05 July, 2013

Bye bye Parishightech, hello Digitalfrog

I have now switched to a new blog site, Digital Frog. I have been unhappy about the way the blogger platform has developed since it was taken over by Google a few years ago. This is not to say that Google is in any way "nasty", it just stems from what Google does for its living: it links all the different things we do together into a virtual matrix -a bit like the film of the same name. Charles Arthur explained it very clearly recently in this article in The Guardian. My various blogs became linked with my gmail address. Not only the ones written under a pseudonym, but also ones that I had set up for other people! Then my blog photo turned up on my gmail account, all got linked to Google+ and even the Android apps I have installed on my assorted half dozen phones and tablets - and I like to have several different identities for Android to get round geographical restrictions. Even being as careful as possible when signing in to the various sites and avoiding obvious pitfalls, the link is eventually made. I daresay the only way of being absolutely certain is to have a different computer for each function - rather OTT.

Another problem is that Google doesn't really handle multi-lingual usage very well, which is a problem for someone who regularly uses more than one language.

The last straw came when Google 'lost' my domain name. The last time it came up for renewal was after my bank card had been updated. So, the renewal did not go through. anyone would expect a professional service to inform the customer that there was a problem with the payment. In the case of Google, it simply cancelled the site! Driving home the adage that it is not the bloggers and emailers that are the customers, they are the product! The real customers are the advertisers. Attempts to contact Google's customer relations department in an attempt to recover the domain name provide further confirmation for this viewpoint. In the meantime, the domain name turned up on a site selling domain names by auction, for a very much higher price than I had paid originally. Perhaps that was the real reason the domain got 'lost'.

22 June, 2013

Fibre set to take off, at last

Fibre has been "about to take off" on the telecoms scene in France and elsewhere for many years. It was so when I first wrote about it in the French popular science magazine "Science et Vie" in 1979. This week the French company Acome invited me to their seventh annual event celebrating VERY broad band: "Fête du très haut débit" near their headquarters in Mortain in Normandie. For those of you who haven't heard of Acome (I hadn't), it's an industrial group organised as a workers' cooperative that manufactures telecoms cable equipment, with a staff of around 1400 and annual sales of over €400 million and factories in eight countries. It is the only remaining French manufacturer of optical cable and the second largest in Europe.

Acome CEO Jacques de Heere kicked off by pointing out that France is labouriously coming up to a total of 200,000 fibre subscribers, whereas China brings in 30 million new subscribers a year. Orange's fibre man Yves Parfait rolled off his company's upbeat figures: Orange fibres are available in 300 towns in France, 100 more than last year and it now passes 2 million homes. This means 2 million homes could sign up if they want to, but take-up is much lower - only about 200,000 actually subscribe, although 4,000 more subscribe each week. That's a penetration of only 10%. SFR, the other telco present, had similar figures, scaled down a little: 1.2 million homes passed, 120,000 subscribers. Penetration still hovers around 10%. Stephane Lelux, from the consulting firm Tactis, outlined how fibre distribution is still very patchy: in two departements (Paris and the nearby Haut de Seine) fibre is available to 30% of the population, but it falls off steeply after that and residents of 54 departments (mainland France has 95) have no access to fibre at all.

27 March, 2013

42, Free's new school

Xavier Niel, the massively present head of French ISP company Free, has just set up a new school for computer geeks. There is a clear need for one, as France (and much of the rest of the world too!) is suffering from a shortage of highly capable programmers. So, the solution is: start your own school While he was at it, Xavier made a few digs at the French education system (an easy target, but worth attacking nevertheless) and the French government, some of whose members have recently attacked him for supposedly devastating the telecoms sector - a separate discussion largeley covered in the French press.
Xavier's school will be free and open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 30 who is very keen on computing. The selection process is not based on any qualifications of any kind, nor getting favourable reports from teachers. It is aimed at picking up young people whom the educational system has failed. Candidates will have to take an online test. Then around 4,000 candidates will be selected to take part in one of four month long hothouses this summer, where they will be in an environment conducive to group working on projects, expecting to work up to 15 hours a day in true geek fashion. The best 1000 will then go on to take a three year stint at the new school, beginning in November.
Xavier has invested €70 million of his own money in this venture: €20 million start up costs and €50 million to cover ten years of running. He is no doubt hoping that other investers wil also chip in.
This is not Niel's first forray into the realm of education. Last year he was one of the founders of an institute for training webmasters. But that is much smaller, fee-paying and slanted to web content.

11 March, 2013

D-Link DIR-506L pocket cloud router

A useful little device for regular travellers, taking up very little space in your suitcase and using a widely available mini-USB charger. I took it with me on my recent tour of Vietnam. Every single hotel I stayed in, as well as some of the homestay places, had free (Western hotel chains please take note) wifi access. Where it came in useful was in a couple of the hotels where the wifi coverage was a bit on the weak side in my particular room. All was not lost, the hotel room had an ethernet point. So all I had to do was to connect the DIR 506L, and hey presto, my own wifi access point.

However, at the beginning I couldn't see the purpose of the unit's second function - a pocket cloud
It came to me when I wanted to use my tablet to view some videos I had on a USB stick. Like many of the modern tablets, mine (an ageing Danew D-Slide 701R now given a new lease of life since I installed Android 4) is a bit low on connectivity. In particular, it has no USB port.  All I had to do was plug the USB stick into the DIR and hey presto, I  watch the videos. At least that's the idea. However, I had to try a couple of times before I actually got it to work. This operation wasn't helped by the fact that the quick guide only gave the verbal url (dlinkrouter.local) which my tablet insisted on running through google. Firing up the CD to find the host's numeric address ( solved that particular problem.However, using it in this mode was a little bit fiddly. No comparison with having a real USB port on the tablet.

