Jamie's Notes

Currently browsing technology ⤵

Ana, on tech-savvy privilege

Ana Rodrigues has written a lovely monologue on the problems that consumers of the internet face, and of how tech-savvy people, like you and me, are reaching the wrong conclusions on how we can fix it – if we can fix it at all.

…the “rage quit social media” is a privilege. I tried it once for three months and we were miserable. The moment we don’t have the same apps to communicate, things like MMS don’t seem to work well between different operating systems of phones. They just want to communicate with me like… everyone else is communicating with everyone else. They are not going to be involved in a discussion about ethics and privacy of social media. I can’t blame them. Why would they?

Having a blog is tech-privilege. I can make one. You can probably make one too. We are a tech-savvy minority. Sure, you could say that anyone can go and get one from WordPress. Easy, right? It’s not. I’ve watched people at work struggle to insert pictures in a word document. It involves knowing about WordPress, learning how to navigate through the sign-up, setting themes, post titles – the list is endless. Why do that when you can sign-up to Facebook, quick as a flash, and all your mates are there. Owning your content is hard. We do it because we can. Most people can’t.

I don’t have a Facebook account because I think they are a treacherous bunch of scumbags. It’s a moral stance, and arguably the right one – but in the grand scheme of things it makes fuck all difference to Facebook, and makes it harder for people to contact me who don’t even have the choice.

..when my parents bought that phone and were forced into a Google account, apps like Facebook and whatsapp were already installed. The majority of the people who didn’t grow up with the internet, especially those who don’t speak english, don’t know about browsers. To most people it is: “Look up on the internet”. And the internet is this thing and no app on their phone is called “internet”.

The problem is more complex than we think, and the solutions not what we think they are.

..things won’t be fixed by only creating your own blog and sending your RSS feed to your parents. Things won’t be fixed either by burning all the evil websites. The problem is much deeper as it isn’t just websites: it’s operating systems, it’s protocols, it’s hardware, it’s software, it’s design, it’s internationalisation and more.

Ana, you are so right.

Read the entire thing. It’s wonderful.

Location Tracking with OwnTracks

I have an app on my phone that periodically checks my location via GPS and sends it to my server at home. It seemed like a good idea when I installed it all last year, but then there was a pandemic and I forgot all about it. It has been sat quite happily in the background ever since, tracking me everywhere I go.

Basically, I have been nowhere interesting.

But I have seen a fair amount of my home city, as would be expected:

That track veering off up to the coast on the right is my trip to Hornsea last week.
Eating a pasty at Woodall Services while stationary. Safety first.

I’m not sure that this serves any practical purpose at all – but it is kind of interesting.

I can’t tell you exactly how I set it up because I can’t remember, but the component parts are:

  • Owntracks (iOS) – Records your location
  • Owntracks Recorder – Stores all the information and gives you pretty maps
  • Mosquitto – This sits in the middle of the other two. I’m not sure what it does, but pretty sure that it’s essential.

Please let me know if you can think of a useful purpose for this, then I can justify the electricity use.

Unreal Engine on the PS5

I’m not a big gamer. I’ve had a console of some sort for as long as I can remember, but I usually play a game through and then put it down for months. I still enjoy looking at what new games are being released, and look forward to new console launches.

Epic has released a demo of their new Unreal engine running on one of the PS5 dev kits and it looks glorious.

The PS5 is due to be released later this year. If Sony can release it at under £500, with graphics at this level, it becomes very difficult to justify spending £1000+ for a fully specced gaming rig.

How many devices is too many?

In response to Kev, Bob and others who have posted lists of the extensive amount of devices that they use, while wondering aloud if they have too many. I absolutely do have too many, and I accept your judgement.

Here’s my list:

I’m a late adopter and usually a couple of iterations behind whatever is current, so while it looks like I’ve got the relatively new stuff – I’m just at that point in the cycle. My last phone, for example, was an iPhone 6. My laptop is seven years old, and I can’t see any reason to replace it.

I mean, it does look like a lot. But is it really?

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Cal Newport’s second book, Digital Minimalism, is somewhat timely given the increasing concern about the role of technology in our lives. In it, he asks us to look critically at the technology we allow into our lives as individuals and consider whether it adds genuine value, or whether we use it as a crux to pass time which would be better spent doing something else.

Top of his hit list is social media, which he argues most people simply do not need & those that do need it probably need it a lot less than they think they do ( he says 20 – 30 minutes a week, tops). In 2015 I closed my accounts on the big social media platforms and am embarrassed to admit how difficult I found it. On reflection it hasn’t made any meaningful difference to my life. True, there are people that I have lost contact with, but I still talk to the people that matter and the level of that contact is more substantial than a ‘like’ or a quick comment.

He goes on to set out the merits of of solitude – being alone with your thoughts without external interference. We’ve become so accustomed to filling every spare minute with something: checking social media feeds, reading emails, listening to podcasts and audiobooks – we very rarely allow or brains the time to just think. This something that we don’t fully understand the long term effect of.

He also makes a case for analogue activities. Humans are happier, he says, when they are creating something. We should prioritise demanding activities over passive consumption and cultivate high quality leisure activities – things that are meaningful and have defined outcomes.

