Sunday, 3 September 2017

Star Trek Times



Computer calculate the value of PI to the last possible digit. I paraphrase slightly but with these words Mr Spock instructed the Enterprise computer to prioritise the calculation of PI. It was a plot point to rid the computer of an alien. Maybe the 24th Century version of malware. In the 1970s viewers of the re-runs of Star Trek in the UK were treated to a vision of the 24th century. In the 24th century you could communicate via a small handheld device, you could view the world through flat wall mounted screens and you could command your computer via voice making keyboard input a
aberration from the 20th century.

We didn’t have to wait for the 24th century after all. Today the mobile phone provides global communication from your hand, TVs can hang on the wall and now the new technology battle is voice based digital assistants.

Currently the field of digital assistants seems to be;
Siri.  Apple’s iphone based digital helper.
Cortana. Microsoft’s largely PC based digital assistant with a name based on a character from the Halo game series.
Google Assistant. Google’s home and mobile based assistant.
Alexa. Amazon’s smart assistant for the home.
Bixby. Samsung’s smart assistant. Currently available only on the Galaxy S8

This market in AI is nascent. All of the digital assistants use cloud technology to discover information and provide functionality. Apple’s Siri was first introduced in the iphone 4S and provided a way of access to the iphone via voice commands. Next came Microsoft’s Cortana. Cortana was first available via Windowsphone and is now available on the PC and, in some countries, as an Android app. Google Assistant as evolved from Google Now. Google hasn’t gotten a real personal name for the assistant but kicks off with “OK Google” . Alexa, also known as the Amazon Echo, is a surprise because Amazon is associated more with shopping and has no mobile platform at all. However Amazon’s prime services such as music link in nicely to its capabilities. Bixby is Samsung’s attempt to unbundle itself from Google services. Each entrant has it’s own strengths but all are trying to lock you into their service ecosystem.

So if you primarily use Google services then the Google Assistant should be your number one choice. Productivity workers primarily using a PC and Windows 10 should probably be in the Cortana camp. Apple users will find Siri most useful. Leading to the conclusion that we are heading into walled gardens of service specific assistants. What users really want is universal access to personalised services everywhere. Cortana users will see that the failure of Windowsphone and lack of a home speaker system means it is useful primarily on the PC. Google users will find the PC lacks the assistant natively. Iphone users who use a PC will find no connection at all.

The solution appears to be “skills”. These are the software extensions to home assistants that add capability. An Amazon Alexa user with a Spotify subscription can add Spotify as a skill via the app or web browser. Now if you ask Alexa to play music it knows you mean Spotify and not Amazon. Alexa now has thousands of skills. This week Amazon and Microsoft announced that Amazon devices were going to get Cortana skills. For a Microsoft user like me this means I can use an Amazon device and call up my calendar or information from the Microsoft ecosystem with the same ease as Amazon itself.

echo
Right now I have an Android phone that is setup to use Cortana. I have a PC using Cortana. I have a new Amazon echo box using Alexa but shortly to have Cortana skills. We are moving to the world of the universal voice assistant and Star Trek. The only disappointment I have is that Majel Barratt Roddenberry, who provided the voice of the USS Enterprise computer, has passed away and  can’t voice my digital assistant and make me feel it’s the 24th century.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

A steak bake and a coffee with Bitcoin

Greggs is a north east institution. From a small bakery in Newcastle in the 1930s and delivery via bicycle it is now all over Britain. Coffee, sandwiches and the famous stottie cake.

Greggs history has been about adapting to change and you can now get a Greggs app for your smart phone to pay in-store and collect some rewards.

What about going really out on the edge and buying Greggs with Bitcoin. A few years back I picked up a few Satoshi* just to see how Bitcoin worked. For me it was a computer science experiment rather than a serious financial transaction.

*What is a Satoshi?
Each bitcoin (BTC) is divisible to the 8th decimal place, so each BTC can be split into 100,000,000 units. Each unit of bitcoin, or 0.00000001 bitcoin, is called a satoshi. A Satoshi is the smallest unit of Bitcoin.
You can see (above) just how small a Satoshi is and my lack of an actual single Bitcoin puts me at the bottom of the Bitcoin millionaire scale. However if I read the casual comments of the Internet it seems that Bitcoin users only want Bitcoin to buy drugs. I suspect cash is much easier for that task but let me play along with the myth.

I wanted to know if I could buy a Greggs steak bake and a coffee with Bitcoin. Surprisingly it turns out you can!

I found Giftoff - a website you can exchange Bitcoin for gift cards. With your gift card you can buy a steak bake and coffee.





So I bought a Greggs gift card. What you get is a code that is basically the same as the Greggs app generates. When you want to pay just ask the cashier to tap in the code as if it's on the app and you get your steak bake.

