Wednesday, 23 December 2009

eBay eeeewwww!

Found on Google Product Search UK (formerly

Used dental floss, eeeewww!

This is actually the best dental floss I've ever used by the way, but it's hard to get it except expensively at expensive dentists, so I buy online. Still not cheap, but to me it's worth it.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Firefox fun: about:kittens !

Olive's about:kittens has got to be close to the top, if not at the top, of the list of useless but fun & fabulous extensions for the free Firefox browser (faster and a more secure browser than Internet Explorer).

What this excellent free add-on does is to change the standard Firefox graphic that you get when you go to the Help > About Mozilla Firefox menu:

- to a random kitten picture from the Kittenwar site, see the top of this blog post! And here's another one:

Get about:kittens from the Mozilla Add-Ons site (for beginners - click the Add to Firefox button, then click Install Now, and restart Firefox when prompted).

Talk about an excellent time waster, hours of mindless fun!

If you find yourself going to the About menu constantly now, here's a shortcut to really speed things up - hold down the Alt key and tap the h key, release both, and tap the a key for a quick fix of kitten. Then hit OK or Esc (or click OK or Cancel) to make room for the next Alt h etc if you want another pic.

Obviously, because it goes out and gets pics over the internet, it will only work if you have an internet connection and are online at the time you do it.

Kudos to Olive, brilliant. Have fun - and here's another one, just because:

All together now - awwwwwwwww.

Again: the about:kittens add-on download link.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Vista: Windows Update error 80070570 problem - how to fix

If you have Windows Vista on your computer and you get a problem when Windows Update tries to run to update your computer, with this error message:

Cumulative Security Update for Internet Explorer 8 in Windows Vista (KB972260) failed to install with the error code 80070570

or other updates with Windows Vista error 80070570 or error 0x80070570 (which apparently means ERROR_FILE_CORRUPT), then you can try these troubleshooting tips to see if they fix the issue.

First, try disabling or closing your security or anti-virus software (McAfee, Norton etc) or other anti-malware, and try Windows Update again; then re-enable the protective software.

If that still doesn't work, it seems the issue could be down to:

  1. Windows Update not working properly, or
  2. The Windows Update Temporary folder having got damaged or corrupted.

In my case, it was no. 2. But here's how to sort out no. 1:

  1. Click the "Start" button bottom left, in the "Start Search" box, type: "services.msc"
    (without the quotes) and hit Enter. (If you have to OK or type a password, do so.)

  2. In the window that comes up, double click "Windows Update":

    A dialog box now comes up. Go to the "General" tab. If the "Startup Type" is "Disabled", use the dropdown to change it to "Automatic" or "Manual":

  3. Click the "Stop" button under "Service Status".
  4. Then click the "Start" button (to the left of the Stop button), and click OK.
  5. Rinse and repeat with the "Background Intelligent Transfer Service" service in the Services window (the one where you found the Windows Update service), to stop and start that again too.
  6. Now try Windows Update again (Start menu, Windows Update) and see if it'll work properly now.

If that didn't solve your problem, try renaming the Windows Update Software distribution folder as follows:

  1. Close the Services windows you opened earlier.
  2. Click the "Start" Button, "All programs", then"Accessories".
  3. Right-click "Command Prompt", select "Run as administrator":

  4. A "Administrator: Command Prompt" window comes up. Here, type "net stop WuAuServ" (without the quotes) and press the Enter key.
  5. Wait for this window to confirm it was successfully stopped:

  6. Now click the Start button, and in the "Start Search" box type:
    (without the quotes) and hit Enter.
  7. A folder window will open. Find the folder called "SoftwareDistribution", right-click it, select Rename and type "SDold" (without the quotes) to rename this folder (or call it anything else you like, just not the current name).

  8. Go back to the "Administrator: Command Prompt" window. Type:
    "net start WuAuServ"
    (without the quotes) to restart the Windows Updates service, and wait for it to say "The Windows Update service was started successfully".

Now if all that doesn't work, don't despair - Microsoft offer a free support service just for Windows Update issues.

