Saturday, 30 January 2010

Use Powerpoint not PDF, for greener printing of presentations

If you want to help other people save ink and paper (and therefore save money) when they're printing your presentation slides, please consider:
  1. distributing or uploading your presentation slides as Powerpoint PPT files instead of Adobe Acrobat PDF files, and
  2. pointing recipients of the slides to this blog post, if they don't already know about the far greater flexibility that they have with PPT files to set the layout and contrast as they wish (whereas with PDF they're stuck with what they're given).
Why do I say this? I'm not trying to to do the Microsoft fan thing, honest (although I do prefer Windows to Mac).
First, people can open Powerpoint PPT slides using the open source office suite OpenOffice, which is available free for Mac and Linux as well as Windows, even if they don't have Microsoft Office. So using PPT doesn't exclude anyone.
Powerpoint has 2 big advantages over PDF for attendees or students who need to print out presentation slides:
  1. If the slides happen to have a dark background e.g. for aesthetic reasons, printing them as is just wastes a ton of ink; but it's possible (when the slides are in PPT format, but not when they're in PDF) to change the print settings so that they print out "Black and white", with the dark background miraculously transformed into a white background.
    1. Microsoft Powerpoint - how to print PPT slides in black and white (without too dark background or too light text)
    2. OpenOffice Impress - how to in print PPT slides in black and white (without too dark background or too light text)
  2. Powerpoint allows recipients to arrange the slides as they wish, in the size they wish (which is an accessibility issue too), when printing - i.e. they can print the file as slides, handouts (with whatever number of slides per page the user sets), notes or in outline form. It should be up to the attendee to decide how many slides per page and how much space for writing they want, and to be able to print out slides that suit their needs.
    1. OpenOffice Impress - menu File > Print, it's the Content dropdown list to pick Slides, Handouts, Notes or Outline, then if it's Handouts select the Slides per page and their order on the page (left to right or up to down)

    2. Powerpoint 2003 (Powerpoint 2007 is similar) - menu File > Print, it's the "Print what" dropdown, and again for Handouts select number of Slides per page and order.

In case you wonder, yes this post was triggered by my being presented on too many occasions with PDF slides that were set in stone.
Often I'm given PDF files with 3 slides a page and "space for notes" on the right (that's the - to me - dreaded "Handouts, 3 slides per page" setting), where text or diagrams on the slides are just too small for me to see properly because they've put in too many bullet points, whereas I'd much rather have bigger slides I can read without any "space for writing" on the right which I may well not use.
Conversely, at other times I've been stuck with 1 slide (maybe with just a couple of bullet points on it) per page in PDF format, when I'd rather save paper and print 3 or 4 slides per page.
And yes, I've also been given PDF slides with dark backgrounds too! (In that case I usually copy and paste all the text into a Word document and print that, to save printer ink. Unless they've turned off the ability to copy from the PDF, of course.)
With Powerpoint, I have a choice. With PDF, I don't.
So my plea to all speakers and presenters is this: please ditch PDF, let the user decide for themselves how many slides per page and how much writing space they need, and let users print without ink-wasting dark backgrounds, by providing them with slides in PPT format. And you'll boost your ecologically sound and environmentally friendly cred to boot!

Google Blog Search bookmarklet: who's blogged the webpage you're on?

When you want to know who's blogged about the webpage you're viewing, just use this bookmarklet to search via Google Blog Search for blog posts that link to the page you're on:

Who's blogged this?

For non-techies: basically a bookmarklet is an item in your browser's Bookmarks toolbar, Favorites toolbar or Links bar (depending on your browser and version), which you can click to do useful stuff - in this case, to search on Google Blogsearch for all blogs that have linked to the web page you're currently viewing. See more on what's a bookmarklet or favelet and how do you use them?

Couldn't find a working bookmarklet for this so I rolled my own. Works on my Windows Vista PC in Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer. Note that this doesn't search for blogs or links about words highlighted on the webpage, they're just basic searches for links to the web page itself.

(And yes, hurray, Javascript bookmarklets now seem to be working within the body of a Blogger / Blogspot work post finally, thank you Team Blogger! And thanks to Kirk as always for alerting me to this.)

Friday, 29 January 2010

Print slides without dark background in OpenOffice

Some speakers provide Powerpoint .PPT slides with a dark background, which wastes a lot of ink when you print them off. Or slides with yellow text on a white background, which are near impossible to read.

Previously I blogged about how to print Powerpoint slides without the dark background and similarly how to solve the too-light text issue, when you print them in Microsoft Powerpoint.

Here's another tip: you can do the same thing using the free open source office suite OpenOffice too - Impress being the component of OpenOffice that you use for preparing and viewing presentation slides. Impress can open Powerpoint .PPT slides. (Download OpenOffice.)

To print out PPT slides minus the dark background in Impress:

  1. Open the slides
  2. Menu File >Print
  3. Click the Options button:

  4. Under Quality, pick Black and White, then OK.

In case you worry, it shouldn't print out the dark background as black, the background will be converted to a white background, with the text in black. Much more easy to read, and more environmentally (and pocket) friendly.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Search privacy: GoogleSharing, StartPage review & overview

This post is about GoogleSharing, which helps improve your privacy when you're doing a search on Google, and StartPage, a privacy-preserving search engine. Very topical for Data Privacy Day, which is today!

Google currently (since August 2008) keeps your search data for 9 months. Microsoft have just reduced their data retention period for IP addresses to 6 months for their Bing search engine, while Yahoo only keeps data for 3 months.

As the AOL search data debacle has shown, it's not that hard to identify people from their search data, and of course find out more about them based on what they're searching for. Plus, the US government might be able to demand your data from Google etc without a court order, due to the sweeping powers it has under PATRIOT Act, given that their servers are in the USA.

GoogleSharing for search privacy

The new GoogleSharing service hides your Google search data from Google, or more accurately obfuscates it by essentially mixing up your Google search activities with those of other Google Sharing users. It's free, but do consider donating to help keep it going, if you use it.

That way, Google can't tell (and track) which IP address is whose, thus providing a degree of anonymization.

It acts as what's called a proxy server (an intermediary between your browser and the ultimate destination site), and furthermore, on each use of a Google service GoogleSharing assigns you a different "identity" as far as Google is concerned, and GoogleSharing regularly "injects" false search requests for all the identities in order to obscure things even further. You don't get any cookies from Google.

And GoogleSharing uses https for the connection between your Firefox browser (with GoogleSharing) and the GoogleSharing server, which makes your search much more secure from third parties spying on it e.g. over wifi.

Scope - what services does GoogleSharing work on?

It works for all Google services where you don't have to login to use it e.g. currently Google search, Google Images, Google Maps, Google News, Google Video, Google Products, Google Finance, and viewing Google Groups - but not Gmail or Google Calendar, etc.

Also Google Translate, according to Moxie Marlinspike of Thoughtcrime, the brains behind GoogleSharing.

How to get GoogleSharing?

It only works on the free Firefox browser.

  1. Download Firefox if you haven't got it already (at least for better security than Internet Explorer - that vulnerability's since been patched but more have emerged - and the ability to have better browser security generally).

  2. Then install the GoogleSharing extension (but it's still an experimental add-on so you have to tick the "Add to Firefox" box before you can install it, and if all goes haywire you've been warned!).

How to use GoogleSharing?

Once you've installed the add-on and restarted Firefox, that's it. You'll see "Google Sharing Enabled" in your Firefox status bar (grey bar at the bottom of the browser window):

As long as you use Firefox as your browser when using Google services, it just does the identity mixing up behind the scenes; you don't have to do anything else after you've installed it. As GoogleSharing say, it's completely transparent to the user, just install and forget about it. Searches may be a teensy bit slower, but not noticeably so in my experience anyway.

UPDATE: in case you wonder, it also works (once installed) if you search via the Google Toolbar instead of the Google webpage.

Note for non-techies: even if you've installed GoogleSharing and have Firefox open, if you then use a Google service via Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera or Chrome i.e. any browser other than Firefox, your IP address and usage will still be tracked.

Clicking on the "Google Sharing Enabled" button pictured above allows you to disable GoogleSharing should you want to (and clicking again re-enables it). Rightclicking similarly allows this, and also lets you set its Options:

- such as "Edit proxy", where you can choose the language and also stop it from anonymising selected Google services if you wish:

What if you're logged in to Google in one tab (e.g. for Gmail), and you do a Google search in another tab?

Your Gmail, Google Calendar etc still works but your data won't be anonymised.

However, your Google searches in a different tab will still be anonymised -Moxie Marlinspike kindly confirmed that to ACE (and will be updating the GoogleSharing FAQs to clarify that point).

Won't GoogleSharing capture our search data instead?

Your search requests and other requests to Google services get sent through GoogleSharing's server and back to you through them, that's true.

But they say they don't log anything, and they also say that if you are suspicious about them you can check out their code freely for yourself, and even run your own GoogleSharing proxy server or use the GoogleSharing server of someone you do trust, to do the anonymisation. (The Preferences page in the Options is where you can add another proxy server, if you prefer).

And they don't transmit login credentials or cookies.

Tips on other ways to protect your search privacy - StartPage etc

Clicking on Google search results

When you do a normal Google search and you click on any search result, Google knows exactly which links you've clicked on.

Though GoogleSharing will hide or mix up search results clicks too (UPDATE: Moxie has kindly confirmed this), see also my post on how to stop Google from knowing which search results you clicked on - again using a Firefox extension, which at least gets rid of the gunk in the URLs if you want to copy and paste a search result link to email to someone else etc.

Scroogle Scraper

You can alternatively search Google by visiting Scroogle, which again acts as an intermediary between you and Google, but doesn't add in fake identities (but note it's, do NOT go to, it's pron! Or maybe that warning's just sent some people there…).

You go to the Scroogle webpage rather than Google's to search, so you do have to search Google in a different way.

But a plus is that Scroogle works with all main browsers including Internet Explorer, not just Firefox, and there are plugins etc to help facilitate its easier use. Again, do consider donating if you use it.

Ixquick / StartPage

European-based meta search engine Ixquick, an ad-funded service, promises not to record your IP address (computer address) or your search terms at all, and have now got themselves an additional, more memorable, name: They will search other search engines for you including Microsoft's Bing, but not Google.

Again you'll have more security from wifi interception of your searches if you use their https address to start searching from.

They have also just introduced (and see their YouTube video) a proxy service, so that when you click through on one of their search results, the website you visit won't know your IP address either. To repeat, it hides your IP address etc from the site you click through to, not just from the search engines it uses. GoogleSharing doesn't do that, it's not designed to; it provides some privacy protection for Google searches while not slowing you down too much.

Just click on the "Proxy" link in the StartPage / Ixquick search results to go to the site "invisibly" via Ixquick (but I think it should say "Hide me" or "Cloak my visit", not "Proxy", in order to avoid scaring off non-techies).

Not only that, but whenever you click a link on the site you visit via the "Proxy" link, StartPage should proxy that visit too, and keep "passing on" the webpages to your browser so that the site you visit only sees StartPage as the origin. You can tell when your visits are being "cloaked" because it'll still show StartPage's logo in a horizontal bar at the top of the page:

However, as you can see from the screenshot above, not all sites may work properly if you go to them via Ixquick, especially sites using the ubiquitous Javascript. Again, a proxied webpage visit involves more steps and will be slower than a direct "fully uncloaked" visit.

Miscellaneous - Google Web History; third party widgets

If you have the Google Toolbar, Google Web History (Web History Help links) stores on Google's servers the history of all website visits you make in the same browser while you were signed in to your Google Account, i.e. any log-in type Google service (e.g. Gmail). So you could think about pausing or deleting your Web History, or at least limiting it to store searches only. You'll see the Web History link at the top right of the Google search page. The ultra paranoid might suggest that when you "stop storing your web activity in Web History", you just don't see it anymore in your Web History page, but it's still stored there on Google's servers for them to analyse... I just don't know enough about what they do behind the scenes. Though Google have today published "privacy principles".

Moving on, be aware than it's not just search engines but websites generally, even blogs, that can collect info about you when you visit their webpage, especially if they have widgets which allow third party sites like Google or MyBlogLog to get info - see e.g. my blog's Privacy Policy about this blog's use of Google Analytics and other widgets etc.

How do you protect your privacy when visiting those sites? That's another whole huge area, and beyond the scope of this blog post.

Most people already know about cookies and not saving or deleting them.

Visiting the site through a proxy, e.g. via clicking StartPage's search results "proxy" link, should also help.

I don't know enough yet about proxy servers to know if StartPage's proxy (or other proxy servers) will strip out identifying "browser fingerprint" information like the User Agent header your browser sends out, though; I'd have hoped so. That's right, even if they don't know your IP address, websites can still identify you from your individual browser configuration, and it seems many of them are doing so. UPDATE: Moxie confirms that GoogleSharing will not leak your browser's User Agent info to Google.

What about other Google services like Google DNS?

In a later post I'll deal with privacy risks with other other steps you can take to improve your privacy when using Google services, and some other issues with privacy and Google generally.

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. A search engine like Google provides its Web services for free, to consumers anyway (though it's started to get paid directly for things like enterprise search tools and Google Apps).

It doesn't charge users but makes most of its money from ads, as is well known. So in return for giving us free search, Gmail etc, Google serves up "targeted" ads; the more relevant the ads are to us, the more likely we are to click on them and make money for Google. It's a trade off, and it's fair enough that they should get something out of it.

But it's natural that Google and other web businesses will want to get as much info out of us as possible, and keep the data for as long as possible. Conversely, many users want more control over what personal data of theirs is gathered and how it's used, and more information about what happens to their data afterwards (buzzword "transparency").

Or, perhaps, users sense that their data is valuable (which it is, of course) and want more than just free searches in return for giving it up, they want more say about the terms on which they're letting their personal information be collected and used (e.g. a share of the money?) - especially as once personal data is out there on the big bad interwebs, it's out there forever.

The two desires seem diametrically opposed. The biggest and toughest question is, where should the balance be struck, and how do we find the right balance? We're clearly not there yet.

Monday, 25 January 2010

3 Mifi wireless mobile broadband for computer, iPod Touch, Playstation etc - review

This post is a review with tips about the Mifi, which enables mobile broadband access for your computer, iPod touch or other wifi-enabled device over Three's UK mobile network.

What's a Mifi?

What's a MiFi Huawei E5830? (Rhymes with "wifi" rather than "iffy"!)

Pictured above, it's a mobile wireless modem that provides a wifi hotspot, i.e. a mobile internet connection that can be shared between more than one device or person. Though of course you can just hog it if you prefer.

Pocketable, light and little bigger than a broadband dongle, you can connect your device to it wirelessly (any kit that has wifi should connect to it), so that your devices can access the internet over 3's mobile network - whether laptop, notebook or netbook (any operating system as long as it has wifi e.g. Windows, Mac, Linux), iPod touch, Playstation or Nintendo DSi.

The idea is that you should be able to use it to get a Net connection anywhere that you can get a 3 mobile signal.

Three are the first UK network to offer something like this.

Mifi trivia (from the 3 team, over dinner!): did you know that when Three were debating what to call their wireless mobile broadband device, suggestions included "iFi" (ultimately deemed to be too much like "iffy") and "Trouser Browser"??

In the box

Mifi, charger, USB cable, a fold out setup guide and a series of guidance cards (good: you can keep the card with the password on it in your wallet; bad: easy to lose, hopefully 3 will work out a way to keep the cards together for the next version. Some of us would also like to see the full specs in the printed documentation for reference, even on just 1 page or 1 card).

The SIM pack is separate. Random tip - the SIM card is tucked inside the "lid" lift up flap, not inside the body of the cardboard wallet. Took me a while to find it at first, I admit.


It's great when you're out and about and you need a Net connection to browse, deal with email or documents in the cloud etc, and you don't have wifi otherwise - e.g. at a meeting outside your offices or home, or on a train or bus (worked for me on a bus in Central London. Not the Tube, obviously). Much less fiddly than a dongle as you can just keep it in a pocket, briefcase or bag.

It's probably more secure than an internet cafe or public wifi (as long as you use WPA, which you should instead of WEP anyway whenever you use wifi - see below), though it's still best to use https web addresses as much as you can when logging in to Web services.

The sharing feature is cool, e.g. kids in the car can surf etc at the same time whether with netbook, iPod Touch or games console, while several colleagues can use one internet connection at the same time on their own computers.

Or if you sometimes go to stay with relatives or friends who don't have broadband or even an internet connection, then obviously the Mifi can be very handy (as long as there's Three coverage there, of course).

Some features to note

Security - the wifi is encrypted by default, so only people with whom you share your password (e.g. colleagues) should be able to access your Mifi's network. There's a card in the pack with your password, which is unique to each unit. As usual with wifi, you start up your device, look for wireless networks, find the one for your Mifi (its network name or SSID will be on the card), and enter the given password - use WPA not WEP whenever you can, it's far more secure (see more on WPA vs WEP).

There's no indication in the documentation (and there should be) of:

  1. Battery life - they say on the website it's up to 5 hours, so probably about 3 or 4 hours max of continuous use in practice; if you don't use it it'll hold its charge OK for a few days. It would help to have this info in the manual or more obvious on the online pages (you can only find it from a popup that doesn't indicate that that's where you find the specs). Best charge it up overnight the day before you plan to use it, if you can, and have the charger with you.
  2. Range - I've managed to use it with a notebook computer that's about 10 m away from the Mifi, even on another floor, when there was another laptop using the connection. I suspect much depends on the local environment.

When you connect it to the computer via the (supplied) USB cable you can change the password, SSID (the broadcast name of your Mifi's wireless network), send and get SMS texts, etc (the charging structure for texts isn't explained in the pack though). Many of us won't bother to change the network key, as the password is unique to each unit - just keep your card very safe! But I think that as with the cabled dongle this only works with Windows computers, not Mac or Linux.

You get the usual My3 access to check usage, topup etc if you go to the My 3 webpage while using the Mifi.

Specs from the 3 site

  • Battery, Li 1500mAh
  • Charger (Std. 3-pin UK)
  • USB cable (mini plug/standard plug)
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Keep sake card with predefined SSID and Network key
  • Help cards, Safety and warranty leaflet
  • No internal memory. Memory card supported, microSD 32GB
  • Dimensions: 86 x 46.5 x 10.5mm, Weight: 90g

(Not easy to find the specifications - "mobile detail" is the link, it wasn't prominent or obvious enough for me, personally.)

Comparison with a dongle

Benefits over a standard mobile broadband dongle:

  • it's entirely wireless, which beats battling with a dangling dongle - I just keep it in a pocket when using it
  • only very slightly bigger than a wired broadband dongle and about the same weight, maybe even lighter
  • several devices (and several people) can access the internet over one Mifi at the same time - laptop, notebook computer, netbook like the Eee, iPod touch, Playstation, Nintendo DSi. (I'm not clear how many simultaneously, the man in the shop said 3 or 4 devices, I thought I heard it might be 5, but I can't seem to find the details on the 3 site)
  • any device which has wifi can use the Mifi, so there are no problems with drivers for Mac, Linux etc
  • speed - about the same speed as a wired dongle i.e. 3G or HSDPA depending on coverage (so they come out equal there), but of course neither will be as fast as home broadband. Way faster than "normal" GPRS data though.

The disadvantages?

  • more expensive than a dongle - from the 3 website, currently on Pay as You Go a wired dongle costs £19.99 to buy and £10 for 1GB of data use, whereas a Mifi costs £49.99 for the device and £10 for 1 GB (or £69.99 for Mifi plus 3GB of usage valid for up to 3 months)
  • you have to remember to switch it off when you're done else it'll run down without your noticing (in my view the current model hasn't got enough of a "low battery" warning when you're not online), and of course remember to charge it via the mains regularly
  • the more the connection is shared, the more it will slow down; the most I tried was 2 computers at once, and didn't notice any difference. But then you can't share a dongle's internet connection at all.
  • personally, I have had problems using the Mifi with XP computers. No idea why. Vista and Linux were fine.

On the 3 Consumer Panel & trial

Full disclosure - 3MobileBuzz at the end of 2009 kindly asked me to be involved in trials of the innovative MiFi device via UK network operator Three's new Consumer Panel, on which more below. (They also invited me to the official launch of the Mifi a few months back, which I didn't blog at the time as I wanted to get my hands on a Mifi first.)

3 will be reimbursing me for the costs of the Mifi, but I have to give it back at the end of the trial (probably in a couple of weeks), and I'm not getting any payment or kit for taking part. I just get to test it during the consumer trial period without having ultimately to pay for hardware or usage charges.

Also, they treated the panellists to drinks (though I couldn't make it there in time for that) and a tasty dinner to discuss our feedback. Thanks to Three too for permission to use their photo of the Mifi (top - the rest are my own).

The Mifi Consumer Panel is an innovative idea too, and basically involves the triallists mystery shopping and testing the Mifi, then feeding back our thoughts.

We each got different assignments, e.g. mine was to get it on Pay As You Go from a Three store (others were asked to try it on Pay Monthly contract etc).

It was up to us as to where we got the Mifi from (except we weren't allowed to get it online), and the 3 stores and independent stores didn't know that we were mystery shoppers. I opted for the £69.99 PAYG package which included the Mifi and 3GB of usage.

I've tried the Mifi with several computers at the same time, but not with another device as I don't have an iPod touch or games console. Others have, though, and report that it works well e.g. with several iPod touches using it at the same time.

It's been very impressive that 3MobileBuzz and Three have been so willing to listen to panel feedback and take on board our thoughts and ideas for improvements, about everything from hardware design to customer manuals and how staff sell it in the shops.

For instance, we all thought there were too many buttons - there should just be one - and hopefully the next model will incorporate that suggestion.

Tips and thoughts if you're thinking of getting a Mifi

As mentioned above, a Mifi is more expensive than a cabled dongle, but very much more convenient - you can just keep it in your pocket, briefcase or bag, and if you have colleagues, friends or family with you they can share your 3 internet connection.

If you like the idea of not having a pesky cable getting in the way (as I do) or you need occasionally to have more than one person or device using the internet connection, it's very well worth getting if you don't mind the £30 extra (you can alternatively get it on contract, see the Three site for details e.g. 1 month contract at £15 a month plus £49.99 for the Mifi).

But much of what I said in relation to the 3 broadband dongle still holds true.

Check your 3 mobile broadband coverage in advance (be sure to tick "Mobile broadband") to see how good the signal is in the key areas where you plan to use it, not just your home or workplace - you'll most likely be using it when you're out!

Buy it online if you can, as that gives you a much longer return period during which you can try it out so you can return it if necessary - Three allow 14 days rather than (if you buy it in a shop) 3 days. We all thought 3 days was too short for this product, and hopefully Three will increase the return period for the Mifi. (If you find after the 3 days that you are having trouble using it where you need it, then, as long as it's not like a year later, it's worth going to talk to Three - they said they'll try to help.)

During the moneyback period, make sure you take the Mifi everywhere that you think you'll use it regularly, and try to see what sort of connection you get, if at all, so that you can return it if it doesn't work out. The point is, you're totally dependent on getting decent 3 coverage. No good 3 signal, no internet on the Mifi.

However, bear in mind that 3 are upgrading their network, notably in the South of England (check your area), so you may have problems in some places. Once the work is finished it should be much improved, but it's just bad luck that (in my case at least) the works have been interfering with my Mifi trial - I now have virtually no Three reception at home. See the red below? Not good :(

There will be further works, intended to be completed by end 2010, so hopefully when it's done and dusted we'll all get better 3 signals - they're adding 3000 more stations, apparently it's the biggest engineering project in Europe currently.

Also, Three told us that they'll be bringing out a new version of the Mifi by summer 2010 which incorporates many of our suggestions for improvement (the current "3 button dance" to turn it on and get it working seems unnecessary and confusing), and should have a better battery life too.

Mifi use tips

  1. The network password for the device is printed on a handy card. You'll want to carry the card with you (somewhere safe), or memorise the password key. It's supposed to remember the password once entered but sometimes it doesn't and you have to re-enter it, which is a big pain if you need an internet connection and you can't remember your password.
  2. You might want to carry the charger around with you too, for obvious reasons, as you can still use it while it's plugged into the mains. Remember to charge it up regularly.
  3. And, I repeat again, use WPA (not WEP) and https web addresses wherever possible (at least Google have now enabled https by default for Gmail).
  4. No good 3 signal, no internet via Mifi. That should be obvious. It may cut in and out on the motorway or train for instance.
  5. Red light at the top left of the Mifi means no go. You may be able to connect to the Mifi via wifi, but don't be fooled into thinking you'll get an internet connection. Having said that, I've had times when it's red on the top left but bottom right is light blue (it should be green for go, really, in my view - dark & light blue is too confusing), and got a connection with no problem. Go figure. Bottom line - don't necessarily trust the lights, just try it and see; it may work when you think it won't, and unfortunately vice versa too.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Google Calendar: set day start and end time slots with Thunderbird & Lightning

In Google Calendar you can't set which time slot (e.g. 8 am) you want as your "start of day" time slot - the one displayed at the top of the window - it just defaults to whatever start time it feels like, in my case (at the moment) 1.30pm, though it used to be 3 am; the start time just seems to change inexplicably and randomly according to the whim of Google. A similar annoyance with Google Calendar is that you can't set your preferred end of day time slot either, e.g. 10 pm.

But I really want my calendar to show events from 8 am to 10 pm so I can see my appointments for the day on one screen, without having to do any scrolling. Most decent calendar or scheduling software lets you set the preferred duration or length for your standard working day i.e. start and end times, and then zooms the view accordingly so that you can see the whole day in one window - but inexplicably not Google Calendar, despite lots and lots of user requests for it (those were just some from 2009 alone).

I don't consider Google Calendar properly usable as an enterprise app without this fundamental feature (I'd much rather have the ability to set start of the day than "Week starts on"), although clearly Google Apps has been taken on by many organisations, presumably because it's cheaper than Outlook / Exchange etc.

The workaround? My tip is to use Thunderbird, the free open source email software, with the free Lightning extension, to access your Google Calendar. (This only works on computers where you can instal Thunderbird, of course.) Upgrading to Thunderbird 3 was painful but it seems to be behaving now.

  1. Download Thunderbird and install it
  2. Install Lightning (the calendaring extension)
  3. Install Provider for Google Calendar (this plugin makes Thunderbird & Lightning work with Google Calendar)
  4. You can then view your calendar through the View menu, and in the latest version of Thunderbird it opens in a separate tab
  5. Add your Google Calendar to Thunderbird (rightclick on XML or ICAL and save the link to paste when adding the calendar address; if you choose one of the Private Address links you shouldn't have to enter username/password)
  6. In Thunderbird go to menu Tools > Options, click the Lightning icon at the top of the popup, then the Views sub-tab:

  7. Here you can set day start and day end times (and number of hours to show at a time too), then OK to save it. In the General sub tab you can set the Default event length - just look through the sub tabs to see what you can set. Much better than Google Calendar in a browser!
  8. Another tip - Ctrl-Tab works to switch tabs in Thunderbird (from email to calendar) as in Firefox etc; also Ctrl-1 takes you to the first tab, Ctrl-2 to the second, and so on.

Internet Explorer, Outlook: update ASAP!

Yesterday Microsoft issued a Windows security update for the Internet Explorer browser exploit that had been, well, exploited by cyberspies to get data from the computers of Google and other companies, as I previously mentioned. Criminals have already started using the same security vulnerability. The security hole can affect other Microsoft products like Outlook, Heise Security have pointed out.

If you haven't already got the update for your Internet Explorer, make sure you do. The easiest way is via Windows Update. Those who have it set to automatically download and install Windows Updates should have had it installed automatically.

If not, be sure to manually check for Windows updates and install - find Windows Updates via your Start Menu, check, download and install - or download and install the version suitable for your version of Windows and your browser from Microsoft. (For beginners - to find your browser version go to the Help > About Internet Explorer menu. If you're a non-techie your computer is very likely a 32 bit rather than 64 bit system.)

Friday, 15 January 2010

How to improve Internet Explorer security

You may have heard (e.g. BBC, MacWorld, New Scientist) about the recent cyberspying attacks from within China which tried to obtain secret commercial data from the systems of Google and other large companies like Adobe (corporate espionage, it seems) and to access Gmail accounts of human rights advocates - attacks which led Google to reconsider its approach to China and stop filtering / censoring search results there.

Now it's emerged from computer security company McAfee (see ComputerWeekly, Reuters, BBC) that one of the attacks exploited a little known vulnerability in Microsoft's ubiquitous Internet Explorer browser software - more details are in Microsoft's security advisory and blog post.

If you use Internet Explorer 6 (or indeed Internet Explorer 7 or Internet Explorer 8) in Windows, clicking on a link or file attachment, e.g. in an email from a supposedly trusted source, can through this vulnerability cause malware to be downloaded, enabling control to be taken of your computer totally unbeknownst to you. The cyber attacks were mainly focused on Internet Explorer 6 which, while now outdated and very insecure, is still used by many organisations

Even if you don't think you have juicy intellectual property on your system and you're not a human rights activist, you can bet your bottom dollar that bad hackers everywhere will want to exploit this vulnerability to try to get into computers generally.

So if you have Internet Explorer you should take steps to try to secure it better. The Microsoft security advisory has suggestions but I always find screenshots more helpful so here's a summary of what they said (bearing in mind that 100% security can never be guaranteed):

  1. Internet security zone - the best protection seems to be to set this zone's security to High. Then you'll get warning prompts before certain possibly dangerous things (ActiveX controls, Active Scripting) can be run, which you can refuse (it may be safer to say No if you're not sure). Though this may cause some websites not to function fully.
    1. How? - menu Tools > Internet Options > Security tab, click Internet, move slider to High:

    2. See the advisory for more details e.g. dealing with trusted sites so you don't have to keep clicking Yes for those.

  2. Internet and Local intranet security zone - to get a prompt before running Active Scripting or (which may make some sites stop working) to disable it completely.
    1. How? - menu Tools > Internet Options > Security tab, click Internet then Custom Level (see pic above). Then find the Scripting section, Active scripting subheading and ensure it's set to Prompt or Disable, then OK:

    2. Then again - menu Tools > Internet Options > Security tab, click Local intranet this time, then Custom Level:

      - then find the Scripting section, Active scripting subheading and ensure it's set to Prompt or Disable, then OK as before.
    3. See the advisory for more details e.g. dealing with trusted sites so you don't have to keep clicking Yes for those.

  3. Internet Explorer 7 or Internet Explorer 6 SP2 (to check your version, menu Help > About Internet Explorer) - enable Data Execution Prevention or DEP. It should already be enabled in IE 8.
    1. How to enable DEP? Go to this site and under "Enable Application Compatibility Database" click the Fix it button, Run and follow the instructions.
    2. Alternative way to enable DEP - menu Tools > Internet Options, Advanced tab, scroll down to the Security section and ensure "Enable memory protection to help mitigate online attacks" is ticked, then OK.

      1. Can't do it? Close IE, rightclick the Internet Explorer icon, choose "Run as Administrator" to re-open it and try again. If that doesn't work still, login as administrator. You may not have administrator rights in which case this won't work.
  4. Use another less attacked browser like the free Firefox browser instead (ideally with NoScript)! If you have Outlook be sure to then set Outlook to open email links in Firefox instead of IE, so that when you click links in an email they won't open up in Internet Explorer but in Firefox.

And of course, ensure you use a firewall like the free ZoneAlarm, plus anti-virus and anti-spyware software, which can be free, make sure you regularly update them and run the scans, and also regularly update Windows and other software like Firefox, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Adobe Flash and so on.

A helpful official UK site for beginners:

Sunday, 3 January 2010

How to download YouTube, Google Video & other videos

Here's how to download videos from websites to your computer's hard drive for playing when you're offline, using free software. Remember of course we're only allowed to download videos free where we have the right to do that e.g. when the video content is public domain or licensed under Creative Commons.

The easy way

The quickest way I know to download online videos is to download and install the free RealPlayer.

Once you've installed it, whenever you're viewing a webpage with a YouTube or Google Video or indeed lots of other video sites, there will be a "Download This Video" link above the video. Just click that to download the video to your computer.

A "Download & Recording Manager" window then pops up to show the progress in downloading:

When it's done, the "Cancel/Pause" links become "Play" and "Remove" - just click "Play" to play the video! It's been saved to your RealPlayer library.


  1. Can't see download link? If you can't see the "Download this Video" link, try hovering over the video and if that doesn't work try starting the video playback.

  2. Preferences etc. Clicking on the arrow to the right of "Download This Video" (marked out in red below) lets you set your download preferences (e.g. which folder on your computer to save downloaded video files to, so you can find them easily later). Or in RealPlayer it's the menu Tools > Preferences, and on the left Download & Recording.

  3. Library. You can also find the downloaded videos later in Windows Explorer by launching RealPlayer and clicking the My Library link, rightclick on any video file and choose "Locate file".

  4. The free version of RealPlayer pops up ads ("messages") from time to time. You can tweak that through Options, Preferences.

The long way to download Google Video

To download Google Videos manually, the tricks mentioned in this blog post no longer seem to work, but the following variation on it does:

  1. Go to the Google Video page of the video you want.
  2. View its source - to do that, in Internet Explorer hold down the Alt key and tap v then release both and tap c to bring up the Source window.
  3. Search in that window for "download_url:", it'll look something like this (with lots of backslashes \ in the verylongstuff bit):
  4. Highlight and copy the stuff between the single quotes i.e. http://verylongstuff - but without the quotes (rightclick and Copy the highlighted bit, or use Ctrl c)
  5. Click in your browser address bar, or hold down Ctrl and tap l (the letter l) to get there quickly, and in the address bar type:
    then hit Enter or click Go.
  6. The resulting webpage shown should just display a single long URL in it, starting http://. Just copy and paste that URL from the webpage (not the address bar, but what's shown on the webpage itself).
  7. Use that URL to download the video which may be in MP4 format (playable on RealPlayer etc), e.g. by pasting it into your browser address bar.
  8. If you have trouble downloading it direct in your browser, try this trick I use:
    1. Open Notepad, create a simple basic webpage by typing (or pasting) this in it a new document:
      <html><head></head><body><a href="http://linkToDownload">Link</a></body></html>
      - where of course you insert the URL of the file you want to download instead of http://linkToDownload
    2. Then choose Save and in the File name box type "download.html" with the quotes, choosing the location in which to save your file. (See my previous blog post on how to save files in Notepad easily without .txt extensions.)
    3. Open download.html in your web browser, rightclick "Link" and "Save Target As" to save the file. Often much quicker and more effective than trying to download the file direct via your browser address bar.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Notepad: save non-TXT files without .txt ending e.g. html files

I still often use Notepad in Windows for quickly producing simple html or js files and the like.

One pain is that when you "Save" or "Save as" a file in Notepad, the program automatically sticks a "txt" at the end of the filename so you end up with a file called something like "myfile.html.txt" - which really doesn't work properly as an html file (or whatever) until you rename it to get rid of the ".txt". Or you have to change the "Save as type" box, which is an extra step.

Here's a tip which I only recently discovered, I don't recall where from, which saves you all that hassle - read on for how to save non-text files quickly without a .txt being appended to the end of the file name.

When you choose Save or Save as, in the File Name box just type the name of your file with .html or .htm (or whatever extension you need) as the ending, but surround the filename with doublequotes. NOT single quotes, it has to be double quotes (Shift 2 usually). Like this, where I've used "myfile.html" as the filename:

Then choose your file location and Save it, and you'll find that even though you didn't touch the "Save as type" box, it's been saved with exactly the right file extension - no annoying extra "txt" at the end. I love tricks like these!

Friday, 1 January 2010

Public domain - images, music, writings etc you can use for free

Today is Public Domain Day. Creative works protected by copyright are meant to become "public domain" after a certain length of time, which depends on the country and type of work - e.g. literary, musical, or artistic - usually depending on the lifetime of the work's author. If the author is still alive, the work can't be public domain.

Anyone is free to copy or use a public domain work, enabling people to build on it and adapt it etc, for the benefit of culture and society generally - and no one can say they don't have influences, we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

That's the deal society makes with creators. They get exclusive rights to exploit their creations for a period, and after that it's available freely for the cultural enrichment of all.

There's a new Public Domain Day website to mark and publicise the fact that on 1 Jan every year, more works go into the public domain. It was set up by Communia, the European Thematic Network on the Digital Public Domain.

The site has some useful links including the following.

Sprixi image search - mini review

Sprixi image search is an excellent and very well thought through, user friendly site for finding images that you can use for free. Very helpful, better than the Creative Commons search page. It covers both public domain and Creative Commons licensed works (works still in copyright, but which the owner is allowing people to use quite freely, depending on the exact terms of the individual licence. Used a lot e.g. on Flickr.)

It's simple and intuitive. You enter a search keyword for the type of pic or photo you're looking for, which can be an abstract concept if you want, and it gives you a bunch of pictures or drawings etc to choose from. Here's my search for kittens, to continue on from my Firefox about:kittens post:

But what I really really like is that it makes it very easy for users to help out - when you roll over the main image presented, it just asks whether the image is a useful image for your search term and you answer Yes, No or Maybe with one click, to influence future search results. (Votes from registered users are weighted higher.)

Then it just takes another click (on Use wouldja believe) to Use the image. You can use the link, or download a copy of the graphic.

Here's what I downloaded, note the attribution at the bottom:

So it's incredibly easy to get the link or Download the image, and if you download it the pic file has automatically got the right credits overlaid on it so you don't have to do anything more yourself, you can just use the downloaded image in all good conscience.

Public Domain Works registry

I mentioned the Public Domain Works registry previously in my post trying to puzzle out the complexities of UK music copyright.

It's not easy for people to figure out which works are in the public domain, and which aren't. (See e.g. the many public domain calculators!)

This site lets you search for a work you know some details about e.g. its title or the name of its author or composer, to check if it's in the public domain or not. Note that though it says the site covers "artistic" works, that's "artistic" in the broadest sense, and the database includes music and writing as well as artwork.

Tip: search just for surname. Trying both first name and surname doesn't usually work with that database.

Try also the Public Domain Sherpa.

Happy New Year's Day, and happy Public Domain Day!