Now with the rising price of Bitcoin it looks like lunch is now paid for a few weeks.

Having said this the activity is pretty pointless for normal people because money works just as well. However as a bit of fun with digital cash the temptation to try and buy at Greggs was a challenge I had to try.


Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Curse of Amazon Prime

Capture2


Amazon is great. I have been shopping with them since 1998 when you could only buy books and CDs. Today you can buy almost anything.


Over time the idea of delivery has changed. Amazon is online so they also deliver services online. Movies, TV, music and probably a few other things I haven’t spotted. However I just buy stuff occasionally. It does bother me that Amazon is the creator of zero hours contract low wage jobs but its really hard to avoid the low wage low cost economy.

Amazon have been doing Amazon Prime for a while now. If you are not a regular user of Amazon you may not be aware of this premium service where you can get free delivery, next day delivery, movies, tv and music for a yearly fee of about £79. They also throw in some exclusive offers, discount days and almost anything that gets customers into the store. I have no problem with this subscription model and that it has made Amazon founder Jeff Bezos a load of money. Briefly, as the Amazon share price went up on 27th July 2017, he became the world’s richest man. So business is good.

Many people find the Amazon Prime service great value and love all the bundled offers. I don’t. I like Netflix, Spotify and mixing up my online purchases. What I don’t like is being cursed by Amazon Prime. Most times I just want to buy something, get it delivered with free postage and I don’t care if it takes 5 working days to get to me. I don’t even care if I have to collect it next week from a locker or some other place. Prime now haunts me during the buying process. Without huge care you click the button for your free 30 day trial. By which they mean we hope you forget and we swipe money out of your credit card every month 30 days from now.

The curse is that we have been seduced by one click shopping. The continue button always just completes the purchase – right? Nothing sinister there?

Not on Amazon. Those large buttons in the final page offering free next day delivery are really now a passive sign up to Amazon Prime. I now have to double and triple check every option before buying anything just in case I get signed up for Prime, or drone delivery, or maybe (at some future stage) rocket launched orbital delivery. After all Bezos seems to want to go to Mars!

A few days ago they caught me again. It’s been a couple of years since I last unwittingly signed up for one month of  Prime trial. Then it’s happened again. I have one month of free Amazon Prime again!  I immediately switch it off because I don’t want to forget and then have them raid my account in 30 days. Switching it off involves going to a buried menu in “Your Account – Manage Prime Benefits”. They don’t just have an off button to undo the very big “Continue” button that signs you into the service you don’t want.

With all big successful companies there is a moment when they think they are so wonderful you will want to send them money all the time. Amazon has reached that stage. I call it the curse of Amazon Prime.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

OnePlus 5 and the hype

This week I watched a view by a Hungarian YouTuber who runs the Techaltar channel.

In some ways it's an unusual channel because it rarely does tech reviews but instead talks about the business models and strategies adopted by companies to sell their product. The channel does definitely make you think.

Recently one of the big tech launches for enthusiasts has been the OnePlus 5. Oneplus has established itself as the company that never settles, creates smartphones as affordable flagships at budget pricing, and has whacky advertising. Moreover it styles itself as a startup business.

Their product might be great but how does the image match up to reality. Techalter does a good summary of why it's not quite as simple as it appears.




If you are interested in the detail of smartphone companies story then it's a well put together alternative view of OnePlus.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Why digits might change the mobile world

On 31st May 2017 the US mobile network T-Mobile will launch digits - a virtual cloud based mobile number. This may just change the way we use mobile devices.


It's a mobile phone company that puts your number in the cloud. You could potentially have two numbers such as business and personal tied to the same device. A sales team could all have one number so all their phones ring. You could even have numbers in different countries. You have on-call shift workers that need the on-call number. No problem. Just re-assign the number to their device and you dont have to pass around the on-call phone between staff.

The T-Mobile version still relies on SIMs in phones but that may change with the SnapDragon 835. The 835, which I have written about before, includes LTE on the chip. This means that the chip is pretty much a self-contained phone. All you need now is some software on the device that can have your number programmed in with a suitable mobile operator supporting phone numbers "in the cloud".

Right now T-Mobile US is the smaller of the mobile networks and it's adding this service to ramp up it's consumer offer. However the next generation of mobile chips could mean your number gets personal and you can have it on any phone that is charged in the morning and even that Nokia 3310 left in your desk for emergencies.


Sunday, 30 April 2017

I was definitely delusional




Yep.  I have to confess I was analogue delusional. Although I have been taking digital pictures on my phone and camera for a few years I suffered from being delusional.

Years ago I had a normal camera. Just to be clear I mean one with film. The 24 or 36 shots in a roll you loaded into a camera and then snapped away. Once you were done you could process the film in a camera shop or supermarket or even send it away.