To use it, go to this page and put in a support request with Microsoft there, and follow their advice. Good luck!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Thunderbird 3 - do NOT upgrade! Freezes, hangs, not responding…

If you are using the free open source Mozilla Thunderbird software for email, do not, repeat not, upgrade to the latest version i.e. Thunderbird 3!

I've had terrible problems since trying yesterday to upgrade from Thunderbird 2, with Thunderbird 3 freezing, not responding, hanging, taking several seconds to respond to every click or keystroke.

Still trying to figure it out but as far as I can see, Thunderbird 3 defaults to trying to synchronise all email in all your folders from all your e-mail accounts - which is a bad idea and a half (this default is only meant to operate for newly added IMAP accounts, but in my case it's doing it for all my existing accounts).

That means that the moment you open Thunderbird 3, it tries to download all your Gmail etc. All of it. Talk about taking up computer memory and processing time.

I've tried to untick most if not all of the mail folders (menu Tools > Account Settings > Synchronisation & Storage > Advanced button, untick everything but Inbox & Sent, and even those if you want, then OK and OK again).

But even the process of unticking is proving to be a nightmare, with every untick taking 10 seconds or so to "take".

And it's still downloading the ticked emails… maybe I should have unticked them all, but there we go, I'm going to let it carry on trying to do its stuff for the rest of the day & see if it's faster after it's got everything downloaded for offline use. Even unticked folders seem to be downloading, not sure why, once I make sure the OK has taken (which is literally taking hours) I'm going to kill Thunderbird & restart it.

UPDATE: it took about 10 hours to do, as mentioned it wouldn't let me OK the UNticking of folders until it had downloaded everything. So my tip is, if you are going to upgrade to Thunderbird 3, do it just before you're going to sleep or go out for 12 hours. Other apps on my computer were usable, just not Thunderbird. Then, as soon as you can, go change the Sync & Storage settings to untick what you don't need.

How to speed up Internet Explorer 8

I just wanted to note for those not aware of it that the tricks and tips on how to speed up Internet Explorer 7 also mostly work to help Internet Explorer 8 go faster too.

These are the ones I've tried in Windows Vista with Internet Explorer 8 - try them at your sole risk if you've a different version of Windows, and remember to backup your registry first, you have been warned! (I will report on Windows 7 soon):

  1. These tips on speeding up Internet Explorer 7 which I mentioned from this site (but not the other tips on it, most of which seem to have been changed in IE8 for the better so they're already set):
    1. Increase maximum simultaneous connections
    2. Disabling ClearType
    3. Disabling the SSVHelper Class plugin
  2. Stopping checks for printers on remote computer - NB, in Vista the key to check for network shares doesn't seem to be there so I didn't try that fix, you probably shouldn't either

Friday, 18 December 2009

YouTube 2009 top videos

From YouTube blog, the first time they're sharing their "Most Watched" stats - here are the 5 most watched videos of 2009 across the world, most popular one first. If you've not seen any of them yet, enjoy!

1. Susan Boyle - 120+ million views

2. David after Dentist - kid in car after dentist (and anaesthetic, clearly!) - 37+ million views

3. JK Wedding Entrance Dance - 33+ million views

4. New Moon movie trailer - 31+ million views

5. Evian Roller Babies - 27+ million views

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Vista: Skype Error #6102 or "Problem with recording device"

If you get Skype's Error #6102 problem, and Skype's FAQ doesn't solve it, here's a troubleshooting tip if you have Windows Vista: you could try restarting Windows Audio (how to restart Windows Audio).

And then after you've done that, make sure you check that your Skype audio settings (menu Tools -> Options -> Audio Settings) show the correct device for both microphone and speakers, e.g. your headset, and if not change it back and Save.

That trick worked for me.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Sing karaoke at home, free - LuckyVoice offer

I reviewed home online karaoke service LuckyVoice a while back. You can belt out your fave songs in the privacy of your own home with your friends, or indeed just solo, as long as you have a computer, broadband internet connection and Web browser (and, if you wish, mic and home stereo).

They've recently revamped their site and are offering free unrestricted access to all 6750+ songs on their site for a whole week. You do need to have the free Adobe Flash Player version 10 if you haven't already got it.

To get the free full access for a week from now:

  1. Sign up free for a LuckyVoice account if you haven't got one.
  2. Then sign in to your account.
  3. Click "Buy singing time" (top right, outlined in red):

  4. In the Voucher code box at the bottom of the page, enter the code LUCKYYOU and hit Submit:

They've also changed their pricing model so that you can either buy song credits (as you'd think - buy blocks of number of songs you can play, from 50 songs to 500 songs currently), or buy by time period (i.e. unlimited singing within a period of 24 hours, 1 month etc up to 1 year).

You use up a song credit if you go 30 seconds past the start of a song, so if you start playing a song and decide you don't like it you can save your credit if you skip it quickly enough (see the LuckyVoice Help pages).

What's more, they've given users 25 song credits which will start to be used up after the week's free singing. And there's a clever new rewards system whereby you can earn even more free song credits:

  • "Creating an account gets you 25 credits.
  • If you sign up for our monthly newsletter, you gain 25 credits.
  • After you've sung your first 10 songs, you gain 5 credits.
  • When you reach 30 songs sung, we'll give you another 10 credits.
  • Once you've reached your singtenary (100 songs), you get 20 credits.
  • If you invite a friend to sign up through the site, and they create an account, you get 20 credits.
  • The first time you love a playlist, you'll earn 5 credits.
  • When another singer "loves" your playlist for the first time, you gain 5 credits."

A very good way to reward heavy users.

But for those who are a tad reticent about their passion for 60's musicals, what's this about playlists and other people loving yours? It seems playlists you create are public by default - but never fear, you can click "make private" underneath the playlist to, well, make it private. And you can still share a playlist with selected friends by clicking Share under the playlist's name.

I've not gone through the new site with a fine tooth comb yet e.g. to see if they've implemented the other suggestions in my original review, but it looks good, and seems more user friendly than the original version.

Enjoy your free sing!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Help evolve music: experiment - take part!

Want to take part in a fascinating experiment to evolve music? You have 1 more week to try it…

If you've not heard about it already, on the DarwinTunes website professor of evolutionary developmental biology Armand Leroi, in collaboration with musician Brian Eno, is running a "cultural evolution" experiment to try to evolve songs by "natural selection", modelled on evolutionary studies in labs of microbes and small animals (worms, flies). The video outlines what they're doing.

Who provides the "natural selection"? You do. DarwinTunes is a computer program, a Perl genetic programming evolutionary algorithm system developed by bioinformatician Dr Bob MacCallum based on his evolutionary system Evolectronica. (More on the technology behind DarwinTunes.)

The program randomly created (generated) a pair of songs, then let them recombine, mutate and "reproduce" to produce 100 "descendant" songs - normally each song is a loop of 4 bars in 4/4 time, played to you 2 or 4 times for rating.

You can hear examples of the starting populations (and I can't resist pointing out that this experiment obviously doesn't involve paying any heed to the condom ringtone, then!):

Visitors to the DarwinTunes site rate songs, and according to the ratings the worst songs are killed, the best are allowed to reproduce and then die off, and visitors can then rate their offspring, and so on.

There are examples of evolving hand picked "good" loops on their news pages (after 8000 ratings, 9000 ratings, for the rest see their news!).

Something I've noticed - the evolved songs all seem to be in C major. Is this because the starting population was mostly in C major? Or do humans just like that key…? (indeed, have we become genetically predisposed to like C major after generations of playing the easier white keys on pianos?)

If you want to have a go, the experiment has about a week left to run, so grab the chance to try rating songs to influence their evolution!

I can't wait to hear the results - you can keep up via their news pages or their Twitter account.

Via New Scientist.

How to crop unwanted margins from PDF scans, free

This post shows how to get rid of black margins (or margins showing page edges etc) before printing out PDFs, thus saving money on printer ink and being more environmentally friendly.

Say you scan a few pages from a book to PDF and you want to print it out. Too much black ink is often wasted when printing PDFs produced by scanning pages from books or magazines where the page is smaller than the scanning area, because the space where the scanning area is bigger than the book or journal page shows up in the scan as dark margins, as in the pic below - and similarly when you're scanning photocopies of pages from books or journals. (All copying & scanning done within fair use or fair dealing limits, of course!)

But you can eliminate unnecessarily ink-wasting black margins from your PDFs simply by cropping the margins from the PDF, saving the cropped version, and then printing out the cropped file instead.

A very good free tool for cropping PDFs is PDFill PDF Tools (free for private use).

How to crop black margins from PDFs using PDF Tools

  1. Preparation - open up the PDF file which you want to crop, e.g. in the usual Acrobat Reader. Usually the unwanted dark margins will be on 2 sides of the page. Here is an example (taken from The Future of the Internet by the brilliant Jonathan Zittrain as he's a very nice man who I'm pretty sure won't mind my using 1 page from his book to illustrate this):

  2. Make a note of which sides those extra black margins are on, e.g. top and left, and estimate how much of the page they're taking up and therefore how much needs cropping. E.g. in the UK, with an A4 page size scan, in the above example it might be 0.5" left and 2 or 3" bottom, i.e. you want to remove 0.5" from the left margin and say 3" from the bottom margin. Maybe even about 1.5" from the right margin too, in this case.
  3. If the PDF document is several pages long, as it often is, make sure you page through it quickly to figure out what measurements (e.g. 0.9"?) would deal with most of the bits you want to cut out, while leaving the substantive text untouched. It won't be perfect but at least you should be able to get most of it. If you don't check this there's a danger you might cut out too much.
  4. Download PDFill PDFTools and install it if you haven't already.
  5. Launch PDF Tools.
  6. Click button 4, "Rotate or Crop PDF Pages":

  7. In the file chooser that comes up, select the PDF file you want to crop.
  8. Make sure you tick to select "All pages" on the right, otherwise it will only crop the first page. (That's why in 3. above I said skim through it to work out what measurements would be the best for all pages.)

  9. Then, in the "Crop Box" section on the left, fill in how much should be cropped for each margin, i.e. how much you want to take off from the top margin, left side, right side or bottom margin. It defaults to inches (") as you can see. So for the example in 1. above I'd try - Left Margin 0.5", Right Margin 1.5", Bottom Margin 3" and leave Top Margin alone as 0".
  10. Then click the Save As button and - this is important! - give the file a new name, not the same name as the original PDF document. E.g. you could call it say "scancropped1.pdf". And click Save.
  11. Open your newly created PDF, e.g. scancropped1.pdf, in Acrobat Reader (or Foxit or other PDF reader of your choice) and you'll see the margins are gone. Page through it to make sure you've cropped the margins you didn't want but not lost any important page content. And just print it out from there. This is what my example looked like after I put in the measurements listed in step 9 above - not bad guessing on my part:

  12. If during your skim through you notice it's cropped too much, or too little, no problem. Just start again from step 7 above, but this time try slightly different measurements for how much to chop off, then save the file as a new file (or even overwrite scancropped1.pdf if that was really unusable, but again don't overwrite the original file). Just keep trying till you get it the way you want - with experience it only takes me 1 or 2 goes, and then voila I can print the PDF scan without the dark margins. In the example I showed above, I could even start with the newly saved cropped PDF file, take a bit off the top margin say 0.5", and I'd be there.

And that's it. The PDF Tools suite has some other useful tools for working with or tweaking PDF files, including converting images to PDF and vice versa - just have a play and see (if you hover over a button more info is given, and the Help is good).

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Thunderbird: how to set order of email accounts

If you use the free open source email software Mozilla Thunderbird, which I do (e.g. for Gmail, mail via Google Apps and my college email), it isn't obvious how to get your different email accounts to show up in the order you want.

I've even added a new email account - and then found that on closing and restarting Thunderbird, the new account has vanished completely.

So here is how to change the order of email accounts in Thunderbird, and stop newly added accounts from disappearing.

How to change the account order - prefs.js

The MozillaZine site explains how to manually edit your prefs.js file which is to be found in your Thunderbird profile folder.

Make sure Thunderbird is closed before you try to edit the file, which you can do e.g. in Notepad. But before you close Thunderbird take a note of the order in which your email accounts folders appear in Thunderbird on the left e.g. college, Gmail, local folders.

As the MozillaZine thread mentions, find the 2 lines in that file which look something like this:

user_pref("mail.accountmanager.accounts", "account3,account5,account4,account2,account1,account6");
user_pref("mail.accountmanager.defaultaccount", "account3");

In the first user_pref brackets, the accounts are listed in the current order in which they appear in your Thunderbird - unfortunately it doesn't identify the accounts by name like college, Gmail, local folders etc, but from the note you took earlier, if college email appeared first then it's account3 in the example above, if work email appeared next in order then it's account5, and so on.

That's how you know which email account is given which ID number by Thunderbird.

Now that you know what stands for which email account, you can reorder the accounts the way you want just by changing the stuff in the first user_pref brackets to e.g. "account6,account3,account1,account2,account5" or whatever you prefer.

There is one thing to watch. In the second user_pref line above, you must make sure that the account listed in that line (account3 in the example above), which is the default account, is listed first in order in the first user_pref line. So if I changed it to:


in my first user_pref line, I'd have to make sure to change the second line to match i.e. account6 (which appears first now in the first line):

user_pref("mail.accountmanager.defaultaccount", "account6");

Vanishing new email account? - user.js

Now if you have the problem of a new account that you add disappearing each time you exit Thunderbird, here's one possible solution to the problem (and believe me it's a pain to have to keep adding it back only to see it go again!).

In my case it was to do with the user.js file, which I'd created to set some preferences (how to create user.js file).

I'd edited the user.js file so one line read:

user_pref("mail.accountmanager.accounts", "account3,account5,account4,account2,account1");

But when I added a new email account account6, it kept "deleting" itself - because I'd not included it in the user.js file.

All I had to do was change the user.js file to something like this, where I'd inserted the new account6 somewhere in that list, and then it was fine:

user_pref("mail.accountmanager.accounts", "account6,account3,account5,account4,account2,account1");

Monday, 7 December 2009

Safer URL shortening services?

Many of us use URL shortening services, where you feed the service a long URL (web address) and it gives you a much shorter URL which when clicked redirects to the "real" long URL.

This is useful because long URLs in emails often break across lines and won't work unless the recipient reassembles them manually, which is a pain.

Also, short URLs obviously take up less space where it matters, notably Twitter with its 140 character limitation (and Twitter do automatically shorten your long URLs for you).

A major issue with URL shortening services is that the short link goes to their website, and they then redirect the user to the real intended destination site. So if the URL shortener site is down or stops working or disappears, e.g. because the service went bust, the short links won't work anymore.

Fortunately, recently a bunch of URL shortening outfits got together to form a new service,, which will be administered by the illustrious Internet Archive - see the 301works blog post of 11 November 2009 and the Internet Archive's post. The idea is that:

"Participating companies will provide regular backups of their URL mappings to the service. In the event of the closure of a participating organization, technical control of the shortening service domain will be transferred to in order to continue redirecting existing shortened URLs to their intended destinations."

So when you use a URL shortening service, it's safest to use one of the participating companies.

The companies taking part so far (see the 301works site for the latest list, which looks set to be growing fast) are:

  • URLizer

Interestingly the granddaddy of URL shorteners,, isn't yet on the list. But, which is popularly used on Twitter, is.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Security - passwords

It's always worth emphasising (even though I have before!) the importance of having strong passwords for your online accounts, and a recent Microsoft Malware Protection Center blog post has some useful do's and don'ts for passwords

It includes some interesting stats on the most common usernames used by bad hackers in automated attacks (change your username from Administrator, or if your name is andrew, dave, steve, paul or adam!).

Common words used in password attacks were also given, and again using "password" or "123456" really isn't a good idea.

See that blog post for their tips and you can always test your password on their password strength checker.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Monday, 23 November 2009

Vocal extraction - hear Vera Lynn reorchestrated

Very interesting - Audionamix ADX Technology isolated the vocal track from Dame Vera Lynn's iconic 1930's mono recording of "We'll Meet Again" for record label Universal Music, and worked with Universal's sound engineers to:

"clean up and re-master the voice track into a high definition stereo component. This was seamlessly integrated with the new orchestration and the contemporary Fron Male Voice Choir. The whole project was completed within a week…

Audionamix has previously worked on movie soundtracks, such as the Oscar winning The Passionate Life of Edith Piaf. On this project, the film makers wanted to use the original sound recording of Edith Piaf singing. Audionamix separated out the voice tracks while conserving all the original elements in order to remix these into the 5.1 surround sound technology of the film."

You can hear a couple of lines from the original track, then just the isolated vocal of the same lines, then the remixed re-orchestrated version of those lines, on the Audionamix site: click here or click on the pic above.

Via Audionamix press release.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Google Reader keyboard shortcuts

I notice the list of keyboard shortcuts (hotkeys) for Google Reader on Google's Help/FAQ pages isn't comprehensive (e.g. it's missing: e for email, v for view original webpage, / to move the cursor to the search box).

To get the most recent full list of keyboard shortcuts, while you're in Google Reader just type a ? and you'll get a translucent popup with the list.

Or you can access that list of Google Reader keyboard shortcuts here. I use 'em all the time. (Just wish there was a Shift v for opening the original item in a background tab/window).

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Google Barometer: UK consumer confidence recovers

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

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

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

Friday, 30 October 2009

Climate change: map of 4°temperature rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Students: save money - tips

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

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

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

Monday, 26 October 2009

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

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

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

And clicking to open the link works.

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

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

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

What's happening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions to the problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 October 2009

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

The ITU standards body have just approved:

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

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

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

See also reports on this by Computing and BBC.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Free Skype on 3 (Three) - review & thoughts

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

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

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

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

Key lesson - usability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict for consumers

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

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

Suggestions for 3 and Skype

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

Full disclosure

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

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

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

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

This was Improbulus speaking. Over and out!

Monday, 19 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Yahoo! Taiwan "Hack Girls" - bad form!

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

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

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

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

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

Check your email address on Thomas Springer's ServerSniff.

More secure passwords

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

Saturday, 10 October 2009

More Acrobat security issues - try Foxit

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

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

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

Try it: download Foxit.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Oh the irony

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

Englich courses

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

Monday, 28 September 2009

LG Chocolate: get US$10,000 for your phone?

If you have an "old" LG Chocolate KG800 phone, check your serial number ASAP.

LG HQ have launched a new campaign, looking for 5 LG Chocolate phones globally. The campaign ends 30 September 2009 i.e. in a couple of days, so check it fast!

If you own a LG Chocolate phone with one of the serial numbers below, you will receive US $10,000 (approximately £6000 subject to exchange rate)!

The Serial numbers are:


Good luck!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Saving money online - shopping deals etc

I notice that, which offers members cashback for online shopping have got rid of their annual admin fee and will be trying to make money just from ads.

They offer deals from retailers and manufacturers you've heard of (like 2.5% cashback from the Apple Store when I looked, and discounts for Dabs, Dell, HP etc products), which is good! I haven't tried buying anything via them yet, but I plan to.

Separately but in a similar vein, I hear that Yahoo have recently launched Yahoo! Deals for the USA (still seems to be Kelkoo in the UK), which they called:

"the first website to provide daily deals, online coupons, grocery coupons, local coupons, store circulars and exclusive deals all in one place"


In a recent Yahoo! survey, 43 percent of participants said they are using coupons more since last year. They also cited that easier access to coupons would motivate them to use coupons more often, a sentiment stated by 76 percent of women. That said, the majority of people polled feel that there are not currently enough coupons for things they want to buy and nearly half actually think coupon hunting is a chore. Less than a fifth of consumers have a "go-to" online site and almost 80 percent think the process of finding coupons is difficult.

Yahoo! Deals even have a Twitter feed for realtime offers / deals.

Both interesting signs of the times, but it can all be only good news for us consumers.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Opera by Twitter

For anyone who hasn't heard of it yet, you can contribute to the Royal Opera House's experiment to engage Twitter users to help write a new opera. The BBC's covered it.

"We’re investigating how short, 140-character contributions can build upon each other to create a non-linear narrative – like a Choose Your Own Adventure story or a game of Consequences"

If you've not contributed yet, there's still time - just tweet your line with the hashtag #youropera or else tweet it to @youropera (someone else will be setting it to music, so they only want only contributions of lyrics, or should I say libretto, not music).

A very clever way to get publicity and promote the Garden! Kudos to their PR/advertising people - anyone know who they are?

Now if only ticket prices go down...