Silencing Demons

Two days ago I heard that a good friend of mine had recently passed away. The medium of discovery was Facebook, but once the milk ran out and a trip to the shops was in order it became clear that, locally at least, his death was a much bigger story than just a few friends passing condolences on a social website. It was front page news in the local paper.

Like so many highly creative individuals he was tormented by his demons, but we connected on that basic level of shared loves and experiences. A respected artist, engineer and actor with a love of festivals and loud music he was always there to help others, but alas always the last to ask help for himself. In all the time I knew him he was a kind gentle soul, but I knew beneath that shell lay a darker soul trapped and waiting. Depression and bouts of violent psychosis were a constant battle for him resulting in regular stays in hospital until finally in the last few years he was homeless. Even then he worked hard helping those around him and raising money for charity until finally, over New Years, at Beachy Head he finally silenced his demons.

The biggest indictment of the Big Society is not that he finally made the decision to end his own life, it’s sad to say that for those who truly are at their lowest ebb ways and means will be found. The big indictment is that no one noticed for nearly a month. His lifestyle is partly to blame here, he was well known to pack a bag, grab his passport and take off for Europe at the drop of a hat. With friends throughout the country he would move around to where he felt most comfortable with himself. I’d like to think that on the day he disappeared whoever knew him would have informed the police of his disappearance at least. At the very least there should have been regular contact with someone from social services, but it seems social workers don’t help the homeless, many of whom are homeless due to their mental health. Knowing he was a high suicide risk and in the vicinity of Beachy Head it’s not a large leap of faith to consider the possibility, but it would seem no effort at all was made to trace him. Instead his body was found a month later, after the police were searching the cliffs for the wreckage of a car that had been driven over the edge of the cliff.

The Big Society does not mean we get to pick and choose who we look out for. Cameron’s Big Society seems to be about looking after everyone except those that need it, the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the old and the disabled. The most vulnerable in society who need the Big Society instead are pilloried by government. It does not mean that our police services ignore those who are vulnerable, the homeless need protecting more than the housed. While I know there was nothing that could have been done to prevent a friend’s death I still cannot shake that feeling that he has been let down somehow. By a government that has actively made the poor poorer. By a police service that couldn’t care about another homeless person going missing. By a health service that has done nothing to stay in contact and counsel the mentally ill. By a society that sees the mentally ill and homeless as something to ignore at best, or to be ridiculed at worst. By friends who didn’t miss him till it was too late. And by myself, for not being a better friend when needed most.

A marriage made in Heaven or Hell?

If ever there was a marriage made in Hell it has to be Microsoft and Apple, right? And yet it may surprise many just how compatible the products of these 2 companies actually are.

When I’m not getting annoyed at the petty politics of the UK and the rest of the world I am at heart a geek. I hacked my first computer game when I was 10 or 11, a text adventure written for the Sinclair ZX81. I created my first website back in 1995 and ran my first online business back in 1996. One thing that has not changed in the years since is my love of gaming and music. My home setup is one that works well both for a simple bedroom setup, or as in my case for my living room. And it’s a lot cheaper to make than people might think.

My main media player is my XBox 360. However, being an old and creaky model there’s no way it can hold just over 40 year’s worth of music collecting. And after so many years of computing what do I do with the old PC that’s now no good for gaming? Why not stream my music from the PC to the XBox? Luckily over the years I’ve made it a habit to rip all my music to MP3, even before Apple brought out it’s first iPod, so I’m spared the pain of attempting to rip 2000 CDs to my computer.

iTunes is a great application for keeping my music organised, but unfortunately is not recognised by the XBox as a valid source of streaming music or video. So in a moment of Microsoft/Apple Hell I need to find an alternative. Thankfully Microsoft has a free solution in the form of Zune. A quick download, install and change of settings and it’s soon imported my iTunes music library ready to stream. Before switching to the XBox there’s still one last thing to do. Hidden in the Zune settings there’s an option to allow other devices to access your music library. Handily there’s a tick box for all available XBoxes and in next to no time 40 years of music is streaming across the network to mine and my daughter’s XBox upstairs.

You may ask why go to all that trouble when I could just play the music straight from the computer? The answer is sound quality. My setup at home is actually quite simple. A cheap 42″ 3D TV (it’s a rebranded Celsus, courtesy of a phone deal). Picture quality is remarkably good for such a cheap TV with a surprisingly generous array of connections on the back. The old PC has a VGA out (10 year old graphics card that keeps soldiering on despite the cooling fan having fallen off the card years ago) which plugs straight into the TV. Sound is then ported to the TV from the headphone/speaker jack on the soundcard. While the sound is reasonable it lacks the punch of a dedicated speaker system. This is where the XBox (and my love of gaming) comes in. The Xbox is also plugged into the TV using the HD cable that comes supplied with it (the one with half a dozen coloured cables that plug into the TV’s component AV slots). As my old surround sound system decided to die when we had a power cut a few years ago sound production duties have been replaced by a Logitech 5.1 surround sound system. As the XBox also doubles as a DVD player this also enables us to watch movies with the surround sound (but not currently regular TV as the Digital Receiver plugs straight into the TV by HDMI, more on this later). The result is that streamed music now gets converted by the XBox and output to all speakers giving a much louder and punchier response. And Gears Of War 3 takes on a whole new level of gaming when viewed in 3D with surround sound.

So far of course there’s been no Apple in this mix, everything to this point has been achieved by Microsoft and 3rd party hardware. So this is where Apple and Microsoft make their match in Heaven. It’s all very well having the PC connected to the same screen as the XBox and TV Receiver, but what if you really need to make changes to something on the PC while the kids have decided now is the only time they can watch Hannah Montana. This is where we introduce PocketCloud, an iPhone and iPad app that allows you to login to your PC remotely while on the same network. Using this you have full access to all the programs and files on your PC. If you only wish to access files on your PC, such as photos and PDF documents there’s always FileBrowser instead.

And the Apple/Microsoft Heaven doesn’t just stop at your PC. There are also apps for the iPhone and iPad that will allow you to connect to your XBox remotely. Want to control your music remotely while it’s playing on the XBox? Microsoft have provided the ultimate free app for allowing this with SmartGlass. The only drawback is that it will require an XBox Live account and your XBox must already be turned on and logged in, but that’s it. Instant control via phone or iPad from anywhere in the house over wifi. Friends over and want to listen to whatever music is on their iPod, iPhone or iPad? There’s even an app for that. Download AirMusic and you’ll soon be streaming direct from your Apple device of choice to the XBox.

The above is of course quite a simple setup, done more for the low cost than for elegance. A couple of simple upgrades would improve your gaming and media pleasure at relatively low costs. The simplest upgrade is to switch out the speakers. Hard to come by nowadays, but there are surround sound systems with multiple inputs. The original surround sound speakers that I had till the power cut had stereo, coax and optical inputs, allowing me to connect 3 systems at once and switch between them. Much the same can also be done now with a HDMI receiver that combines multiple HDMI inputs with HDMI out and optical out, allowing the receiver to switch between inputs and output to a standard home theatre system. Again, this is a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade. If you’re lucky and have a slightly more expensive TV you may even find that the TV itself has an optical out for plugging direct into a home theatre, but be aware that not all output the full Dolby 5.1 (my old Samsung TV only output stereo through the optical out). If budget allows a lot of higher end Blu-Ray home theatre kits also come complete with multiple HDMI inputs allowing for much the same effect.

Should you be able to upgrade your listening pleasure using the ideas above (and having swapped out the old VGA card for a nice shiny new HDMI graphics card) you can then go for the other option of listening to your music using your PC again (leaving your XBox relegated back to gaming duties). Again, there’s an app available for this, simply download Apple’s Remote for iPhone or iPad and gain direct control of your PC’s iTunes library, even being able to choose songs to be played using iTunes Auto DJ feature.

The great rock and roll swindle

Yesterday the BBC posted a rather misleading article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-20802043

It seems sensible enough, finally the government is going to allow the public to legally do something that everyone who has ever bought a blank cassette or an MP3 player has been doing since the 1970’s. For the over 40’s out there, how many of you have copied an album onto tape so you could listen to it in the car, or on the old sony walkman? If you’re under the age of 40 (or over and a geek like myself) how many of you have converted your entire CD collection to mp3 so you can listen to it on your media player of choice? Congratulations, the government has finally decided that you are no longer criminals. So what’s so misleading about the BBC article then? It’s quite obvious when you read it.

According to the article musicians are in an uproar over the government’s plans. They see the second Ferrari being snatched away from them in stolen sales. Yes, apparently the ability to do what everyone is doing anyway will result in fewer sales. That British musicians will be disadvantaged in relation to EU musicians. Their solution? A tax on portable media, to be paid to musicians. In reality, what they are saying is we want the public to pay twice. We want the public to buy both the digital and the CD version (which no one does, at least no one I know). And if they won’t pay twice, we want the government to force them to pay twice by taxing all those blank discs that they’re buying to shift all their legally bought iTunes content onto CD for the car journey or as backup in case the PC decides to die. What they are saying is, we want to be paid, even when that person is not buying music.

There are a number of issues with this that I find alarming. Firstly, who is going to be responsible for collecting and distributing these non-sale royalty payments? The BPI? The MU? All this will do is create a new revenue stream for an industry that is notorious for withholding money from artists. This is not about rewarding creators and composers. This is no different to how musicians are paid for radio air time. For every pound generated in revenue the musician sees a fraction of that, after the collecting agency and their record label take their cream from the top. My second issue is with who is now paying for this license. At least with the radio licensing you know the radio station is playing music. That fee is generated by actual music played by the station and goes to the collecting agency for that artist. They won’t see much of it, but at least when they play Slade over Xmas you know Noddy Holder will be receiving a cheque sometime in the New Year.

With a tax on CDs it’s the IT industry that is now funding musicians. All those copies of Linux burned onto disc at home will be funding someone’s rehab costs. Money being paid to musicians for something that has nothing to do with music. It may surprise people to know that Britain is actually one of the few countries that doesn’t already do this. Primarily as Britain is one of the few countries that wasn’t fooled by the recording industry that illegal downloads were responsible for a music sales apocalypse. Yes, illegal downloads are still a problem, but they have never been as much of an issue to the recording industry than the global economy. With music continually priced at a premium sales will invariably drop when you don’t have the money to make purchases. The recording industry once equated half of all blank CD sales to illegal music copying. That’s correct, their argument for taxing blank CDs was that illegal downloading and burning was equivalent to the entire music market worldwide. That without illegal downloads, the music industry would somehow magically double in size overnight. This was despite their own research that showed that despite a slowdown in physical sales revenue at that time had remained at the same level.

Finally, it is the matter of who receives the money from a CD tax. The beneficiaries of my blank CD purchase will not be the musicians that I listen to. Why should my blank CD put money into the pockets of a record label or musician that I do not listen to? Will any of my CD tax be paid to Scandinavian rock bands? To German power metal bands? To the band that played the local nightclub last night? No, it will go into the pockets of the likes of Simon Cowell, Adele, Kanye West. To musicians I have never had any intention of listening to. Why should I pay to fund the lowest common denominator? Why should my money be given to a multi millionaire who has done nothing to persuade me to part with my money and invest in their music?

The industry needs to learn that the public is not there as a cash cow. It has no right to my money except where I say it can have it, by my choice of music purchases. I say who receives my money, who I believe has created music that I deem worthy of listening to. If the industry wishes to grow it must redefine itself and realise that while there is undoubtedly a market for the insipid trash that passes for pop music nowadays, with clone bands singing the same harmonies on every other reality talent show, in order to engage with the greater general public it must do more to encourage genuine talent. There is a wealth of musical talent out there looking for a market that the industry is ignoring. And the more you ignore this talent, the more the public will ignore the industry.

“Hello, we’re Microsoft” – “No you’re not”

As an IT geek and (semi) professional it both amuses and annoys me when I get the inevitable cold caller on the phone.

“Hello Mr Bloggs, I’m calling from Microsoft about your PC”

Invariably there’s a foreign accent on the other end of the line, often Indian but sometimes American or even the occasional European accent. In every case they receive the same response from myself.

“No you’re not” *click*

There are variations on this theme. I’ve had callers claim to be from Microsoft, from my ISP, even once from an anti-virus company. It happens once every 6 to 12 months and to date they still haven’t got the message that I know as soon as they start speaking that it’s a scam. What is worrying is that they have your phone number and your name. It doesn’t matter how they got it, they have it and the fact they ask for you by name lends the scam an air of legitimacy. How do they have your name and number? How many times have you entered an online competition? “Win an iPad!” it says, just enter your contact details and if we draw your name out the hat you’re a winner. And people do win, they have to. But in the small print there’s that little bit that says they can then recover the costs of the competition by selling your data. And mostly it will be fairly harmless, enter a competition on a whiskey site and expect junk mail and emails about Jack Daniel’s whiskey. I have a rather nice 2013 calendar from Jack Daniel’s marketing company right here. But the data is still for sale and eventually someone you don’t want knowing your contact details buys your data and you receive the call from “Microsoft”. Either way think about every competition you enter and every marketing survey you’ve ever filled out over the phone. If you’re not certain how that data will be used, don’t give it to them.

So why am I so sure it’s not Microsoft on the phone? Or my ISP or even an anti-virus company? Simple, they will NEVER contact you direct at home. If you are signed up to any support package they will always email you. And never with a link asking for you to “click here and login”. Any phone call that states “there is a problem with your PC” should raise alarm bells. How do they know it’s my PC? Have they traced the IP address back? Well you just have to ask the MPAA or BPI how hard that is to do. The only way any 3rd party can link you to your IP address is by first obtaining a court order and then presenting that to your ISP. As it’s not actually illegal to have a computer full of viruses that will never happen (unless you happen to be the one writing the viruses).

So how are they trying to scam you? Quite simply the whole point of the scam is to persuade you to go to a website where the scammers can take control of your PC. In order to fix your PC they will have to download a file that apparently removes all the nasty software that’s been ringing alarm bells back at Microsoft/your ISP/the anti-virus company. And there is software that can do this, google malwarebytes and ad-aware, downloadable from download.com (it’ll redirect to cnet). AVG even do a rather nice free version of their software, just be prepared for the annual “are you sure you don’t want to upgrade to the pro version?” The software that the scammer has downloaded however will not do this. Once downloaded instead the scammers will make their sting. A large sum of money for “fixing” your PC. If you don’t pay up, say goodbye to all the data on your hard drive. If you do pay up expect your bank account to be empty tomorrow and your PC to suddenly slow down as the scammer’s keyloggers start recording all your logins and passwords that you use.

So remember, if anyone claims to be from any IT company and you’re not expecting a call from them, put the phone down. Your ISP, Microsoft, even your anti-virus software provider simply do not care what is on your PC enough to call you at home. No one is that special that they can expect a phone call every time you click on that link that says “click here for cute kittens”. Except maybe Bill Gates, and I seriously doubt he spends his free time googling kitten photos.

History of a time forgot

A young boy, almost a teenager plays in the dirt near the barbed wire fence. He’s hungry and underfed, he can’t remember the last time he ate a proper meal.

On the other side of the fence several soldiers laugh and joke with each other. One points to the boy and raises his rifle. Staring down the sights he aims and slowly squeezes the trigger. The bullet is propelled from the barrel, passes the short distance between the soldier and the boy before the boy’s head erupts with a fountain of blood. the boy slumps down on the ground, his blood staining the dirt in an ever growing pool of darkening red. The soldiers clap each other on their backs, congratulating the shooter on his kill. They’ll be telling the story over and over again back in the barracks, knowing that they have the full support not only of the commanders, but of their government for their act. After all, the boy wasn’t one of them, he was someone to be reviled and looked upon as somehow less than human.

The above is a dramatised account of real events. You’d be forgiven if you think you know the circumstances of the above act, surely this happened in Germany and Poland during the 1940’s? And you would of course be correct, we’ve seen this scene before, enacted in countless war movies. Almost this exact scene is a pivotal point in the film Schindler’s List, and becomes one of the many reasons Schindler betrays his own country by helping the Jews in Germany. But these soldiers aren’t German. This isn’t even the 20th Century. It’s 2012. Palestine. It’s the reason so many people have died in Palestine and Israel over the last few weeks.

I keep seeing posts on the web “Why do they hate us?” “What did we ever do to them?” while ignoring the inhumane treatment that is inflicted upon a nation in their name. The answer is simple, the Israeli nation has become the very thing they hated the most. The world will not allow them a final solution, so instead they keep a nation in squalid camps like Ramallah. They take land that has been farmed for generations by Palestinians and then expect the Palestinians to work like slaves on the land that has been taken from them. They do not see them as people, they label them terrorists and bomb them, killing entire families in the name of “security”. They starve them to the point of malnutrition, but not enough that they look unhealthy. It would not do for the rest of the World to see the suffering that they have caused.

Can you imagine the outcry of protest if in 1970 the RAF bombed Belfast? If in our war against the IRA we saw children as legitimate targets? The Palestinians want the same as the Catholics of Northern Ireland. To be treated equally, as human beings. It was the generations of injustice at the hands of the Protestants in Northern Ireland that allowed for the rise of the IRA. While their methods were quite rightly condemned it was the recognition of this injustice that eventually paved the way to peace in Northern Ireland. It was the recognition that treating an entire group of people as terrorists does not work. The great irony in Northern Ireland was the fact that the British troops were there to protect the Catholics, and not the Protestants. It didn’t take long before generations of resentment turned into hatred of the British. It’s no different in Palestine. Only we never did to the Catholics what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. And we found peace in Northern Ireland, by negotiation and talk. Not by missiles and attack helicopters.

Imagine a future where Russia controls Great Britain. As part of their grand experiment they force the majority of England out of their homes and force them to live in camps in Scotland and Wales. They provide you with just enough food to live, but not enough that you don’t know hunger. They cut off power supplies at random so you are cold and can only sleep after darkness as you have no power for the TV or light to read by. Water supplies regularly run dry. Occaisionally you will travel back to work in the factories and farms in England, where you’re paid so little you can only afford to buy enough food to feed your children. And when the inevitable protests start across Glasgow and Cardiff the protesters are shot at close range, despite only being armed with sticks and rocks. Someone finds some fireworks and rigs a makeshift rocket, firing it across the border into Newcastle where it lands in the Tyne, harmlessly. In retaliation the Russians bomb Glasgow, burning hospitals to the ground and killing hundreds if not thousands, many of them women and children. The fact that the killing is indescriminate is deliberate, after all the intention is not to stop the current uprising, but to instill a sense of fear so deep that generations will never contemplate ever rising up again. And ask yourself how would you feel towards your new masters living in what were once your homes in England? Knowing that for fun they will kill whoever they want, whenever they want and the World not only looks away, but applauds them while they do it?

When you know how that feels, then you know what it feels like to live in Palestine. And that is why the Palestinians hate the Israelis. And why Israel will never see peace until it finally comes to terms with what it has done to the Palestinians and agrees to sit down and talk. Because without that, eventually the only option left will be a final solution. And that’s something not even the Israelis can truly want.