You would then get back a bunch of prints and the negatives. In the 1970s and 1980s we all hoped to be David Bailey who advertised Olympus cameras. Just a compact camera and you would take great pictures. Off you went on holiday, got through a few rolls of film, mostly over-exposed them and made a mess and paid for a bunch of blurry pictures with the occasional good one.

The Louvre 
This was a snap of the Louvre in Paris that actually turned out quite well.

However for most of us we didn't have a clue and unless you became a photography anorak you just did a point and shoot.

With digital photography we became obsessed by megapixels and whether the new digital images were as good as film. Lots of people wrote articles about not going digital because good old film was better. Point and shoot photographers, who never really had a clue, began to get converted but were really looking for the camera that was as good as film.

It became a personal conceit of mine that I actually took some decent pictures on film and the last few years have been a disappointing digital experience due to lack of megapixels or not having the best camera tech. There are some legitimate problems with cheap digital but nothing like what was in my head for some reason.

I took a decision to scan all my old photos in boxes. It was a bit of a mess but as I looked through the out of focus blurry images that had become peculiarly stained and sun drenched I had a few thoughts.

The first was that my old film camera was better in my memory than in actuality. I took rubbish pictures. Not deliberately of course but largely because of the technology. Waiting for stuff to develop to work out you had someone standing with a tree coming out of their head with the angle you used is annoying. Particularly because you can't re-take them. Also cameras were too cheap. The lenses weren't great and point and shoot meant point and miss. You also only had one type of film with one ISO value.

Digital is now really good. The average smartphone, not the best, does take great pictures. You can also take as many as you want and select the best later. If you need to check a picture instantly you can on a screen and re-shoot.

I was delusional about the good old days of film. For most of us amateur happy snappers digital is genuinely better in every way that matters and people are taking the best pictures that have ever been taken. Now the issue is that all the pictures are digital and the photo album needs re-inventing somehow to preserve this century's pictures because developed film had one advantage - you could touch and feel the pictures. Therefore you could establish an emotional connection with photography that may be missing. However perhaps that's a conceit too.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Why was my email rejected ?


It's been rejected!. OK so I made up this completely rubbish address but if you get an email that has been rejected, a so-called "bounced" mail, you can do some good analysis of the reason if you can read the SMTP logs. SMTP being the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol that sends mail between servers and other places too.

Before you yawn this is what you get back.

Generating server: AM5EUR02HT096.mail.protection.outlook.com
kbmregregkrgrgktrgrtb@hotmail.co.uk
SNT004-MC5F20.hotmail.com
Remote Server returned '550 5.1.351 Remote server returned unknown recipient or mailbox unavailable -> 550 Requested action not taken: mailbox unavailable'
Original message headers:
DKIM-Signature: v=1; a=rsa-sha256; c=relaxed/relaxed; d=outlook.com;
 s=selector1; h=From:Date:Subject:Message-ID:Content-Type:MIME-Version;
 bh=lURfIqW7JBVRaKyNHMwqLzWn5AAyxsprWeqWekgSchc=;
 b=rH8HpA6mqgsmvED575S7sZZ3m6fy36WII+18d68flJNvd0IaNC+lLUb7bpDA90kQ7JH3DJEX5hbER4tORPoZfJW51WYKlGZdFfjBBvTkph4HD3u+yXavkOWhdYK1uTPMKV8DxJusJNWJcX+7uK7zs6cWWaHLm0X4LjHozOhbR71dFXREGzI1eODcOHj7rw0Eb6JtCA7xPwNdCP7GBrfJjhBGX5VfwI0ld1EPPPEeNst3fiIvu2rzfy35uregBnhzZlqKmZDGbel2HeE7bDsO8a8Ix9HdQSIsjEBKBnzNGuKyoma4AKyOUtp/dgUFPgeVhjq+9Dd3rTQbw6eoAXxZRw==
Received: from AM5EUR02FT045.eop-EUR02.prod.protection.outlook.com
 (10.152.8.60) by AM5EUR02HT096.eop-EUR02.prod.protection.outlook.com
 (10.152.9.222) with Microsoft SMTP Server (version=TLS1_2,
 cipher=TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA384_P384) id 15.1.1019.14; Sun, 23
 Apr 2017 13:13:40 +0000
Actually it goes on a lot longer than this little segment. However this gives you a clue it's not easy to read.
If you use Outlook this is hidden inside the email. You have to expand the message and view the 'properties' of the message and the 'internet headers'. It's in a slightly different menu for different versions of Outlook so you will have to search.
To make the rejection reason a bit more readable go to the Microsoft Remote Connectivity Advisor at this URL; https://testconnectivity.microsoft.com/ 
Once there pick the tab option called Message header Analyzer.
Insert the entire SMTP rejection message. Click on "Analyze headers" and then you will get a neatly formatted mail failure report.

It's a good little email tool for rejected mail.