people to celebrate Thanksgiving as some sort of bizarre prerequisite ritual to a day of sales. The facts are:

  1. UK retailers (albeit initially lead by the US ones) ARE participating in an event they are referring to as "Black Friday" coincident with the US one.
  2. People in the UK are watching out for special deals as a result of the Black Friday promotions.
Those two things seem to suggest to me that the UK is participating in Black Friday, and I can't understand people who are objecting other than a blatant refusal to have anything to do with a tradition that started in America, and to object to it is bordering seeming bigoted. Would you really miss out on the chance to buy something you've been considering for months, or years, at a discount because it happened to be on special offer on a day they're referring to as "Black Friday"? I wouldn't force anyone to participate in any traditional celebrations whether they consider them "celebrated" in this country or not (and with many religions and other things not applying even to the whole of the UK even that concept is a bizarre attitude to have) but if something open to all allows people get a bargain then why not embrace it? You don't have to actively "celebrate" anything. On a technical level it might be better for retailers and their computer systems to stagger sales events across the globe, although with time zone differences that's not necessarily a massive issue anyway.

I've also seen the ridiculous suggestion that we change the name to disassociate ourselves from the American name. That seems equally absurd. We're in an era where we interact economically with people from all over the world in our day to day lives. What's the point in having our own special pet names for things that are already widely known and understood with a defined calendar date? It just seems pointless to me.

And to those who still believe it's just for America and the large corporations, Dean's shortbread in Scotland were offering a Black Friday special deal on their hampers today.

I wonder if attitudes will be different on Black Friday 2015? Maybe at least we'll calm down a bit, since the "traditional" British reserve appears to have got lost for some people this year - perhaps we should just leave it to be online only ;-)

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Truth, respect and social media: The Bianchi case study

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

This article contains links that some people may object to - you have the choice whether to click them

At the time of writing this Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi has been taken unconscious to hospital in an ambulance after his Marussia Formula 1 car collided with a yellow crane/digger which was trying to move Adrian Sutil's Sauber out of the way after the both aquaplaned off the track on consecutive laps at the same point.

The initial reaction on twitter was "What's going on?" when the medical car came out of the pits along with the safety car which had come out to slow the race down (it was stopped shortly after). What wasn't visible on the live stream was that it wasn't for Sutil's accident - it wasn't shown that Bianchi had gone off too, although some on screen graphics showed Bianchi's name against the long distance view where only Sutil's car was visible, and there were quite a few views of the Marussia team being shown. The broadcasters had, understandably, decided not to show any footage they had of Bianchi's crash or the medical staff working on him. The statement in full is available on

But what of social media? Awash with frenzy, people were trying to decipher what had happened. There were photos of a helicopter, supposedly carrying Bianchi to hospital, taking off. It turns out that they took him via ambulance instead, as per my introduction. This immediately started a discussion on social media. Why aren't they using the helicopter to transport him? Why hadn't the race directors race stopped the race if the weather wasn't good enough to allow the helicopter to fly? What really happened? The inevitable outrage had begun.

You have to take a step back. The people in charge have been doing this for a long time, and the public have to rely on them to make the right decisions based on the information they have. If the weather suddenly changes (and it did deteriorate on the day which lead to both drivers skidding off) then you can be caught out. It's almost impossible to keep a race going in adverse weather conditions if you throw a red flag at the possibility of the helicopter not being able to take off. We have to trust the judgement of the officials and medics who have FAR more information available to them that we do on the local weather, the transport, and the condition of the patient.

In addition to that there was quite a bit of heated discussion about pictures being posted and reposted on social media. The Telegraph posted a picture of the teams working on his car after the crash and got a lot of flack for it (Reference link with the photo), Parcel company DHL make a post inviting people to "Like" the post to show their support (reference article) and while they weren't asking people to like DHL's page, it is "free publicity" to DHL to get people to engage with their page. Just ultimately not in the way they'd have wanted.

The other controversy was that many people, once the photos started to come out, had started tweeting pictures (such as the Telegraph one) and, ultimately, the video clip of the crash. This caused a lot of people to object and say "Don't post them" (Ex-F1 presenter for the BBC Jake Humphreys was one of them) or "I'm unfollowing anyone who posts them" and similar. I can understand such reactions but you have to remember we're in an age of social media. Sharing things is what happens on social media and you have to accept that. It's a good thing for the world to have no (other than illegal items) restrictions placed on shares. It allows censorship to be bypassed, and I view anyone telling others not to post things is attempting to invoke censorship. There have been documentaries showing fatal crashes on TV in the past and I don't recall any outcry about those being broadcast. The difference is that these things are coming out shortly after the accident when emotions are high and the outcome is still in the balance. I do, however, agree with the broadcasters for not forcing it on people's screens in HiDef detail (the reminds me of the opening scene of Swordfish) while the outcome wasn't certain. The point is, viewing it should be a choice. There was a video posted with a crash of Kevin Ward Jr which killed him earlier this year too (reference article - includes video) and I now at least one person who wasn't keen to watch that but saw the Bianchi one.

When you see a link you have the choice of whether to click it (with images it can be harder since many social media clients will automatically show you them) and I think "responsible tweeting" is about, at the very least, informing people when you're posting something that includes a link that might be hard for followers to look at. That's respect for your audience. I can't help feel that unfollowing/blocking people who share content you object to is a bit like, to use an idiom, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A couple of pieces of objectional content doesn't make their whole feed pointless. On social media you'll never have the same opinions as others, and in fact following people with other views just makes you more accepting of other views and makes it easier not to have tunnel vision on things, or to only see a one-sided view of an issue promoted by the media. I accept it, take it on board, and move on. So I wouldn't unfollow someone just because they'd tweeted something objectionable - even if pictures of an critically injured person were involved - in the same way as I wouldn't unfollow someone just because my opinion was different. Social media allows the people to bypass the press "filtering" and post more or less whatever they like. And that's overall a good thing. A side effect of that is that facts will often come out over social media first.

Do people want to watch Bianchi's video to see someone get hurt? Of course not (well not in most cases I assume) but for Formula 1 fans who've seen all the safety improvements it's a way of understanding where there may be holes in the safety procedures. If the pictures/videos weren't out there, then the FIA would be making decisions behind closed doors, and then the public would judge them for their decisions without knowing the facts of what happened. Putting the videos out there means we can understand what happened, and understand why any subsequent decisions were taken, and potentially open up discussions to other ideas. I believe it's a good thing. Engagement and sharing is what makes social media useful (as long as it's kept to a vague level of facts).

And "facts" is the issue. As I mentioned facts can often come out of social media before any reputable organisation but so do a lot of misrepresented/false information as "facts". The Bianchi crash video says everything you need to know about the accident in a way no 140-character tweet, biased to the posters opinions, could ever do. If you can stick to referenced truths (and the one problem with twitter is the lack of attribution of facts - an issue I blogged about some time ago - I wish people wouldn't share images without the source).

The crash video is hard to watch. I won't shove it in anyone's face by inlining it into this page so it's your choice whether to click the link and open it. Seriously, do not click this if you're easily upset:

But please don't unfollow me for wanting to see and understand the truth about what happened to allow me to form my own personal opinions.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

"Being watched by google" and missing the point of Facebook's messenger scandal

[Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me. This article is a useful collection of links I've gathered for myself as much as being a blog article for others!]

The Facebook messenger app that was introduced appears to have generated quite a bit of controversy. Facebook split out the messaging functionality into a separate app from the main one and blocked the main one's ability to manage private messages, this effectively forcing people to install the new app to keep their existing functionality.
Not inherently a problem in itself, but it seemed to stir up a bit of controversy about the permissions that the application had. It wanted access to your camera and microphone. How could that be. The level of outrage seemed to reach fever pitch on some parts of the internet about how having acces to that meant that they could spy on you and record everything you're doing. It got ridiculous, and the media didn't help - I saw this appearing via a share in my facebook feed:


Well, yes there are plenty of reasons to stop using facebook which I'll get into later, but this really isn't one of them. And if he's a "tech expert" he needs to be fired for scaremongering. In fact the issues raised in there are applicable to the permissions that the original facebook app already had, so you'd better stop using that and several others too if you're going to avoid messenger:

 Let's use a common sense critique:
  1. These permissions are requested for the app because facebook allows you to take pictures/video and send them with your messages. In the case of the main facebook app, there's a recent new - OPTIONAL - feature that allows it to listen in the background to detect and post what you're watching/listening to. Even the scandal-inducing Daily Mail didn't really seem to have a problem with it. I use a separate app that does something similar to post what I'm listening to to when I'm at a venue playing music. It's a nice thing to have.
  2. Facebook are quite open about the function that makes use of the camera/microphone (if you're still wondering why, then here's the - entirely reasonable - official response to the concerns), but what about other apps that you use? Do you know the company behind them? If there's a chance they're a scammer or have other sinister intentions do you check them out in the same way you would when criticising a large company like Facebook? Surely that's where the real danger is - with the lone developer who might be trying to steal your identity or take other things from you.
  3. If Facebook really was trying to snoop in on your microphone or send pictures back to base, you'd see a significant amount of background data usage in the app (other than any auto-playing videos). This simply doesn't happen, so the scare stories are just that.
  4. So we established in point 1 that there are legitimate features in apps that require use of those device features, but what if you didn't want to use those features and wanted to block access to, say, the microphone, or your photos stored on the phone? Apps tend to be installed with an "all or nothing" way of operating. The current Android app permission groups are here. What worries me is that Google tested an Android feature for selectively blocking app permissions via an "App Ops" setting menu in Android 4.3 but then pulled it (actually they claimed they'd put it in accidentally) but if you want to find someone to really have a go at about security and potentially allowing spying, maybe the OS vendors such as Google should be your target... (NOTE: With a rooted Nexus 5 you can put it back, or possibly also on other rooted devices). Or maybe you should consider getting hold of a device which can run the Cyanogenmod variant of Android which has such a function called "Privacy Guard". iOS already has such functionality built in so that's a win for Apple, as nothing should be able to sneakily use your microphone unless you allow it. And in fact with the newly released iOS8 they've has gone so far as to say "The authorities can't access your data" with Android about to follow suit (reference), although whether that'll be a good thing when a high profile court case comes out where evidence couldn't be obtained from such a device is questionable.
I know many disagree, but I still can't help feel that the demise of Flash on mobile has encouraged platform-specific apps in a way that makes the permissions aspect worse. If the manufacturers or community had managed to write a more secure, lightweight Flash implementation maybe all of this wouldn't be an issue ... But it would've been less lucrative for the app stores ...

I think the hype over the messenger app is just scaremongering because people like to think that Facebook is evil. In reality, they're just adding new cool features in their app. Yes there are people who will say "But I'll never use them" but ithis is the technology industry, and it's going to move forward. It's called progress - without it they would struggle to remain dominant in the social media space. And if you're really concerned about the Facebook app, uninstall it and use the mobile web page which cannot access the things you're worried about, and does give you access to Messages. It's your choice. I have to admit I was a bit surprised when thumbnails of my newly taken photos showed up within the app and it offered to add them, but (I believe) that is all being done on the device and not sent to the servers (Unless it's sending thumbnails of course - if you want a conspiracy theory!)