Another useful feature: it can act as a wifi repeater/range extender. You connect to its admin page and log onto a suitable wifi network. It then re-radiates the wifi signal with the new SSID. I prefer this to the wifi repeaters that use the same SSID,  because then you can select which ssid you actually lock onto. But the unit also offers a repeater mode.
Other features include URL filtering, MAC address filtering, application rules, outbound filtering, inbound filtering, You can even decide on the wifi transmitting power level.

The unit is self-contained, with a removable Li-Ion battery that can be recharged using a mini-USB phone charger. I didn't get to test how long the battery lasts on one charge. It seemed to be a few hours.

Now I must go and check the sensitivity of the wifi for use in repeater and extender mode.  This kind of information is very rarely seen in manuals. The only way of gettting it is to try it on weak signals.

28 January, 2013

Youtube suspends copyright holder

Youtube has just suspended a friend's account for copyright violation.
The problem is: the person whose account was suspended actually owns the copyrght, being the exclusive producer of the DVDs in question.

What is particularly interesting is Youtube's procedure to correct the problem.
In this instance, Youtube sent a warning notice some months ago. The subscriber responding, filling in the appropriate online forms and got an automated response.
There the matter should have ended. Not so. A couple of days ago, his account was simply removed. Since the account is now closed, he no longer has access to the complaints resolution forms.

Impossible situations like this are becoming increasingly common with the growth of e-business. I had a couple of run-ins myself with Ebay a few years back, with a variety of issues like items removed, accounts and billing problems. What became clear was that it was impossible to deal with a single person. In the case of billing problems, although it was possible to send emails, each one went to a different person who had no knowledge of the previous correspondence. In the case of items removed, there was simply no way of informing anyone. that the items were entirely legitimate. I even tried resorting to including a statement in very large letters on the object description, stating that this was a legitimate item. But all to no avail.

All this is only symptomatic, a bit like the endless voice menus in automated calling systems. But there are already signs of public backlash. Companies may then respond and improve the situation. Of course this would be on purely business grounds. But I suspect the wait will be long indeed.

Update 10 March:
Youtube reinstated the account in mid  February with no explanation other than to say it had reconsidered the matter. But the traffic counter was down to zero and the channel had lost all of its subscribers.
Then in early March Youtube suspended another of the same person's channels.

What is clearly missing is some way for the user to communicate with Youtube. Ironic in this particular sector.

06 December, 2012

Coursera hits 2 million users

The MOOC site Coursera has just hit the two million mark, so I guess it's time to say something about it.
There's loads written on the MOOC phenomenon, so I won't go into any detailed explanations.

I'll just add my two cents-worth in a couple of points.

I've tried three different Coursera courses so far, all from renouned American universities (Princeton, Duke and Caltech). They are all very different in the ways they use technology. Obiously some teething problems to sort out. In one case the video of the lecture shows the whiteboard being written. The text appears on the screen in real time as if by magic (or at any rate, technology) while we are actually watching it. You can hear the marker moving over the board. I think it would have been nice to see the lecturer, but this is the world of high tech.
In another case, you see the lecturer on one corner, while the presentation slides accompanying the lecture as well as the web sites and other images are on the rest of the screen. Every now and again the video stops and an interactive multiple-choice questionnaire appears.  A big improvement on the first one, although that too had embedded multiple choice questionnaires.
In the third case, the professor's video image moves all around the screen, to complement the logic propositions the students are examining.

All this is very nifty. But for some reason it needs fairly up-to-date equipment to view the videos. Ironically, the lectures are also available on Youtube, where they can be viewed with much more mundane equipment. There even screen shots of the embedded questionnaires.

I asked about these technical quirks. The response was that the videos had been tested on a wide range of platforms. Ipads and workstations were mentioned, among others. Nothing like starting at the top!

Second point: textbooks.

Third point: certificates

Finally, I' ve just enrolled for a music improvisation course, to start next April. Can't wait to see how they do that on Coursera.

07 November, 2012

Kobo, shame about the web site

The early Kobo reader was a heap of junk. I picked one up during a trip to the UK and came across a branch of WH Smiths selling them off cheap. I didn't get round to writing a review of it at the time, but briefly my gripes are that it takes for ever to turn a page and the procedure to carry out a purchase is rather cumbersome. Added to that, it discharges in a couple of weeks, even if it's not used. Oh, and the fonts do not make for easy reading.

The new Kobo readers are much better from a hardware point of view, with a touch screen and pages that turn instantly. But my gripe is the system for buying ebooks. You can't buy a book directly on the reader, you must first install software on your computer (PC or Mac, no Linux version although you can copy files manually in Linux), create an account, shop on your computer and then transfer your purchase to the reader. A far cry from the Amazon Kindle method.

There's more. The localisation is badly done. Or rather, it's done in a way that leaves you no choice. I set up my purchase in London, created an account and downloaded a couple of books. Then when I got home to Paris and installed the client software on a PC there, I couldn't log onto my account. It turns out the software was trying to log onto the FNAC website, which is Kobo's French agent. I had to route via a UK VPN just so that I could log into my account and retrieve my books.

The poorly done localisation approach also shows if you just type kobo.com or kobobooks.com while in France. Although you can switch the site into English, it keeps reverting to French. More to the point - it tries to sell you books in French! Again, a far cry from other sites which let you browse between different language books. Or event that of its how power rival which has separate .uk, .fr, .de and .com sites. Better separate sites than one which is badly integrated.