It’s a good book and there isn’t a lot of waffle in it. It isn’t anti-technology, it just reminds us that we are the masters of our own time and need to take responsibility for how we use it. It was persuasive enough for me to reset my iPhone and ruthlessly cull and lock down my apps.

Definitely worth a read.

1.32 Terrabytes

We have a weird internet set-up at home, with our connection coming in from a device on our roof instead of via fibre or ADSL. It mostly works okay, but if the provider starts to oversubscribe connections then our speed suffers, especially at peak times. We had some extended periods of poor service when the service first went live but we stuck with it and over the past year or two it has worked mostly okay. It’s not stellar, but it’s cheap and unlimited.

In January we started no notice that we were struggling to stream at peak times and my wife was having issues browsing on her phone. I figured that this might be a good time to switch to fibre, it’s around £15 a month more expensive, but bound to give us a more stable connection and it would be faster too.

I logged into my router to find out how much data we use so that I could price up the right fibre package, and noticed something strange:

During a standard month we usually download around 500gb of data, and upload 50-60gb. In January we downloaded 450gb, but wait, what the.. we uploaded 807gb. We’ve already uploaded nearly 700gb this month too, in total nearly 1.5 terabytes of data and more than we’d use in two years. Something was very wrong somewhere.

My instant reaction was to ask my teenage daughter if she had anything on her laptop that might be uploading stuff. Torrents? She offered me a blank look. Then I remembered the torrent client running on our home server. And there was the problem: three torrents had been seeding endlessly since the end of December, to the tune of 1.32 terabytes. Whoops. Theoretically uploading shouldn’t affect download speeds, but I think that my creaky network was saturated by the constant transfers. Lesson learned.

Anyway, to those lucky people that were able to download a particular torrent 987 times.. you’re welcome.

Analysing Pager Traffic with a Cheap USB Radio

I’ve been having some fun with a cheap USB FM/Dab radio. With some clever software this little gadget can do a lot more than it was designed to do, including decoding pager messages. People really do still use pagers.. The pager as we know it was invented in 1956 by Multitone Electronics for use in London hospitals, but it was Motorola who gave the device a name and introduced it to the masses. The popularity of the pager surged in the 1980s as it became the must have gadget of professionals. Teenagers and pop stars jumped on board in the nineties and it looked like the pager was here to stay, but as pager use grew so did the mobile phone network which eventually supplanted it. Mobile phones became more reliable, affordable and feature rich and usage of pagers dived.

Pagers still have some advantages over mobile phones. Coverage tends to be better, especially indoors and their battery life can be measured in weeks rather than hours. They can be used in places where mobile phones are banned for security reasons, or where they might interfere with sensitive equipment. Pager messages are broadcast in clear text by powerful transmitters over FM radio bands. You’ll need a cheap USB DAB/FM radio receiver to decode them. I bought mine for less than a tenner.

A search for ‘sdrsharp pager messages’ should give you give you all of the info needed to get up and running. For the technically inclined, the system works by modulating a tone between two frequencies to create a binary stream. The transmitter alternates these frequencies very quickly – up to 6400 times a second. Here’s a sample of some of the messages that I decoded:

0101158 23:39:12 29-07-15 FLEX-A  ALPHA  3200  FROM GLOUCESTER POLICE CONTROL ROOM, 

0121305 23:01:17 29-07-15 FLEX-A  ALPHA  3200  PLS CALL ANNE AT OBSTETRIC THEATRE 
ON 458 47`` 

0118459 23:58:43 29-07-15 FLEX-A  ALPHA  3200  20150729 23:57 boc1web03.servstream.

0119043 23:58:45 29-07-15 FLEX-A  ALPHA  3200  Room S17 Isolator Z21 Hatch Pressure 
BMT  42.5 (Alm:D Lmt:<50.0000 Grp:BMT)

I’m surprised that no effort is made to encrypt the messages because many of the messages contained personal details such as names, addresses and phone numbers.

Warning: It is extremely unlikely that this will get you in trouble, but decoding pager messages is illegal. See Section 48 of the UK Wireless Telegraphy Act for more information.

Scanning for Bookmooch using Android

I’m loving my new Android phone. It’s a real smart piece of technology and I keep finding great applications for it. One neat application that I have found is the Android Scripting Environment , which basically does what it says on the tin, allowing you to create quick and dirty scripts, on the device, which make use of the extensive Android API.

One of the example programs that came with the application made use of the barcode scanner to add a book to Google Books. I’ve adapted this program to allow you to quickly add a book to your Bookmooch inventory, just by scanning the barcode on the back of a book.

It’s a bit rough and ready but a fun little hack.

Here’s the code:

import android
droid = android.Android()
code = droid.scanBarcode()
isbn = int(code['result']['SCAN_RESULT'])
url = ("http://bookmooch.com/m/add_do?text=%d" %isbn+"&store=amazon.co.uk")

The original code, along with a load of other examples can be found here . I’d love it if someone were able to develop this a bit more, if only to provide a nice exit routine. Sadly that’s way beyond my ability.