Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Where were you on the day GMail went down?

People often remember where they were on the day that momentous things happen in history; first man on the moon, JFK being shot, Princess Diana's car crash... that sort of thing.

That's all well and good for the big stuff (actually, was Diana's death really that big a deal?) but if you'd been following Twitter yesterday you would have though something similar had happened as a huge number of Tweets about one thing flooded the networks, something that seemed to excite and amuse some users and horrify others... the death of GMail!

Actually rumours of it's death are greatly exagerated since it came back online within a couple of hours but for a while there Twitter and the Blogosphere were buzzing with slightly nervous posts from users who couldn't access their email. Do a quick search on Twitter for #GFail to get a feel for it.

I pretty much run my life on Google's online services - they host my blog, my email, my calendar and contacts which sync to my iPhone, I use their blog reader, their photo sharing site Picasa and I also use their online bookmarks and search alerts to keep up-to-date on things.

So, in light of the Great Google Outage of 2009 should I be worried about being so reliant on one service? Google responded to the problems on their blog and everything seems ok now but I am wondering about spreading the load a little. I already use Flickr from rival Yahoo, along with an old Yahoo mail account so that's a bit of backup and is probably better than Google's bookmarks but it's so nice and easy having everything in one place! Which is probably why there has been speculation around a monopoly investigation to determine whether it needs to divest some services.

I like it - I like the ease of use, the openness of their API and tools, the simple interface, everything! They just don't feel like Microsoft did when they were being attacked for their global coverage. Hopefully Google can recover from it's technical glitches and that their users will forgive them for being shown to be fallable like everyone else.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

It's raining torrents!

Kick Start
This year seems to have kicked off with a bang on all things copyright related. First we had launching their DRM-free MP3 download service and hot on their heels came Apple's long-overdue decision to remove the copy protection from their catalogue too (all sing with me "I see a little silhouette of a price war...").

The British Government published their Digital Britain report which included recommendations for ISPs to take a more active part in halting illegal file sharing.

Then came the news that New Zealand seems to be ignoring civil-rights and going for an approach on copyright infringement that can best be summed up as "I think he's guilty so he must be" which flies in the face of western judicial practice.

Now there's the latest update in another long-running saga; Sweden vs The Pirate Bay, one of the largest indexes of torrents currently available.

The Technology

In case you aren't familiar with torrents they are the latest incarnation of Peer-to-peer filesharing (P2P) which works by having users all over the world sharing content with each other via programs like Napster, Kazaa and Limewire. BitTorrent emerged in 2001 and takes the technology to a new level where a torrent file is created which contains information about the location of multiple (could be thousands) of seeds or users which are sharing that file. Once a user downloads a file they can then become a new seed which allows the numbers of available downloads to grow exponentially. Torrent data is estimated by some to make up to 35% of all internet traffic.

The Pirate Bay
So that's BitTorrent explained but to explain why there's all the fuss about it you need to look at what's being shared and while it can be used to download the latest Linux distribution it's more commonly used to share copyright music, video and software... which the entertainment and computing industrial giants would rather didn't happen.

The Pirate Bay, created in 2003 and hosted in Sweden, is probably the world's largest tracker of these torrent files and you can tell from it's name which side of the fence they sit on when it comes to copyright. Over the last few years it's been raided by police, been on the defending and prosecuting sides of a number of lawsuits and even attempted to buy Sealand, the micronation located about 6 miles off the Sussex coast, to use to host their servers.

Half time scores - The Pirate Bay 1, Sweden 0
Now the site's founders and admins Carl Lundström, Peter Sunde, Frederik Neij and Gottfrid Svartholm Warg are in court in Sweden accused of copyright infringement however it has quickly become apparent that the prosecuting lawyers don't actually understand the technology they are trying to shut down, presumably only driven by their share in the multimillion pound potential damages being claimed.

The key to their defence is that the site is a tracker or index of the torrents themselves and that even the torrents are only lists of users sharing a particular file. They don't make copies themselves or host it so while you've probably got views on their moral standpoint it's a lot harder to actually go after them legally.
If you take the prosecution to it's natural extension then you need to sue search engines like Google for listing sites that host or link to copyright material (actually that's an even better case to prosecute since Google actually maintains a copy of every site it indexes). Hey, let's sue the ISPs for giving us access to the whole damn shooting match in the first place.

These suggestions have been flying around on tech sites like The Register but it's crossed into mainstream reporting with Charles Arthur writing in the Guardian with a discussion on who would actually benefit from the demise of The Pirate Bay.

So an entire day and a half into the big copyright test case the prosecutors have been left with egg on their faces as charges are amended to remove "complicity in the production of copyrighted material" and replace it with "complicity to make (copyrighted material) available" which isn't quite the same thing.

What next?

General opinion on the blogosphere is that The Pirate Bay are going to go on to win the rest of the case but even if they don't the final charge will be much less dramatic than the claimants hoped for. Regardless of what happens to this particular site the torrents are still out there and there's plenty of other trackers around so will it even make a difference? In a similar arena, Kazaa and Limewire still allow easy P2P sharing years after the high-profile cases against Napster.

There are suggestions that users who download illegal copies are actually more likely to go on to spend on the legal versions, Charles Arthur's belief is that they will revert to more casual networks of friends sharing these materials but my view is that the internet is a big bad place and shutting down a single index might slow things down for a while but it's not going to stop it

For the moment we wait to see what's coming next in the Swedish case.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Stand up against "Guilt Upon Accusation"

I'd quite like to live in New Zealand. I'm lucky enough to have been there twice and I really liked the relaxed attitude and the fact I could indulge in various outdoor activities on such a grand scale (skiing and scuba diving are the main examples that would be a lot more fun in NZ).

However I've recently started hearing about a proposed change to their laws which would disconnect internet access from anybody accused of copyright infringement, without trial or court scrutinised evidence.

Now I'm not condoning copyright infringement but I do like to stand up for rights, especially if it goes against a fundamental belief like "Innocent until proven guilty".

If you're thinking that this doesn't affect you since you don't live in New Zealand then consider that this becomes law there then our governments might be tempted to follow suit.

The organisers of the protest are urging people to blackout their avatars on popular social networking sites - details are at the Creative Freedom protest site. If you're blogging, tweeting, facebooking etc then follow the instructions on how to show your support. There's some high profile people like Stephen Fry already taking part.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Google catches up

After my post on how to sync the Google contacts and calendar to an iPhone I was wondering why it was necessary to go to such lengths when Google makes it so easy to do everything else. It turns out that the good people at Google must have been thinking the same thing since they've now released Google Sync Beta for iPhone which does exactly what I achieved using Nuevasync - I've not tried the service yet since I'm happy with how I've got my iPhone setup but the comments about Google Sync overwriting the existing contacts suggest to me that they've used very similar processes and emulated an Exchange server.

Since you can already sync Google calendars and contacts to Thunderbird, the open source email client from Mozilla, the new Google release removes another layer of complexity in keeping everything synced together.

I seem to be increasingly reliant on Google now - email, calendar, photos, blog reader, maps... oh, and web searches! I've still not succumbed to their web browser Chrome since I like Firefox but they're a big part of my online life!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


One of my resolutions was to get out more with my camera (a Canon 400D Digital-SLR with a growing bag of lenses, flashes and assorted bits) since I generally just use it for snapshots which is a bit of a waste.

A D-SLR (the SLR part stands for Single Lens Reflex which refers to the fact that you actually look through the same lens that you'll be shooting through) is a great improvement on most compact digital cameras since it offers you complete control over every part of the camera while most compacts will just try to give you a properly exposed shot with the minimum of fuss. Fine until you want to be a bit more creative.
I'm not saying that you can't get good shots with a compact, or that a D-SLR will automatically give better shots but it does give you more opportunity to experiment.

I've been playing with mine and will be posting to the excellent flickr as I do more. My flickr page is in the links to the side but be patient since there's not too much on there at the moment.
One of the reasons I chose flickr rather than Picasa is the community element to it - posters are encouraged to share photography techniques and to leave comments on other people's shots whick makes it a great place to learn more about the processes involved in making the type of shot you like. It's always fun to check out flickr's interestingness page to see some of the best new uploads.

Helping me along the way are a couple of useful sites including the UK based ePhotoZine for general tips, review etc and the popular Strobist blog run by the American newspaper photographer David Hobby which focuses, if you'll forgive the pun, on using flash and light effectively.
Again the community of flickr comes to play with a very active Strobist group where you can post images for review, tips and see how others have achieved their shots.

Since I don't seem to be able to post without mentioning the iPhone I'll just throw a little link in to one of David's recent posts where he uses his iPhone as a handy light for low-light shots. Very inventive!
I'll also be posting soon on the GPS facilities of the iPhone, both standalone and how you can use that to geotag your photos locations so watch out for that.

Monday, 2 February 2009


I found this nice little site called Wordle which creates "beautiful word clouds" - their words not mine, but it is pretty cool. You can type in words or give it a website to use as source information then alter some of the layout options.

I gave it my blog URL and it came up with this which I quite like -