Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

March 2, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Testing SSL server security

SSL report from ssllabs.com

If you’re a web site administrator and have a SSL certificate, then it’s useful to know that everything is working okay. Qualys SSL Labs have their SSL Test Report which will tell you, free of charge, how secure your site is and what you need to do to improve it.

The test can be run on any site, not just your own, but the information is of most use to server administrators. It tries a number of different tests to ensure that you have a verifiable certificate, and that you’re not using outdated protocols like SSL 2.0 or 3.0. Full technical details are given, as well as a summary score and grade.

You can see this site’s score in the screenshot – overall my site gets a ‘B’ grade. This is mainly because it’s possible to use the older RC4 cipher, which is quite weak when compared to newer ciphers and vulnerable to a number of attacks. There are instructions to prevent this, which involves disabling SSL compression. If I fix this, it should get an ‘A’ grade. The lowest grade is ‘F'; one server I tested got this because it was vulnerable to the POODLE attack. Test results are public unless you tick a box, and the home page shows the recent best and worst domain names.

The test takes a minute or two per domain, as it’s very thorough. It also offers information about why certain tests are important, and what the implications are if your server fails.

It’s a useful tool, and it’s great that it’s free to use. If you run a SSL-secured web site, you should definitely give this a try.

March 1, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Crowdfunded: Bucket of Doom

Bucket of Doom

Last autumn I backed Bucket of Doom, a tabletop game project, on Kickstarter. The game is similar to Cards Against Humanity – a person takes it in turn to read out a situation card, and each player has to play a card with an object on it to get out of that situation.

The situations cards all describe an event that, if not escaped from, will mean imminent doom. Unfortunately, the object cards, rather than being useful things like a rope, teleporter or gun, are things like a screaming baby, a deep-fried Mars bar or a plate of strawberry jelly. So when presenting your object (you have 8 object cards, which are double-sided) you have to be creative. The group votes for the best explained escape plan and the winner gets a point.

The project had a funding goal of £15,000 and rather surprisingly only just made it having raised £15,336. I pledged £13, enough to get an early-bird discount over the recommended retail price of £15. Kickstarter backers also got an additional bonus set of situation cards which aren’t included in the final retail edition, and their name included in the credits.

Whereas Cards Against Humanity comes in a cardboard box, Bucket of Doom – unsurprisingly – comes in a neon pink bucket, with the cards, voting paper pads and pencils inside. I got mine late last year, and we played it for the first time a few weeks ago with friends. It was good fun, although if I’m honest, I preferred Cards Against Humanity a bit more where the humour can be a bit more depraved. Bucket of Doom is a more imaginative game though.

If you’re interesting in buying your own bucket, it’s available now from everyone’s favourite multi-national tax dodger Amazon, and can be pre-ordered from Firebox for delivery in a couple of weeks. It’s £15 from both companies.

February 28, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for February 28, 2015

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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February 26, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The Free Postcode Lottery

Screenshot of the Free Postcode Lottery home page

Do you want to win free money? For most people the answer to this question is ‘yes’ – and the Free Postcode Lottery will let you do just that. Each day, you have the chance to win at least £80.

To register, you provide the site with your email address and UK postcode. You then log in every day to find out which postcode has won that day. If it’s yours, then you win the jackpot, which can be paid to you by Paypal.

If it’s not yours, then you can still accumulate a bonus. For every day that you log in, one penny is added to your bonus – if you win the jackpot, then this is added to your winnings. Because you need to log in every day to see if you’ve won, you should be able to build up £1 after just over three months. There’s also an additional opportunity to win extra money with the Stackpot which is refreshed twice a day at 9am and 9pm, and you can refer friends for extra cash as well.

Unclaimed jackpots roll over – in the screenshot, the jackpot is £140 because the winners from the day before didn’t claim it. It’s got as high as £700 before. The jackpot recently increased from £70 to £80, as the lottery now covers 8% of all UK postcodes. Presumably there will be another increase at 9%.

The lottery is free because all of the income comes from advertising on the site – and you’ll see that it is a particularly advert heavy web site. But because people visit it daily, those adverts get a lot of views, hence why it is able to give so much money away.

If you live in Britain and fancy a chance of winning some cash, then it’s worth signing up. You’ll just get one daily email reminding you to check the draw – no other spam is sent. Here’s my referral link, if you want to give it a try.

February 25, 2015
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Short

Screenshot of ShortGot a spare 5-10 minutes, and want to read something? Short is here to help.

You link Short to your existing Pocket, Instapaper, Readability or ReadingPack account, and it will present you with a list of articles that can be read in under 5 minutes, or under 10 minutes. Tap each one to read it, and when you’re done you can remove it from your reading list. That’s basically it.

That’s not necessarily a criticism as Short is designed to be simple. That being said, it does also include a dark mode, and the usual sharing features, so that you can share interesting articles on your social networks. Short supports multiple read-it-later services simultaneously, so if you have articles saved in both Pocket and ReadingPack (for example), then you’ll be able to see them both in one list. More accounts may be added in later releases, perhaps including Feedly.

Somewhat oddly, you have to sign in to Short with a Twitter account; this is done before you link your read it later service account. One advantage is that it keeps your account settings in sync between multiple devices, such as an iPad and an iPhone.

Screenshot of Short when your feed is emptyThere’s a couple of limitations. Firstly, there’s no embedded video, so if the article you’ve saved for later is a bit of text with a video, then it may show up in Short’s list. Short also won’t show you the tweet that the article was saved from, if applicable, unlike the official Pocket app.

I’ve been using Short for about a week and it’s great for when you’ve just got a few spare minutes. I tend to use Pocket like an inbox, and spent most of the weekend getting my reading list down from 100 unread articles to 0, so being able to clear out the shorter pieces more easily is great. Pocket’s official app has ‘Highlights’ which is supposed to categorise quick reads, but it hasn’t worked on my account for months.

Short is free, and is available from the App Store. It’s a universal app for both iPad and iPhone.

February 24, 2015
by Neil Turner
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What happens to your internet accounts when you die?

Infographic - death in the digital ageIf you died tomorrow, what would happen to your internet accounts? Would you want your family to have access? If you’re like me, it’s probably something you haven’t given a lot of thought to – but perhaps you should.

The Co-operative Funeralcare have created a guide called ‘Death in the Digital Age’. It covers what you should consider doing now, whilst you’re alive, and also what to do if a loved one has passed away and you want to access their online accounts. The Co-op also produced an infographic with some interesting statistics – 75% of people surveyed by ICM had no plans for their online accounts, yet a similar proportion have encountered problems accessing accounts belonging to deceased relatives.

Considering how much stuff we store in cloud services, this is something of a worry, especially when there aren’t physical or local copies. Take photos – how many pictures have you taken that are only on Facebook? If you were no longer around, would a relative be able to still see them?

Sadly a lot of internet companies are not very good when it comes to dealing with the deceased. You’ll find many user agreements prohibit the sharing of usernames and passwords, so by logging into the account of someone who has passed away you are breaking the terms of the agreement. And customer service departments can be unhelpful.

But it’s not all bad news – Google has an ‘inactive account manager’ which allows you to nominate a trusted third party who can gain access to your account if you don’t log in for a certain amount of time. I’ve set this up so that Christine can get into my account if I don’t log in for three months. Facebook is rolling out a similar feature, but it’s restricted to users in the USA right now – in the meantime, you can have a profile ‘memorialised’ if its owner has passed on. We did this with my friend Dave when he died suddenly last year.

Thinking about your own death may seem depressing but it’s a lot easier for your relatives to have everything sorted whilst you’re still alive. Consider the following:

  1. Make sure you have a will in place (Christine and I are getting wills as part of our house purchase).
  2. Write some key usernames and passwords on a piece of paper and store it in a sealed envelope. Include any device passwords or encryption keys if applicable.
  3. Or, if you use a password manager (and you really should), then do the same, but for your master password.
  4. Backup important photos/music etc. to an external USB hard drive – don’t rely solely on cloud storage.

Everyone’s different; you may wish to have all of your online accounts deleted when you die, rather than preserved for others. It’s up to you, but you’re best making that decision now.

February 23, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Expanding cable

Cable Junction Box

Recently, Virgin Media announced it was expanding its cable network. Currently just over half of the UK’s 26 million or so households can get cable service from Virgin Media, although of those 13 million eligible, only 5 million actually subscribe. Virgin Media plans to add another 4 millions households to this, although somewhat controversially this will be primarily in urban areas.

A bit of history

Most of the cables for cable TV, internet and phone were laid in the early 1990s in the UK, by various different companies – usually subsidiaries of larger corporations. In York where my parents live, this was ‘Bell Cablemedia’, part of Bell Canada. Some of these companies spent a lot of money digging up streets to lay cables, but then didn’t make enough money to clear their debts, resulting in some gaps in their networks.

By the late 1990s most of the small companies had merged into three larger firms: Cable & Wireless, NTL and Telewest. NTL bought Cable & Wireless’ home cable business, and then in 2005, NTL and Telewest merged. The combined company then took over Virgin Mobile UK in 2006 and gained the rights to use the Virgin brand, re-branding as Virgin Media.

For the first time, there were two major players in multi-channel television: Virgin Media and its cable network, and the dominant Sky, with its satellite TV and ADSL internet service. Its dominance challenged, Sky had a fall-out with Virgin Media in 2007 lead to many of Sky’s channels being taken off Virgin Media, including Sky1 and Sky Sports News. Virgin Media responded by re-branding its lacklustre channel FTN as Virgin One (which seemed to mostly specialise in repeats of Star Trek: The Next Generation and porn), and launched Setanta Sports News with erstwhile Irish sports broadcaster Setanta. It would be 18 months before the Sky channels returned; ironically the following year Virgin sold all of its own channels to Sky.

The situation today

Which brings us to today. Virgin Media is now the only provider of cable TV and internet in the UK, having amalgamated every other company over the years (the last holdout, Smallworld, was bought last year). This means that it’s the only company with its own infrastructure for internet and phone services – Sky, TalkTalk, EE and all of the other providers all have to buy wholesale capacity BT’s Openreach network. Whilst Openreach should be able to reach every household, due to its routes as a public utility company, Virgin Media’s network, even after expansion, will only connect to a small majority of homes.

That doesn’t mean that the expansion isn’t worthwhile. Any expansion will increase competition, which should be better for consumers; more choice should allow people to access cheaper and better deals that suit their circumstances better. However, Virgin will be focussing on ‘filling in’ gaps in its coverage – towns and cities where it already has a presence but with some streets missing. This is unlikely to include rural areas, or towns where Virgin hasn’t been to before, although we don’t yet have a definitive list of places due to be connected. Access to broadband in rural areas is a contentious issue, but actually London has some of the worst broadband speeds in the country.

Register your interest

If you can’t currently get Virgin Media’s services and want to register your interest, you can do so here. Presumably, if enough people sign up in an area, then Virgin will consider connecting that area to its network. There’s no guarantee though – Virgin Media is a business with shareholders and it has no public service remit. Whilst filling out that form doesn’t commit you to signing up, it doesn’t commit Virgin Media to offering you a service either.

I’ve put the postcode of our new house in there, just in case. However, BT will be upgrading its service there by June, as part of the Super Fast West Yorkshire project which allows it to use public money to upgrade exchanges and street cabinets in more isolated areas. Even without it, we should be able to get similar speeds to what we get now – around 17 Mbps, which is fast enough for 99% of what we use the internet for.

I’ve previously been a Virgin Media customer and they were generally okay – and offered a good cheap deal at the time. But we’re currently with BT and get a good service with them, even if it is pricier than their rivals. I’m not sure whether I would go back to Virgin Media – but I would like that option.

February 22, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Crowdfunded: The East End Film Festival

East End Film Festival

In May last year I backed the fundraiser for the annual East End Film Festival. The festival takes place across the east end of London every year, and 2014 was its 13th year.

This was the first year that the festival operated as a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, to maintain its independence. But this meant it needed an additional £25000 to put on all of the events and workshops as planned, and to keep some of these free where possible.

One of my friends has previously been involved with the festival (she’s now in New York studying for a PhD) and so I was happy to contribute a little bit towards the festival to make sure it went ahead last year. They met their funding target – although only just – and the festival took place in late June. As a thanks for my donation, my name would have appeared on a ‘wall of fame’ at their opening gala, however, with no means to visit London at the time I didn’t get to see it.

The festival is back on for 2015 and this time it’s going ahead without a crowdfunding effort, but with a number of sponsors. Hopefully there will still be many free events and the sponsorship won’t have lead to a loss of independence. It runs from the 1st to the 12th July at venues across the east end of London.