And where shall we store?

August 27, 2015

I seem to have had a bit of a bad run recently. First of all, my External Drive broke: a 3TB Seagate that was primarily there for my Media collection and some local backup. Now, a matter of weeks later (and two weeks since the replacement, a 2TB Toshiba, entered service), the disk in my 4 year old Dell Tower is no more. That this is no more than an annoyance is because, like all good former IT People, I have everything backed up – courtesy of a paid subscription to Livedrive that means once I have a working system on there, I can restore everything back to it – well, the important stuff anyway.

It has made me think though about the nature of computer storage and backup, particularly for those of us in the home or home office.

Once upon a time one of my jobs included taking the weekly backup tapes (mostly DLT Tapes) from the Server Room to a secure room in another building, and bringing the next set back. I don’t think it works quite the same way now, but certainly at the time that was just how you did it; the tapes weren’t cheap, but in terms of cost and transportability it was hard to find an alternative. They were however slow; trying to recover a mistakenly deleted file wasn’t a five minute job, especially if it was near the end of a weekly tape. Even then, my boss was arguing (somewhat presciently in my opinion) that the better option was to back up to another hard disk, and then onto tape – making recovering lost files quick, and also meaning that an over-running backup (quite likely with ever larger data volumes) was less likely and so the problems of files being locked etc. would be less of an issue.

In the home, this is now by far the cheapest option. There was a point where some people might consider toting their own tape drive, but with faster interfaces meaning external Hard Disks are fast enough for most, it’s more likely that people will spend maybe £40 on a 1TB external drive and either manually copy or use some form of backup software to do the job for them – if they backup at all.

With the External Drive failing though, I started to wonder about other options. I did lose data – as Livedrive charges extra to cover external disks, it wasn’t included – although it was to an extent recoverable even if it has meant me spending large amounts of time re-ripping my DVD Collection. (Don’t try this at home folks, as apparently I’m breaking the law….) So long and painful was the process though that I decided I’d prefer not to have to do it again if there was a choice; initially this meant trying something radical with the failed disk (opening it up to see if it was just the head sticking – again, don’t try this at home unless you are effectively writing off the disk in any case) which didn’t work, and then wondering whether to look instead at a NAS Solution; a two drive setup with Disk Mirroring maybe? Suffice to say that cost is a factor, and I may instead look at getting a large internal drive, relegating the external to a backup device and making it possible to back up the media to Livedrive as well.

I also took a look at SSD storage – no moving parts, less to go wrong – but while capacities up to maybe 240GB can be had for not too much money, the cost is still prohibitive when it comes to storing the sort of volume I need for the media library. A 1TB drive currently retails for about £250 – and I’d need two of them to match the capacity of the 2TB Toshiba drive that cost me less than £60; not much less than ten times the cost then, and while SSDs may have less to go wrong they are still not everlasting. I’m tempted to get a small one – a 120GB for less than £40 would be about right for my OS to live on, and speed up the computer – but it’s going to be some time yet before SSD can really challenge in terms of genuinely high capacity drives and even then you suspect that in raw price per GB Hard Disks are going to have the edge for many years to come.

Of course, local backup is only part of the solution and this is where a Cloud Backup really scores. One of my “What If” scenarios is “What if there was a fire?” If I lost all my devices, temporarily or permanently, what could I do? Well, with a combination of Dropbox, Evernote, Gmail and its associated Calendar, the answer is that providing I can get to a web browser, I can function – and with a fast enough connection, I can get all my stuff back from my Cloud Backup too. Hopefully I’ll never need to – but I can’t help but wonder: how many people, every day, discover that they really should have made sure that they had offsite backup? Enterprises have been doing it for years; in some ways its never been easier to do; but you can’t help but think that for many, it’s something they only think about once it’s too late.

The Unprovable Challenge: Is Froome clean, or not?

July 21, 2015

Once upon a time, there was a myth. That myth was that there was a golden age of Cycling, long ago, when no-one took drugs and every rider – well, most of them – were clean. The myth took occasional batterings, when occasionally some riders tested positive for something, but it held pretty much until the mid 1990s. Then, EPO arrived….

It’s a myth because cycling has always had its problems. Some of the early TdF riders resorted to ether, strychnine and other drugs to deaden the pain as much as anything, and then stimulants became de rigeur; it wasn’t until the 1960s that any testing came in, and even then it’s debatable how useful it was. Then came Steroids, and finally the focus on blood with EPO and transfusions.

All this time, the authorities were playing catchup. All this time, many cyclists were taking something, and as some of the memoirs have shown, were often not only ahead of the game in terms of tests, but also enjoying a testing regime that lacked thoroughness.

Lance Armstrong represented the apex of this era; by that point, doping became not just expected, but close to institutionalised although teams became a lot more cautious following the Festina Affair. Armstrong ruled with a rod of iron; US Postal ruled the Tour; and once it was proved that this was built not just on the best training, best planning, best equipment, but on the best use of PEDs and transfusions, it left a nasty taste in the mouth of cycling fans – their theme song ever since has been “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. And currently the one that some think is trying to do just that is Chris Froome.

Froome has been dominant in this year’s Tour de France, winning one stage imperiously and with strong support from Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte and the like has rarely looked in trouble. And because he and his team are so dominant, the suspicions rise and Team Sky are faced with the conundrum at the heart of all sports that are based on physical endurance or athletic ability as opposed to innate skill: how do you go about proving someone isn’t doped?

It’s a hard question in cycling because of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong was facing suspicions, and attacked them head on. He’d never failed a dope test. He challenged anyone who said he doped head on – including in the courts – and won. After his final victory, he went as far as to say he pitied all of those who didn’t believe he was clean. And all the time, it was a lie. So when Froome insists he’s clean, allows power data to be released (as Sky have done today), even offers suggestions on how to tighten the doping regime, some remember Armstrong and decide that Froome must be about the same game.

Is he? I don’t know. And for all the jaundiced comments on various cycling blogs, neither does anyone else except Froome and his inner circle. He will never be able to prove the negative – or at least, not enough to satisfy some, who even if Froome was tested on a daily basis would no doubt argue that he was taking something so far undetectable. The balance of probabilities is that he’s clean – but no-one can be certain. And that lack of certainty inevitably means that some cycling zealots will never, ever, believe that Froome is clean.

Gimme that ol-time Music Storage…..

June 15, 2015

The times they are a changin’ for those that enjoy their music on the go, and it seems that one of the things that’s changing is that the concept of a high-capacity music player is old hat. Apple finally killed off the iPod Classic last year, and although they haven’t quite got rid of the line completely, iPod no longer has its own tab on the Apple Website – instead, you have to go to Music and select it from the dropdown menu. A small change, but significant – iPod is no longer a significant revenue stream for the company, and you suspect future developments will be at a minimum – more likely, as happened with the Classic, the Nano and the Touch will carry on in the catalogue until they run out of places to get the components and will then be quietly withdrawn.

There are alternatives of course. The likes of Fiio, Cowon and others are producing some very good players that if anything offer better sound quality and more flexibility due to their use of swappable memory cards, while with many non-Apple phones you can always add a high-capacity memory card; “Take TWO devices into the car?” Anyway Grandpa, get with the program: who needs the capacity anyway when you can have everything live in the cloud and just stream it wherever you are? Whether it’s Spotify, Google Music, Apple Music or another service, who even needs to keep it on their device any more?

Well…. I do. I admit I’m something of an edge case, and that for many people all they need is their phone and a Spotify or Google Music subscription; but I have a couple of reasons to still want a high capacity dedicated music player.

One of them is for work purposes. There are times that I want to play music as part of my work, maybe set up a playlist or similar, but I don’t want to have a device that will pop up notifications or otherwise interrupt the playback; ideally as well it needs to emit minimal electrical interference in case I’m working with roving microphones. For this sort of purpose, it’s hard to beat a standalone music player; a device that only has to do one thing and do it well. (By the way, have you ever tried using a phone simultaneously for GPS and Audio Playback? It works, but be prepared for lots of journeys where the playback stops and never comes back….)

The other is to do with the streaming issue. I live in an area where basically if you can’t get onto a Wifi hotspot, you have no internet; my mobile network offers very bad 2G, and there are places where even that is patchy. This is not uncommon in rural areas; with fewer users the payback time for a cell tower is longer, and the planning issues are harder to overcome. Suffice to say I have a 1GB Data Limit, and rarely use even half of it unless I go to a city for a few days. So relying on a streaming service for music outside the house is a no go. OK, some of the paid-for services allow you to cache substantial amounts, but then, why not just get a big memory card or a dedicated music player anyway?

In some ways this just highlights that Rural areas are often the digital poor these days. Often we can only dream of the speeds of fibre broadband; mobile data is unreliable so forget working on the move. Streaming services are only relevant in the home. So while it may no longer be mainstream to carry your music around with you, it’s still going to be the reality for quite a number of us yet. So I’m replacing my 10 year old iPod Classic with a high-capacity alternative now – while I still can….

Proportionally Better or Worse?

May 11, 2015

Surprise surprise, there are quite a few graphics around showing the perceived unfairness of the UK’s voting system following Thursday’s General Election. The chances of any type of PR being implemented for Westminster are remote – if nothing else, there’s little or no incentive for the party in power to change the system that’s elected them. That won’t stop supporters of some of the other parties – Lib Dem, UKIP and Green in particular – from pointing at their vote share and arguing the case again.

I have some sympathy for them, but at the same time it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for” – PR would quite possibly have delivered a Tory/UKIP coalition based on the stats, and a lot of the people complaining may well have seen that as their worst nightmare. However, all of the parties need to recognise that PR is a system that can damage as easily as promote them.

One of the things is that PR would see a lessening of the impact of Tactical Voting. Currently, the fate of the country is decided by a number of key marginals – the majority of seats rarely if ever change hands. And in those marginals, there will be a tendency for tactical voting to be encouraged – virtually every party in second place in a marginal will have produced election leaflets saying “Only X can defeat Y here” – clearly saying that even if you don’t actively support them, you ought to vote or Party Y, your natural enemy, will be elected instead. It’s a fairly standard tactic. So Lib Dems might historically pick up a lot of prospective Labour votes in places where they were seen as the only effective alternative to the Conservatives. and some prospective Tory voters who wanted to keep out Labour in other places. UKIP are somewhat different in that they have effectively been a Protest Vote – “we don’t like any of the others so we’ll show them by voting UKIP”. They have built on this somewhat, but Nigel Farage has been very keen to promote himself and UKIP as the party to vote for if you’re fed up of mainstream politics and politicians.

Introduce PR, and the Tactical Vote is less significant. What effect would that have on the smaller parties? Would the Green Vote increase as people felt they would actually have a voice? Would the Lib Dems find their vote squeezed even more, or would it grow as they gain the Lib Dem supporters who’ve voting tactically elsewhere? If UKIP have to engage with mainstream politics, will they have to change their stance? Would the people in the Labour Heartlands like the North-East who voted UKIP continue to do so if they think they could gain real power? The answer is that no-one is really sure – but I’m fairly confident that the share of the votes we saw last week wouldn’t have been quite the same under PR. So to argue for it on the basis of last week’s results is very much a flawed argument.

Did Labour lose, or did the Conservatives win? Election Reflection

May 8, 2015

One of the most remarkable of all sites connected with politics is UK Polling Report – the site run by pollster Anthony J. Wells, which far from taking a party political line, attracts people from all sides of the political debate who are interested in the numbers and analysis. However, if the predictions that were made by many of its denizens are anything to go by (amazingly collated by one of the contributors – see UK Polling Report to find a link to the spreadsheet) then most of those frequenting the site will be scratching their heads today as they consider what went wrong – not with the campaigns, but with the polls over the last few weeks.

It’s a legitimate question to ask given how things turned out. Almost every poll going seemed to indicate a very tight election, almost certainly a hung parliament, and a new coalition or a minority government propped up by less formal agreements. And then came the results of the Exit Poll, greeted with almost stunned disbelief even by those who found their wildest expectations exceeded. Paddy Ashdown said he’d eat his hat, Alaisdair Campbell his kilt if the exit poll was right; even Michael Gove seemed to think that they might not do quite as well as the initial prediction. The fact that the Exit Poll if anything very slightly understated the result – Conservatives gaining even more seats, Labour and the Lib Dems losing even more – suggests that all the polling companies are going to have to take a long, hard look at their methods.

Meanwhile, the political inquests are already starting at Labour and Lib Dem HQs. Both of them will need to do some careful analysis; whether they will reach satisfactory conclusions though is open to question.

First, a quick comment about the Lib Dems. Coalition has often been a difficult expeerience for the junior partner, and for them it was a particularly bad one: in some ways, they have found themselves completely squeezed out. For what we might call the progressives, the softer left and centre, they became a scapegoat in my view: blamed for much of the austerity and perceived injustices of the last five years when, brutally, they failed to stand up to their senior partners. The Conservatives didn’t suffer because most of their voters in 2010 knew that this was what they expected from their chosen party; if anything, the Tory vote may have been firmed up by being able to write off any unfilled pledges as being due to the demands of coalition, while the Lib Dems never escaped the perception that they’d sold their soul for a bit of power and a Referendum on AV. To a large number of the “Anyone but Tory” vote, they became anathema, while they failed to appeal to the centre ground who might normally consider them.

Labour however suffered for more complex reasons and they need to spend some time thinking about them. First, possibly one of the key factors was that they simply failed to convince enough of the electorate to trust them again; after the car crash of the Brown years (not entirely Brown’s fault, but he didn’t seem to know what to do about it) Labour needed to lay out an Economic Programme that looked sound, imaginative, and inspiring – a true alternative vision. They tried, but too many people simply didn’t believe them; they couldn’t bring themselves to trust the people who, rightly or wrongly, in the public mind carried the can for the problems since 2009. The average voter isn’t going to read about the issues in depth; they’re not going to care about the worldwde economic situation, or the American-led bad debt issues that enveloped so many financial institutions. “It’s the economy, stupid” said Bill Clinton many years ago – and Labour didn’t convince on the economy and will have to work hard to change that.

There’s also the issue of what their campaign focussed on. In some ways, under Ed Milliband, Labour attempted to head back towards its roots somewhat – champion the working man, tax the rich, social justice. But the perceived betrayal of the Blair years, when Labour seemed to be less the party of Socialism and more the party of “whatever will get us elected” means that it has lost contact with those roots; while many still voted for them, the ties that bind have weakened and you do wonder if some of those traditional Labour households no longer feel that it’s their party any more. Instead, they latched on to UKIP – a party with a keen eye for a populist policy or seven, the Greens (albeit in smaller numbers) who seem to be offering a sort of Environmental Socialism, or simply stayed at home. However, for the centre ground – which Blair won from so convincingly – they looked too much like the party of, if not Tony Benn and Michael Foot, then at least Neil Kinnock and John Smith.

However, one must also acknowledge that agree with them or not, the Conservatives actually won the election as much as anyone else lost it. They presented a vision that enough people bought into to elect them; they presented themselves as a strong party of government, and you suspect that many were swayed not so much by the political principles as by the image of a party ready to govern with a plan on how they were going to do it. To this end, Cameron’s refusal to participate in the leader’s debate was actually a good thing for him; he dealt from a position of strength and left the others to argue it out. Arguably Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP were the only other party to benefit – looking strong and forceful, and already governing in Scotland. They provided the only other leader who looked Prime Ministerial – and they were no threat to the Tories anyway as if anything they were already going to make it harder for Labour to become the largest party. People who maybe aren’t so political can sometimes be swayed by that perception; they won’t read the manifestos, but will go by that decision of will they offer stable government. Thatcher managed it; Major didn’t. Blair did, for a time at least; Brown didn’t have the same appeal. Cameron built on his time as Prime Minister to make enough of the apolitical ones decide they’d prefer him to the alternatives.

Finally, it will be interesting to see where UKIP goes now. Nigel Farage is at least going to allow a leadership contest, and his party have surprised many by showing that they are not about being a party merely of disaffected Tories, but a real challenger for the votes of the centre ground too. They will talk of a broken voting system – something pretty much every party other than the big two will always do – but with no real prospect of change. The challenge for them is whether they can maintain their momentum, hold onto their place in the spotlight, and become a real alternative to the established parties for a long period of time. Will they replace the Lib Dems as the third force and a destination for those who’d never vote for the other of the big two? Or will their fragile patchwork of party machinery across the country disperse before it can be more permanently harnessed? Only time will tell.

Unreal Tournament: England and the Cricket World Cup

March 7, 2015

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there are currently two England Cricket Teams. One is full of self belief, knows what it’s doing, and is looking to go deep into the World Cup; the other is in disarray, with players who shouldn’t be there, scrabbling for the scraps just to try and at least have a claim on being at least the eighth best team in the world.

The problem is that to anyone outside the camp, it’s the latter that’s the true situation. England so far have one win – against Scotland – and three defeats that it’s hard to argue have been anything other than thumpings. Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka – they’ve not just defeated England, they have done so comfortably and arguably with embarrassing ease, and now England’s fate depends on defeating Afghanistan and Bangladesh – and while England will be favourites in both games, none of the experts are writing them off, particularly Bangladesh who seem to be getting their batsmen in form.

The messages being sent out from the England Camp don’t reflect this though. Not because they’re taking opponents lightly; but because their attitude seems to be that most of the criticism is undeserved, and tellingly through the dogged insistence on playing the same players who have already failed to even run the big sides close. Now to be fair options are somewhat limited – the squad is only 15 strong after all – but when England have lost so heavily, Alex Hales, Ravi Bopara, and James Tredwell must be wondering how bad things have to get before they are given a chance to show what they can do.

More than that, England are looking like the kid who has only just discovered last year’s craze in time to look totally uncool. The game has moved on, but England haven’t. Not so long ago, scores of 300 were par on many grounds; now, it’s reaching the point that you can add 30-40 to that, yet England seem to think they’ve done well to reach 300. Scores are rising – we’ve seen 400 three times already, an individual double century, and unless there’s a batting collapse going on a strike rate of less than a run a ball is just too slow. Yet England’s only two batsmen beating that strike rate are Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler. Add in bowlers that are struggling to cope with the attacking intent and fielding restrictions (as to be fair many teams are), and you have a recipe for a side that looks like it’s still trying to win the last tournament, not this one.

The problem is that there’s little confidence that any of this will change. There have been a number of reviews in recent years; a number of attempts to make a fresh start; but all England seem to have achieved is to engineer the departure of their most destructive (in almost every sense) batsman, and damage the careers of others like Steven Finn almost beyond redemption.

Fortunately, I do have an alternative: through family connections, I would be eligible to represent Ireland. Now there’s a team that’s going places!

Culture of Entitlement?

March 7, 2015

One of the great things about the internet is that there’s so much out there for free. People and in some cases companies have given their time and abilities to produce any number of apps and services that are available, completely legally, for nothing. In the past I’ve played around with Linux, LibreOffice tends to be my office suite of choice, while there are any number of online services I use, very few of which actually force you to pay money up front.

The problem is that sometimes I find myself falling into the trap of expecting these things always to be without cost. And it seems that there are many others out there who do the same. Yet, somewhere, somehow, all of this has to be paid for if it is to remain sustainable.

Let’s take a relatively trivial example. For the last three months or so, I’ve been playing Farmville Country Escape on my tablet. For those unfamiliar with the game (It’s almost impossible not to be familiar with the concept) there are effectively several sets of in game currency: Coins (which are actually in a lot of ways the lowest in value), Stamps (which allow you to purchase certain “Prized Animals”), two types of “Speed Ups” (Helping Hands and Golden Gloves, that allow crops or craft items to be finished sooner), and most importantly Keys. Keys can be used to speed up waiting times, fill in for missing items or ingredients, purchase additional crafting stations or crop fields, all sorts of things – and they’re also the main thing that you can’t get a lot of without spending actual real-world currency.

This can be a real pain when it comes to some of the frequent “Events” that Zynga (the makers of the game) run, as often it seems difficult if not impossible to complete them without either the purchase of keys, specific strategies that come close to cheating, actual cheating, or quite literally spending 24 hours a day for 2-3 days completing the quests. A classic was their “Home for the Holidays” event, where you had to collect special items and make certain things for each stage; one of them required four Alpine Strawberries, which if you had two Strawberry Fields would typically require four harvests, each an hour apart – with the “reward” being more often not what you were trying to get to complete the quest. Reckon on needing to make 20 of these to complete the phase, and that’s more than three days of solid harvesting without sleeping. People were not happy…. ( ) The alternative? Spend some real money on keys and/or speed seed to hurry things up – sometimes you can complete a whole stage for keys, albeit about 2000 of them – cost maybe £30…..

Are people right to be angry? Well, it is frustrating (I say this as someone who has always done this the hard way – waiting rather than spending money), but it does somewhat miss the point. Zynga don’t charge up front for the game; but they have invested considerable amounts of money in developing and running it. It has to pay somehow…. There’s a limited amount of in-game advertising which you can’t imagine covers much of the cost, so the big contributor is probably people spending money to buy keys. If it’s possible to complete the events or gain keys without being too frustrating/time consuming, who will pay good money for them?

This is the problem of the Freemium Model. People get something for free, and have a tendency to think that they should get everything for free. But the problem is not Freemium in itself – it’s the feeling of entitlement that so many then have.

In some ways it feels like the whole Internet is sometimes struggling to work out a business model that will allow it to survive, and it can’t go on forever offering content and services without there being some income somewhere. Facebook doesn’t charge for its services – so it has to be paid for through advertising. Evernote reserves some of its features and upload limits for those who are prepared to pay for it. Some Newspapers erect a paywall. And you can probably find plenty of people who will react angrily to that, and move onto the next free service.

Ironically given the content,  this post was originally on the Evernote-linked blogging platform – which,  after a few days of use by me, announced that it was going premium only; as I don’t think my blog would reach the point of justifying the investment, I decided to resurrect this one… though I’m not going to get angry about it. looks to be a good service but blogging isn’t essential enough to me to pay them to do it. But I can understand why they’re asking people to do it.

In short, we have to move away from this culture of entitlement, and recognise that, ultimately, there’s no such thing as free. You pay, somewhere, somehow. Whether that’s through having to scroll through or watch ads, pay for a fully-functional rather than limited service, pay the Licence Fee that allows the BBC to operate, or just give voluntary donations to a creator to encourage them to keep going (as my favourite podcaster, Tom Merritt has done so successfully with his Patreon – ) – the message is the same as it always was: even on the Internet, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


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