Category Archives: Internet

Introducing the Windowizer

Favourite quote of the day

We have never experienced a disease that hit the whole planet at this scale, this fast, all at the same time. Well, except for Facebook.

Paolo Valdemarin, on the (splendid) State of the Net podcast.

Take Control of your Video Calls!

Do you wish you could incorporate videos, music, or views from multiple simultaneous cameras in your video calls & webinars?

In this video I take a look at one way in which Mac users can blend multiple media sources, sound and video, and send them out through calls on Zoom, Teams, Webex and similar apps.

Office Meeting 2.0.1

In my post yesterday, I forgot to mention the final twist to my open-air Teams meeting, which made it even more surreal.

Just after pressing the ‘Leave meeting’ button on the app, I walked through our village churchyard and fell into conversation with a gravedigger. No, really. He was filling in a hole, and, leaning on his spade, told me that the heavy clay around here was nothing compared that that around Lavenham. It was a strangely Shakespearian encounter; I half-expected him to bend down, pick up a skull and ask if I recognised it.

After a brief but cheery discussion, I bade him good day and departed, thinking that I should probably have tossed him half a crown for good luck, or something.

Definitely not my typical office meeting, I thought to myself, and Tilly and I walked home debating the whims of Lady Fortune in iambic pentameter.

The WhatsApp Exodus

Apparently, lots of people are leaving WhatsApp, or at least looking for alternatives. (So say articles like this and this, at least.) I’ve only rarely used it, since most of my close friends and family are on iMessage and both my work-related groups use Zulip. It’s only the occasional extended-family discussion that ends up on WhatsApp.

But if you’ve missed the story, this is because they changed their Terms of Service recently, and lots of people are shocked to discover that it now says they will share your details — location, phone number, etc — with the rest of the Facebook group.

I actually read, or at least skimmed, the Terms when they came out, and didn’t blink an eye, because I’ve always assumed that’s what they did anyway! I deleted my Facebook account many years ago, but I was aware that they still knew a lot about me because I do still use WhatsApp and Instagram (though only about once a month). Still, that will give them things like my name, phone number and location (from my photos if not from the apps).

In the early days, by the way, WhatsApp traded, as BlackBerry had done before, on the fact that it was secure messaging — encrypted end-to-end at least for one-on-one conversations. My understanding from those who follow these things more closely is that the security services tolerate this because the accounts are so closely tied to phone numbers, which means that, though they can only see metadata, they can get lots of it and related information because of older laws allowing phone-tracing etc. But there may be some people out there who thought that the use of WhatsApp was giving them a decent level of security, in which case this would perhaps be more of a shock.

Anyway, I too now have a Signal account, alongside Telegram, Skype, Messages… and all the others on all my devices. Actually, that was one of the reasons I disliked WhatsApp: the pain of using it on my iPad, desktop and laptop. And who wants to type things on a phone keypad when they have an alternative? You could run clients on those other devices, but (presumably because of the regulatory issues above) they had to be tied to the account running on your phone, and that connection seemed a bit fragile and had to be oft-renewed.

Signal, which I installed last night, works on a similar principle; it’ll be interesting to see whether it does it better! But it looks OK on my iPad; time to go and try it on my Macs… In the meantime, you can find me on Signal, if you know my phone number (like the FBI, GCHQ and Mark Zuckerberg do). If not, they can tell you where to find me.

Looking backwards at the future

Searching recently for emails from one of my academic colleagues, I came across one or two that appeared to have the address written backwards. He works in the Computer Lab at Cambridge, and the email was from user@uk.ac.cam.cl. What was going on?

Well, the simple answer was that my mail archives stretch back quite a long way. I have emails I received from my friend Peter just last week, but I also have some from him that arrived in the early 1990s, and this was just about the time that the UK’s academic networks were switching from the Name Resolution Scheme (NRS) they had used up to that point, over to the Domain Name System (DNS) which was becoming the standard in other parts of the world. NRS addresses started at the more general, and worked down to the more specific. Hence uk.ac.cam.cl.

Actually, email addresses in general tended to look like USER@UK.AC.CAM.CL because on mainframes EVERYTHING TENDED TO BE IN CAPITALS. But Peter was fortunate enough to be an early user of Xerox and Unix-based systems, which were more lower-casey; more cuddly California, less corporate IBM. By the start of the 90s, I too had an email address that looked like quentin.stafford-fraser@uk.ac.cam.cl.

Anyway, the fact that I still have emails from 30 years ago made me reflect, once again, on how extraordinarily successful email has been, not just as a communication medium, but as a storage format.

When I think back on other electronic documents of the time, few, if any could be read now. The companies behind my early ‘desktop publishing’ programs are no longer in existence. Microsoft Word long ago lost the the ability to open documents it had created in the past. And I imagine my documents from WordStar, WordPerfect, Microsoft Works and others would be just as challenging, if I could even find them.

But my email messages I can find. And I can read them. This is despite the fact that they have been through dozens of different email systems, created by a wide range of apps on multiple operating systems, stored on servers around the world and hard disks in my various homes and offices, and accessed through a range of different protocols (IMAP, for most of that period). Not only is my email readable, but it’s easily searchable from multiple locations using a choice of apps on any of my devices. It’s tagged with helpful metadata about authorship, time of creation and receipt, etc. I can choose to store it myself or pay others to do so. And so on. Almost no other digital storage system has proved as powerful and flexible as IMAP-accessed email.

Much of this comes, of course, from the fact that email is governed by open standards, accessed through open protocols, and often stored in non-proprietary formats. Because it is fundamentally about inter-operation, email providers have had no choice. It bugs me that I don’t have my pre-1991 emails, but that was probably because of an inadvertent slip on my part, or a hard disk crash, or something, rather than because of a fundamental limitation of the technology. If I do ever find them on some backup, I’m confident I’ll be able to include them in my archive.

This explains why, like some of my colleagues, I’ve resisted my University’s recent attempts to migrate our email accounts from our existing Open-Source-based system to Microsoft Exchange Online. It’s not because I dislike Exchange per se; after a rocky first decade or two it seems to be settling down quite nicely. But I don’t want to use a Microsoft email reader on all my devices — my own are much better, thank you — and Exchange has repeatedly shown an inability to support IMAP reliably. The messages are also not stored anywhere on a server where I could extract them by any other means in a standard format when I want to move them elsewhere. And I will want to move them elsewhere at some point; history shows me that. Fortunately, I have that power. If my email shows any danger of being locked into proprietary formats, I can simply arrange for it to be forwarded to my own servers and handle it however I like there; that’s what I’ll do if the University turns off the old system completely. And since almost everything does support IMAP, I can move emails around the world to my preferred location with a simple drag and drop.

One of my colleagues said in a recent meeting that his children don’t know what the fuss is about. Email is just something they glance at once a week to see if they’ve had any. As long as it works, they don’t mind where it comes from. Well, they may be right; perhaps it will be less important in future. But this may also be a natural tendency of the young just to focus on the immediate here and now, and the immediate future.

To me, and occasionally to other people, my email archive has turned out to be important. Something I wrote 20 years ago becomes relevant to a patent case now and earns me money because I can look back at the records. Interviewers ask me about the technologies used in a particular project and I can search back to find the answers. I forget the name of a good B&B or hotel in a particular city; email allows me to find it again. I generally had no idea, at the time, that these communications might prove to be important. But they’re a key part of the history of my life.

So here’s my question: If the things you’re doing today turn out to be important a few decades from now, what sort of digital archive would they need to be in for you to find and make use of them then? Best to start using that today, before it’s too late.

Unidirectional Twitter

I happened to notice that my wife, who has never subscribed to any kind of online social network, was reading somebody’s Twitter feed (just by visiting their page with her browser).

“Ha!”, said I. “I bet you don’t even read your husband’s Twitter feed!”

“I didn’t know you had a Twitter feed!”, she replied.

Well, that’s fair enough, I suppose. I’ve only been tweeting for 11 years, and no doubt she would have found out about it eventually if I kept it up.

It did make me wonder, though, how many others may be using Twitter in read-only mode?

Twitter is somewhat unusual in allowing full public access to the content without requiring you to have an account, and if you do just go to ‘twitter.com/username‘ without being logged in, you get a rather different experience from that of the typical Twitter user.

It’s not necessarily an inferior one, either: you don’t get advertisements, and you play a more conscious role in deciding what you read because you’re either viewing the feed of an individual (and their retweets), you’re viewing a discussion thread, or you’re seeing everything relating to a particular hashtag. There’s none of the chaotic jumble of a personalised, commercialised, firehose.

Interesting…

Checking the facts

I love this cartoon! It’s a great illustration of why Quentin’s Second Law can prove so challenging.

Uber is the new sneakernet?

In the 1981 edition of Andrew Tanenbaum’s textbook Computer Networks, he asks the student to calculate the bandwidth capacity of a St Bernard dog carrying floppy disks.

Nearly two decades later, when I worked in the Olivetti Research Lab, we had extremely high-bandwidth connections (for the time) to the University Computer Lab about a quarter of a mile down the road. But we used to point out that we could get a great deal higher bandwidth by giving some tapes to Prof. Sir Maurice Wilkes, already in his eighties, and asking him to put them in his bicycle basket. The bandwidth was excellent, though the round-trip latency wasn’t quite so impressive since he would usually have a cup of tea, and often a snooze, before coming back.

Well, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say. Recently I had to shift 4TB of data from the Computer Lab here in Cambridge to our corporate sponsors based at the University of Warwick. It’s too hard to connect directly via the various institutional firewalls, so I suggested buying and mailing a hard disk. But, since we already had an S3 account set up for the project, they preferred the idea of me uploading the data to a place where they could download it at their leisure.

Now, S3, for those not familiar with it, is the ‘Scalable Storage Service’: a splendid offering from Amazon where you can upload and store as much data as you like without ever having to worry about running out of disk space. The prices are generally pretty reasonable; you pay nothing to put data in, and a low cost per gigabyte per month for the storage. Transferring out is free for modest amounts, but that price does start to ramp up when you start downloading a lot, as we were to find out.

Uploading 4TB is also not something you should try at home unless you’re going away for a week or two, but in the University we have a pretty good connection, so the upload took me, I think, about 7 or 8 hours. Interestingly, this is comparable to the time needed to cycle from here to Warwick, though perhaps not for an octogenarian. The data was on S3 for about a month, because distractions, and technical issues with permissions, proxies and DNS servers, meant it took a while for my colleague at the other end to download everything. They don’t have nearly such a good connection as we do, so I imagine it took rather longer for them to download than it had for me to upload. So even if we ignore the intervening month, this was a process of at least 20 hours, which, I suppose, is roughly how long an energetic St Bernard might take to do the journey.

And we got the bill, which came to nearly £400.

So, just by way of comparison, an Uber driver from Cambridge to Warwick would charge about £120 and a 4TB drive can be found on Amazon for about £80, giving a total of about half the price of our S3 transfer, and the car would take about 2hrs to get there. If I’d been willing for the transfer to take as long as it took us, I could have used a next-day courier and halved the price again.

Now, I realise there are lots of simplifications here, ways I could have transferred the data at lower cost, etc. But it’s worth bearing in mind some of the challenges with network and cloud services; and I suspect it’ll be some time before the process of shifting physical media around is really behind us!

An early webcam TV appearance

In October 1999, I was interviewed by Leo Laporte on ZDTV’s ‘Call for Help’ programme. Yes, this is just another interview about the Trojan Room Coffee Pot, but it’s interesting to me for several reasons.

Firstly because, even though it’s nearly 20 years ago, I’ve only just seen it! They kindly sent me a VHS tape of the episode at the time, but (no doubt with good intentions) they encoded it with a rather unusual 50Hz variety of NTSC, and I’ve never been able to play it. It was only last week that, before throwing it out, I went to the trouble of tracking down somebody who was able to tell me that, yes, indeed, there was actually something on the tape…

Secondly, it was quite a challenge to do the recording. They sent me a camera in advance, and I had a slightly older PC which didn’t have the brand new USB ports that were just starting to appear, so I had to dismantle it, install an ISA card, and then repartition my hard disk and install Windows 95, because neither the Linux nor the Windows NT operating systems I had on there were supported by 3Com’s software.

But chiefly, it’s a nice nostalgic snapshot of tech life not too long ago. The rest of the episode provides helpful hints like: you’re probably used to installing hardware in your machine before inserting the CDROM or floppy with the drivers, but with USB it’s a good idea to install the drivers first. Files you download over your modem may be compressed and you’ll need a thing called WinZip to see what’s inside them. And Chris Breen (later an editor at MacWorld), comes on to explain that if you’re trying to play DVDs on your computer and they keep skipping, it may be because you’re connected to a network that does something called DHCP. The PC can’t do that and play back smoothly at the same time, so it may be worth disabling DHCP before you start watching. Oh, and there’s also a section about how, if you have a laptop, you may find it a pain to be tethered to your modem, but there are some wireless networking options becoming available, and the one that looks most promising for the future is this thing called 802.11…

The clip I’ve uploaded shows the interview from the studio in California, with me in Cambridge, and we’re joined by Don Lekei from Canada a bit later. It’s hard now to remember just how rare it was at the time to see people on TV live from remote locations. That normally needed satellite linkups, or very costly kit attached to extremely expensive international ISDN calls. For Don and I to talk casually from the comfort of our own homes on opposite sides of the world was enough to get the hosts of a tech show pretty excited. You’ll note that we both use telephones as well, though, because there wasn’t any suitable audio channel…

Anyway, Leo is now the head of the substantial TWiT netcasting network, so I guess networked video worked out well for him too 🙂

A quarter-century of coffee pots…

The Dutch RTL News programme did a short piece last week on the fact that the webcam was now about 25 years old.

They interviewed me for just a few minutes, after, ironically, having to spend about 45 mins getting their Skype working.

If, like me, you don’t speak any Dutch, you can hear me at about 0:16 and 1:24, and, in between the two, see some pictures of a much younger me!

The Fragile Free Cloud

Here’s a timely reminder, if one were needed, that you should never assume anything you store online is going to be there for very long, unless it’s on a system (a) that you are paying for and ideally (b) that you run or manage.

Flickr has announced that it’s going to start removing photos from its free accounts: everyone can still have 1,000 images, but that’s much less storage than they offered for free in the past. If you have more than that, they’ll start deleting the older ones first. I starting uploading things to Flickr about 13 or 14 years ago, so 90% of my 10,000 Flickr images will vanish over the next few months.

Most of the Snapchat/Instagram generation are probably not interested in anything that happened more than 1000 images ago! But people who have used Flickr for archiving the first pictures of their children or grandchildren may be in for a surprise. The name ‘Flickr’ might have a certain irony to it…

Now, this is a perfectly reasonable thing for the company to do, and there are several ways you can deal with it: you can start paying for your account, you can download your images if you don’t have local copies, or you can migrate them over to Smugmug (who now own Flickr). But only the first of those options will keep your photos nicely arranged in their albums, and, more importantly, will preserve your image URLs, so I imagine there will be a very large number of pages around the world with Flickr-shaped holes in them where an image used to be. Whichever option you choose, do it before the end of the year.

Now, I’ve been a fan of Flickr for a long time, and paid for an account for about a decade — it’s a good service and reasonably priced — but I switched to Smugmug a few years back because it was a better fit for my occasional bits of professional work. I don’t mind paying for one photo storage service, but I’d rather not pay for two, especially from the same company! So my photo archive has been copied to SmugMug, and I’ll probably need to write a bit of code to go through my blog and fix Flickr URLs. The album arrangements, though, will vanish if I take this approach.

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: You need to look after your own data. Don’t assume that anyone else will do it for you, on a long-term basis, and especially if you’re not paying for the service! In particular, don’t assume that any URL is going to continue to work in the future unless it’s on a domain that you control and manage.

And lastly…

Remember that this will almost certainly also happen at some point to the pages you have on Facebook, the images you have on Instagram and the videos you have on YouTube. Don’t assume that a service will continue indefinitely because the company is large or because it has a model based on advertising revenue. I had stuff on Google Video too…

Update: Thanks to John for pointing me at Thomas Hawk’s post explaining that Flickr’s action is a good thing; yes, I agree overall!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser