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What Does Your Email Address Say About You?

Joe Kissell has written an excellent article over at TidBITS discussing email addresses and what they mean. Your email address actually says a lot about you, and about your technical capabilities. This may not matter to some people, but if you work in any modern industry, this is an important article to read.

I, of course, am sobered by the fact that, according to Joe, I am “you’re a highly clueful person, with at least modest technical sophistication and a better-than-average awareness of How Things Work.”

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Review: Tooway Satellite Broadband from Avonline

Update, April 4, 2014: Tooway satellite performance has degraded substantially in recent weeks. At peak times, I’m lucky to get 50 K/sec downloads. It seems that they have way too many users, and their network is saturated. The slowdowns I mention in the article, such as from the iTunes Store, have become the norm, in spite of Tooway’s speed tests showing that I have more than 10 Mbps downloads.

The satellite provider, Avonline, is switching me to another service, Avanti, which has only been available for a short time. I’ll post a review of that service soon. But if you’re considering Tooway, I strongly recommend you don’t go that route based on my recent experience.

In a Macworld article that was published today, I describe the trials and tribulations of getting a decent level of internet access at The Barn. I moved to this nearly-rural property in December; it’s on the edge of a village a few miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a lovely area to live, but it’s poorly served by both broadband and mobile phone providers.

The barn

The Macworld article discusses the overall issues involved, but I wanted to write more specifically about the satellite broadband service I’m using, because I’ve had a number of queries about it from others in my situation.

001.pngtooway is a satellite internet provider which offers “high speed internet” to 55 countries in Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. Using the Eutelsat KA-SAT satellite, this company provides broadband access at “up to 20 Mbps,” which is sold through a network of distributors. There are several in the UK, and I chose Avonline Broadband, because their offer corresponded best to what I needed.

I remember early satellite internet which used a combination of a satellite dish for downloads and dial-up internet for uploads, but the technology has improved. Satellite internet now uses a two-way satellite dish, which has a diameter of 77 cm. As long as you are in line of sight to the satellite, you can get internet access just about anywhere.

Avonline sent a technician to install the satellite dish. Given the configuration of The Barn, it was easy to install, and isn’t very visible. A cable runs along the outside of the house and enters my office, which is where I have the satellite modem. I connect this, in turn, to an AirPort Extreme base station, and use an AirPort Express on the ground floor of my home to extend the network. Since I live in a stone house, wi-fi doesn’t propagate very well, and I need the extra boost downstairs.

Satellite dish

As these companies say, you can get “up to 20 Mbps.” As with all internet providers, the theoretical maximum speed is not something you will see all the time, but you will get that speed occasionally. I have seen speeds up to about 21.5 Mbps in the morning, but later in the day, speeds drop, often to around 2 Mbps in the evening. And that’s the problem with this satellite internet: when I want to download a movie, I need to think ahead. Last Saturday evening, I wanted to rent a movie from the iTunes Store. I initiated the rental, and my Apple TV told me it would take about 5 hours. So I stopped, and downloaded the movie the following afternoon.

Peak periods, as I have seen, tend to be from 6 pm on weekdays, and much of the weekend. So getting faster speeds then is a problem. However, one advantage of Avonline’s offer is unlimited downloads from 11 pm to 7 am. I use this to download large app updates, movie rentals, etc., without affecting my quota. Because that’s another problem with satellite internet: you can’t download all you want. My plan has a 50 GB limit per month (not counting the unlimited period), but other plans offer less. The first month, I used up data very quickly, and found that my “smart” TV was sucking data, in small amounts, all day long. When I took it off the network, my data usage dropped a lot.

So you need to juggle two variables: speed, which can change from blisteringly fast to a trickle during the day, and a quota. With 50 GB, I can safely download the updates and apps that I need to do my work, and still have room for a movie or two. But I check my data usage every few days to make sure I’m not getting close to the limit. There’s a page I can visit to check the status of my modem, as well as my data usage. It’s not presented in numerical form, unfortunately, but in seven steps, each corresponding to 1/7 of the total data allowance for the month. (In my case, each square represents about 7 GB. In the example below, I’m one week from the end of the month, so I have no worries about downloads over the next seven days.)

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As you can see above, my “default” speed is 20000 kbps down, and 6000 kbps up. While download speeds vary a lot, I’ve found that the 6 Mbps upload speed is pretty stable. I’ve never had uploads that fast in the past, and, while I don’t often need to upload a lot of data, it’s good to know that I can when I want to. (If you have satellite internet already, read my Macworld article for some tips about how to best optimize your download limit.)

The other main issue with satellite internet is latency: the time it takes for a request to be received and acknowledged. With satellite internet, this is between 700 and 800 ms, whereas with DSL, I get about 30-35 ms. Because of this, web pages load very slowly, and things like checking email can take longer than they do with normal broadband. But this only affects the first connection, so once a web page starts loading, any images on it do download quickly, at least when the speed is high enough.

However, it seems that tooway throttles some internet services. When I couldn’t download that movie to my Apple TV last Saturday, I stopped the download, went to my computer, and ran a speed test. I got about 6 Mbps downloads, which was more than enough to stream a movie from the iTunes Store. I’ve seen other times when downloading music from the iTunes Store where speeds were slow, and given my experience with the iTunes Store, it’s a lot more likely that this is the satellite provider throttling access than Apple’s servers being slow.

As for Avonline, they’ve been good enough, but not great. The technician who installed the satellite dish was excellent, and very helpful in explaining to me how the system works, and how to best use it. Customer support has been iffy: I’ve only had to call them a few times, but the wait can be very long. I’ve sent some questions by email, and have gotten replies to some, and others have been ignored. On the other hand, they were very helpful in the first few weeks, when I couldn’t figure out how I had used so much data. The support person suggested that I take my TV off the network – I’ve switched it to the DSL – and that make a huge difference in usage.

Avonline offers a “technology guarantee,” saying that if fiber is installed, you can cancel your contract with 30 days’ notice. I have a 12-month contract to start with, and it’s good to know that I’m not locked in should the telecom companies decide that areas like mine deserve better internet access.

All in all, I’d rather not have had to choose satellite internet. The speeds are too variable, and the fact that I have a monthly quota is annoying. But I don’t have much choice: the DSL I got (as a backup, and to use when I’m just surfing the web) is 2 Mbps, far too slow to download 1 GB updates to iOS, or OS X betas, which can be 4-5 GB. There are currently no plans to improve the broadband where I live, so I’m stuck for now.

Satellite internet is the internet of last resort, and its price and quality make it something you don’t really like. I had 15 Mbps DSL in York, before moving here, at less than half the price. But it’s better than nothing, and it’s a lot better than the overpriced DSL access I get here. (I pay the same amount for my DSL access here as in York, for 1/7 the speed.) And I get to live in a beautiful barn, in a lovely area. Life is made of compromises.

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Delete Social Media and Online Accounts from a Single Control Panel

Are you fed up with social media? Tired of sharing your life with total strangers? Do you want to remove your accounts from online vendors and services?

It can be hard to find the right pages on these services to delete accounts; after all, they want you to stay, even if you don’t actively use the accounts, to keep their numbers up.

justdelete.me is a one-stop control panel that you can use to delete your social media and online accounts. This web page includes links to 25 popular social media services – Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. – as well as online vendors and services, such as Amazon and Netflix.

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Robb Lewis, the creator of this page, describes it as follows:

JustDelete.Me is a directory of urls to delete your account from web services. [...] Services are marked either easy, medium or hard depending on how difficult it is to delete that account. Those marked as hard have additional information on how to completely remove your account, such as Skype which requires you to contact customer services to do so.

So if you want to quit some of your social media and online accounts, use this page as a springboard. It will save you a lot of time searching for the right places to do so.

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When Tweeters Tweet Too Much

V65oai7fxn47qv9nectxI like Twitter, and I use my account, @mcelhearn, to share articles I’ve written, info about my books, and varied things that interest me. This may include music I like, books I’m reading, movies I’ve seen and more.

I follow about 300 Twitter accounts. Some are friends, others colleagues (fellow Mac writers), and others are companies I’m interested in. For companies, I generally follow them for information about their products, or sales, but I’ve become more and more annoyed as some companies think that their “social media strategy” should include retweeting everyone who mentions them.

Take, for example, NetFlixUK. I recently subscribed to NetFlix, and if you look at the retweets in their feed, you’ll see that they spend a lot of time telling people following them that other people following them are watching Breaking Bad. We get it; Breaking Bad is on NetFlix UK. You’ve told us a dozen times in the days before the first episode of the final season aired (today). You really don’t need to keep telling us that people are watching it. I can see what’s going to happen; they’re going to keep tweeting about every episode, then retweeting everyone who mentions them saying they watched an episode, for the next eight weeks. I would like to keep following NetFlix to know about new movies and TV series they add, but it’s no longer worth it. Unfollow.

Or what about @VisitYork, the Twitter account of the York tourism organization? I live in York, and would like to know what’s going on, but I don’t need to hear about Nigel Shmoe and his visit to York, and how much he liked it. I don’t see how such tweets would inspire more people to visit York. Unfollow.

I follow lots of Mac developers, who have accounts for their apps. Many of them retweet positive comments from users, but I have to say, this is a mistake. Anyone following already uses the app, and doesn’t need convincing. I doubt anyone follows a Twitter account in order to decide whether or not they’re going to buy an app. Guys (and gals), be neat; don’t retweet.

I get lots of mentions from people who’ve read an article or book I wrote, saying how much they liked it. I never retweet these. I’m sure I tweet more than enough for some people, and I’m sure many people have unfollowed me because my interests are too varied for them; that’s fine.

Twitter is an interesting way to engage in conversations, but these obsessive retweets just look like spam in my Twitter feed. So if you’re thinking of the best way to use your Twitter feed, find a way to make people want to follow you, instead of annoying them constantly with retweets they don’t care about.

Update: My Macworld colleague Lex Friedman pointed out that this feature is available from the Twitter website. Since I never go there, other than to do the odd search, I hadn’t noticed. Click on a user’s icon, then click on the button with the arrow, next to the Following button. Choose Turn Off Retweets. I’m surprised that this isn’t supported by all Twitter clients; I can do this on Twitterrific for iOS, but not the OS X version.

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The Paywall Problem: Newspapers and Occasional Readers

I believe in newspapers, and depend on them to get news. I’m from a generation that had only newspapers – and pre-cable TV news – for daily information, and I still think they are important. I read a lot of news on the web, on many different sites, but I still depend mostly on newspaper websites to know what’s happening. (And I buy a “newspaper,” the print kind, every Sunday.)

Many newspapers have introduced paywalls, or paid access. The New York Times was the first major paper to do this, but their misguided pricing strategy (different prices depending on whether you want to read the paper on the web and a smartphone, or web and tablet) and high prices ($15 to $35 every four weeks) make it very expensive. The Washington Post is smarter; they offer the same price ($15 per four weeks) regardless of which device you want to use. Other papers have other byzantine approaches, instead of a simple one-time annual fee. The Wall Street Journal actually did this, in the early days of their paywall: they charged $50 a year for full access.

Paywalls for newspapers are inevitable, but they need to be implemented differently. Recently, I wanted to read a couple of articles on different newspaper sites. One was on the Wall Street Journal’s web site. This is a paper that I don’t read often, but I came across an article about William Faulkner’s literary estate that interested me. The Wall Street Journal has some good non-business coverage, but there’s no way that I’ll ever subscribe to it, as I’m not interested in 99% of what they publish.

The second article I wanted to read was about Shakespeare, and was on the Le Monde website. I was able to read a few paragraphs of the article, but would have needed to pay €2 to read the entire thing; in other words, more than the cost of a daily paper. (Le Monde charges €15 a month for digital access.)

The problem in both of these cases is that I’ll never become a regular reader of either of these papers. I used to live in France, but I don’t any more, and French news, which interests me, is not worth that much. And, as I said above, I don’t care enough about business news to pay for the Wall Street Journal.

So how can I read articles I want to see? Many people have discussed the idea of micro-payments, and the news industry is certainly one sector that needs them. I’d pay a nickel (or 5p) to read an article; considering the cost of a newspaper, that seems fair, especially since I’d still be seeing ads, and the newspaper would get revenue from that as well. But I wouldn’t buy, say, a credit for a paper like the Wall Street Journal, because I wouldn’t expect to use it often enough.

What we need is a broader micro-payment system for newspapers, and other print publications (I’d pay, say, a quarter, or 25p, to read a magazine article from the New Yorker). The ideal system would work with as many publications as possible, where you’d buy a credit, and be able to apply that credit to any participating publication. The idea isn’t new; it’s been floated by Walter Isaacson, The Wall Street Journal, and Google has set up such a system using Google Wallet, but I’ve never come across it in vivo.

For now, newspapers are shutting out readers, and losing money, by only offering expensive digital subscriptions, or by linking digital subscriptions to print subscriptions. It’s time for newspapers to realize that not everyone is wedded to their content, and that most people won’t pay for a specific paper, but want to read news from multiple sources. Micro-payments could change the way we consume news, and it could help keep newspapers afloat.

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UK Prime Minister Announces Useless Plan to Block Porn

Here in England, it’s the hottest day in seven years, and the Duchess of Cambridge is currently in labour. The world currently awaits news of the royal baby.

But in other news, prime minister David Cameron announced that ISPs in the UK will have to start blocking pornography. According to this plan – or “scheme,” as they say over here – ISPs will have to turn on parental control filters by default. But only for new customers. And only if you don’t uncheck the box. “If you just click ‘next’ or “enter”, then the filters are automatically on,” said Cameron, thinking that, somehow, this will prevent children from seeing porn. Because many parents will uncheck the box.

To be fair, part of the goal is to eliminate images of child abuse. The UK has seen two prominent murder cases recently where the alleged murderers had reportedly viewed abusive child porn on their computers shortly before killing.

However noble this idea may be, no one with any knowledge of parental control software can seriously think this will work. Many countries have tried this, and these internet filters have always failed in two ways. There are false positive, often for terms like “breast cancer” or “rape hotline,” and there are false negatives, allowing plenty of porn to get through the nets.

This kind of filter only works for the most common sites, and only with those users who don’t try very hard to find porn or other objectionable content. Anyone with determination will quickly find that you can use a web proxy to access anything, anonymously, and download encrypted data. You can, for example, do this to access the Pirate Bay, which UK ISPs block, as well as many other sites.

Child porn is terrible stuff, and should be blocked, but suggesting that filters will do the trick is disingenuous. I’m reminded of the French government’s loudly trumpeted plan to stop illegal downloads of music and movies. The law known as HADOPI, introduced by former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009, outlined a three-strike system, with much fanfare. Downloads would be monitored, and users would first get an email warning them that their actions were illegal; then they’d get a registered letter, similar to the email; finally, they’d have their internet access suspended, and they’d be liable to prosecution. The French abrogated the law recently, after having prosecuted a total of one person since its inception.

This system will certainly not work, and its announcement is being overshadowed by other news. I predict that in a couple of years, it will be forgotten. It’s a shame, as child porn is a serious problem, but there’s no solution yet, and no government should pretend that they have one.

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What if Twitter Locks Out Third-Party Apps?

A recent announcement from Twitter highlights the fact that the company is seeking to make more money from its service. This is certainly not a surprise; Twitter is widely used, yet there is little advertising, other than sponsored tweets and accounts, and the company needs to monetize its user base. But developers are worrying about Twitter restricting use of its API, and whether this will lead to a “closed garden” approach.

Twitter sees some 400 million tweets posted every day, and the company initially let anyone who wanted work with this data. Developers of third-party Twitter applications take advantage of this openness to offer features that Twitter itself does not. But if Twitter starts rolling out ads that get piped into these applications, how will users react?

The problem with Twitter is that its simplicity is what prevents it from making money. The company could insert plenty of ads on its own website, but they would only reach users who interact with Twitter via its website; those who use third-party clients wouldn’t see anything, and wouldn’t generate any income.

Twitter’s being a one-trick pony may lead to long-term problems. There is no doubt that this is a popular platform, but part of what has ensured its popularity is the ecosystem of third-party applications that allow users to choose how they want to tweet and read tweets. For Twitter to make money, they have two choices: drown users in ads, or expand their service. If they do the former, they may lose users, and another company might try to create a similar service. If they do the latter, they may dilute their brand.

I find Twitter to be useful, for several reasons. It allows me to stay in touch with friends and co-workers, and serves as a kind of digital water-cooler. It also allows me to get information from companies that interest me. And, finally, it allows me to share information that interests me, including articles like this, to my followers. But if suddenly my timeline – even in a third-party application – were to be drowned in ads, I don’t know if I’d continue using it. Twitter has certainly become a habit, but Facebook used to be a habit as well, and I don’t visit their website much any more.

Twitter is in a tough spot, and needs to figure out how to move into the future. They run the risk of alienating much of their user base, losing users, and devaluing the brand. Monetizing a service like Twitter is not simple, and I hope those making these decisions do the right thing for their users. Because, after all, without these users, the company has nothing.

By the way, if you don’t follow me on Twitter, maybe you should.

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