Google, and increasingly Facebook, make their money out of targeted advertising and knowing things about you to enable the ads to be more useful. To a certain extent I don't have a problem with that (I don't use AdBlock as I'd rather vote with my feet on such issues and avoid the sites if they're too intrusive) and I'd rather ads were of interest to me than not) but for those who do the best answer is not to use them. Stop using Google and switch to a search engine such as duckduckgo instead which won't track you in the same way. The problem is that Google's data collection means that their results will generally be superior. They have access to a lot of information to use to give you the best results, and other search engines aren't quite there. But they're worth trying ...

My other big concern regarding Google Android is the "Android OS" data usage on cell connections on Android devices. It's not a huge amount - a few Kb each week, but I do wonder what exactly it's doing. It could be a measurable cost for some very low data users if it's using some data every day with some pay-as-you-go deals offering a certain amount of data per-day for a fixed price. Any expected data usage is counted under specific apps or the play services, and I have app updates disabled unless on WiFi. So what is my phone doing talking to Google in the background? I've got location data switched off, so it can't be sending the (frighteningly accurate as it happens! Try switching GPS off and you'll see) WiFi-based location mapping back to to Google in there ... This is from my device's cell data use in the last week:

Maybe they're the ones sending my photo thumbnails back to Google for the NSA ...

My real concerns about Facebook.

Maybe the above publicity about Messenger is a good distraction for Facebook, as it diverts attention from some of the real issues with their client apps. The mobile web page is great, but in terms of data use it's relatively inefficient. The calls made through the APIs by the Facebook app are far less of a data hog. So you might think another option might be to use a third-party Facebook client that doesn't give so many permissions. But there are two problems with this:
  1. Firstly, the feed is filtered differently. Actually through the APis it doesn't appear to be filtered at all so your "Close friends" and "Acquaintances" don't get the prominence you've asked for in your feed. If you're not familiar with those options they are a great way to increase/decrease the prevalence of friends in your stream - and if you really want to "stalk" a friend then there's also the "Get Notifications" option so you get a notification for everything from them. All of these are available when you click the "Friends" button on someone's profile on the web site, in addition to the asynchronous "Follow" option for those who allow it. There are many who think that Facebook filters the feed too much, and for them using another app might be a good idea ... Except for the second problem with third party apps...
  2. Many people have (understandably) set their privacy options (Settings -> Apps -> Apps Others Use) to prevent access to their posts and photos etc. (NOTE: Some experimentation I've done suggests it may not always work...although you can kill off the platform app entirely from Settings->Apps->"Apps, websites and plugins" which does seem to work but stops you using FaceBook logins anywhere) It's to stop games and other rogue apps from being able to access their "friends only" information, but it also prevents "real" third-party facebook clients from seeing their posts. Maybe there needs to be two classes of app - and perhaps the "anonymous login" option for apps is enough - although there's little incentive for Facebook to do quite enough to make "real" third party clients work as it's generally easier to inject ads in their own clients the way they want...
  3. I wrote about a bunch of other concerns a couple of years ago, and although some things have changed since then, I did mention the app permissions thing in there. and why people would choose to restrict app permissions.
And I'll be honest, those "lock-ins" meaning you get reduced functionality with third party apps is a big part of the reason I sometimes consider leaving Facebook. I am using a third party app, and so I know I'm often missing people's posts at the moment. But then on a positive, Facebook does provide a lot of control over the access if you know what your way around the options, but it's good to see Facebook's new "Privacy Check up" wizard being presented to users now (Did they know I was about to publish this blog?)

There are also articles on topics such as "How to lock down your facebook account for maximum privacy" but I honestly think that doing a lot of what those articles say reduces the effectiveness of a social media platform. Most people post things on twitter without where followers/followes are all visible, so why lock down your facebook account so much that such information is lost? Sure there are some scams involving acquisition of those lists, but I'd rather we lived in a world where people were educated on security and keeping their wits about them online rather than artificially let them believe that a checkbox on one site will make them secure/immune ... I'd really like to see schools teach good online security habits since such knowledge should be essential for all online users. Let's not be overly paranoid about one site.

Social moving forward - is there any hope?

Anyone trying to get into the social media space will have a very hard time competing with Facebook. Even Google are struggling to do it with their initial "Buzz" offering and now Google+, which has recently been changed so that all Google Mail users don't have to have a Google+ account. The critical mass of people who use Facebook is huge, and nothing else is at a level where it's a substitute. I suggested an alternative to Google search earlier, but it's much harder for one person to choose to use a different network. Twitter just isn't the same as Facebook, the recently launched "ad-free" Ello has potential issues:
Diaspora's "pod" concept where there's no central hosting server is interesting - they started by charging users for the service in order to support it without advertising which wasn't a bad idea in theory, but they're not getting the wide adoption they need either, and they had some issues with their reputation amongst early adopters. But there's an option if you want to break away from Facebook.

But Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure recently had an interesting perspective. He, like quite a few people I suspect, would be willing to pay for such "essential" services as Google if it was an option to do so and not have all the data collection in place. But he argues quite strongly that from where Google are now it actually wouldn't be of benefit to them to offer it, as we're far more valuable to them when they can hold our data than a token amount of money would be. The tracking of us is what let's the world move forward to the sorts of ideals that Microsoft's vision of the future has predicted, and things like Google Now, if you let it, are moving us towards that. And facebook's revamped Atlas advert platform is widening its scope to rival Google Ads, but while introducing that they're adding anonymous logins and encouraging privacy checkups. The question that many people didn't ask at the time of Microsoft's vision video was: Who pays for it? The answer is you, by handing over your details so Google potentially knows more about who you really are than you do. It's up to you if you're happy with that, but the important thing is to know what you're doing. And if you want to see who's getting your info in practice, install the extremely enlightening the Lightbeam (Formerly Collusion) plugin for FireFox, or the third-party Ghostery one, and remember that it's your choice to allow web sites to set cookies .. They all prompt you for it now although that's possibly missed the point since the tracking is often just done via javascript instead. I've also seen a comment recently about how Facebook pick up on things you've viewed on external sites (as does Google) but in reality that's not so much Facebook spying on you as the retailer sending your details back to Facebook. Arguably a more realistic way to look at it.

But if you really value you're privacy, I suspect that LinkedIn, also known as "The Creepiest Social Network", is probably the one to avoid ..

NB The quote in the title of this article is from Kasabian's Eez-eh single

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scotland #indyref: All that's bad about politics

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

I'm a bit late in posting this but what the hell ...

The Scotland independence referendum is coming up to it's climax. I've finished drafting this just after midnight - voting will commence in a few hours. The question is simple:

"Should Scotland be an independent country"

That's it. Yes or No. I currently live in England after living in Scotland until I was 22 therefore I don't get to vote in this. Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for many years, and there are plenty of arguments on both sides. The white paper is available here if you want to see what's being proposed. And some of the things that would still be shared at least to begin with are covered in this article. But I'm more concerned with how the arguments are being put forward. There have been two significant televised debates: One on STV (for some ridiculous reason they didn't broadcast it UK-wide and the online stream couldn't cope) and another on the BBC between Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party) looking for a "Yes" vote and Labour party politician Alastair Darling who is the leader of the "Better Together" campaign who want a "No" answer to the above question.

Both of these debates seem to have been quite "lively" but have been characterised by people talking over one another. There seems to have been a lack of listening and straight answers to the questions - they are politicians after all - but we should use this as an opportunity for a fresh start... In the first debate, Alex seemed to take a naive "I don't have a plan B because I'm only focussing on plan A" on the currency debate. It's such a critical point that it's unbelievable to me that he didn't just quote what's in the whitepaper given there were so many people who seemed to want that question cleared up. Assuming the whole public have read through the whitepaper seems utterly naive, so treat the public like adults who and just quote what's in the white paper so people can make an informed decision about the possibilities:

Four currency options were examined by the Fiscal Commission
– the continued use of Sterling (pegged and flexible), the
creation of a Scottish currency and membership of the Euro.

Concern answered, move on. And while he gave that answer in the second debate I think it wasted a lot of time that could have been better spent on something more useful in such a widely broadcasted debate.

Another similar point was when Alex asked of Alastair "Could Scotland be a successful independent country?" As far as I can tell (and I think the second/third time he asked he got a yes answer, but continued regardless) that is a bit of a non-question. "Could" is simply an indication of a non-zero possibility that it might be successful. Of course it could, that doesn't mean it's likely to, so the question was purely to elucidate a sound-bite that could be used answer, not an intention to draw out any useful debate, disappointingly.

There also seems to have been a lot of negative campaigning and personal attacks by the "Yes" campaign. Taking pot shots at Alastair's previous work in government (not really relevant to the debate) and references to bullying/fear tactics from  the other sides. There seems to be a constant stream of trying to smear their opponents instead of producing coherent messages and factual evidence to counter the arguments presented. It's the worst possible kind of politics. If Scotland wishes to truly start afresh, then starting from a point of politicians point-scoring against each other in the worst possible way doesn't sound like a good way to start a government of a new country. Does that really sound like a change from the past? Or will Scotland just end up with the same distrust of politics, just with a different set of people? Yet that's what Alex is promising: if you vote "Yes". You won't be ruled by the politicies of the politicians in Westminster.

True, you'll be ruled by policies created by politicians in Edinburgh instead. They'll still have to make similar decisions based on similar facts - are they really likely to come to significantly different conclusions and different compromises compared to what the can with the separate parliament they have just now? They will still be fairly remote from where most people are, just slightly closer. Is there any real reason to believe that a separate Scottish government will be able to make better decisions and make people's lives better? They'll have a smaller pot of money to play with. Will more politicians being employed to make decisions be worth it? Well you've already got a lot of what the "Yes" campaign is promising so that seems a case of trying to make promises of delivering some snow to the eskimos, although oddly the "No" campaign hasn't capitalised on that fact as much as they probably should have:
It astonishes me that the "Yes" campaign hasn't managed to negotiate secure answers on currency, EU membership etc. The fact that people are being asked to vote on a basis of "Let's make ourselves independent, then we'll sort out the details later" just seems like voting for a fantasy. It's relying on passion. The heart over the head. The practicalities of being able to produce the ideal view which is visible through rose-tinted glasses is by no means certain.  But the fact that it "could" be that rosy view is what the "Yes" campaign appears to be based around. But is "could" worth the risk? JK Rowling tweeted a link to a Guardian article on the subject:
There are a lot of extremely vocal people, particularly on the "Yes" side (Tommy Sheriden springs to mind) but you'd expect that. The people who want to change the status quo are the ones who shout the loudest in most situations - and they should. The tabloid newspapers and the twitter echo chamber can make strong polarised views, and seemingly scandalous facts, spread very quickly. This is a long term decision that should really be taken on less emotional responses, and that makes it harder to choose independence. It seemed clear to many people that switching the UK voting system to something other than "First Past The Post" made sense, but ultimately that wasn't what the public actually chose. How will this second significant referendum in the UK go?

So to summarise: Is politics, and more importantly, people's quality of life, really going to be better in an independent Scotland? It certainly could be, and that's what the SNP's Raison d'ĂȘtre (so what does Alex do if it fails?) but I personally haven't seen enough concrete evidence to convince me it's likely enough to be worth the risk. And it's certainly not convinced me the politicians involved are likely to be any better than those in Westminster. But regardless of what I think, it's in the hands of those living in Scotland.

I'm glad I had my passport renewed recently, maybe I'll need it to visit Scotland soon:

If nothing else we are looking like we're going to get a potentially world record turnout at the polling booths.(EDIT: It was 84.6%) Here are some other figures for comparison:

I watched this episode of Question Time live - this guy in the audience cracked me up so I'll leave him with the last word - if he has his way then it's not going to happen: