Thursday 23 August 2007

Is stealing wireless wrong?

Well let me think. Stealing is wrong! So stealing wireless is... erm... er... right? No. Wrong? At least this seems to be the opinion voiced in this BBC article - that is -no one appears very sure. Curious how when something appears to have little or no value on the surface, whether you are allowed to steal it suddenly becomes open for debate.

Basically, some bloke has been arrested for using his laptop in the street to connect to some other random person's unsecured wireless internet connection.

But, before your knee jerks, and you utter something completely foolish such as "Wot they arrest 'im for? Serves the other bloke right, they shud've secured their tinternet", you might want to:

  • Read the article
  • Scratch your head at the completely innacurate analogy of the article author
  • Guffaw at the more ridiculous analogies posted by the general public in response
  • Be mildly suprised at the bare faced cheek of the one who openly confessed to using his neighbours connection all the time:
Freeloading and proud of it. I just hope the person downstairs doesn't read
this. Bob, Bobsland

Before we go any further however, all good interactive media developers will already know how to be safe from Bob of Bobsland, by ensuring their wireless router is configured with WPA encryption enabled and MAC Address filtering. That way you keep your bandwidth all to yourself - and not share it with Bob and the Boblandians. And why not? After all you are paying for it.

However, some of our fellow internet users think that wanting to keep your wireless network to yourself is "odd". Consider this comment from "Richard, Nottingham":

Does it matter if Richard Branson, BT or any other major corporate company doesn't get a few more pounds? If someone wants to share then fine, if you're a bit odd and aren't interested, then put a password on it. Don't give me the 'I'm paying, so why should someone else get something out of it' argument either.
Richard, Nottingham

Of course Richard of Nottingham made no comment about whether it was"odd" to want to keep his cash to himself while he freeloads your broadband connection.

Some no doubt really think that wireless signals will go to waste if not used (indeed the author of the BBC article seems to think so - hence their crass analogy to open their article). But this is not the case. In some situations piggy-backing someone else's connection will do little more than slow their data transfer rate. In other cases you may be robbing them blind - this occurs if the user has a broadband contract that has a cap or limit on the ammount of data they can transfer in a month. If the freeloader downloads 10Mb, he has robbed their paying host 10Mb worth of data transfer.

Judging by some of the comments, this would not only not be stealing, but the wireless owner would be asking for it. As if someone savvy enough to find the unsecured wireless somehow lacks the power of choice in the matter. The same people equate it to leaving your car doors open and say you should have no cause to complain when it gets nicked. Clearly, leaving a car door open is a crime worthy of having your car permanently confiscated by a thief, while being a car thief is a profession worthy of a free car. These people are blatantly missing the point while they come up with worse and worse analogies for at best freeloading and at worst stealing from their neighbours.

The problem with blaming the victim for their carelessness, and placing the blame on them, is potentially much worse than ignoring the obvious fact that the thief had a choice. There are rights issues at stake here. In fact there is real danger in setting a precedent that it becomes the owners job to make access impossible or "right of access" is assumed to be granted. Legal precedent tends to spill over into other situations. This is not a direction we want to go.

When analogy ping-pong fails, and the crooks still think they have a right to piggy-back, I have this to say:

To all the cheapskate freeloading parasites out there - especially those who regularly leech off their unwitting neighbours. If you don't want to pay BT for your own connection, you should knock on the persons door whose connection you are using, and offer to go halves. Now that's sharing and paying your own way. You also might then feel differently if leech number 3 came along and wasn't sharing the bill. If you're freeloading, taking not giving, you're being a parasite! Get your own connection or at least offer to pay some to your host and be a drain on others no longer.

I wonder if the BBC will publish my comment.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Dealing with "Click to Activate" for browser based Flash content

One thing you may have noticed when browsing websites containing Flash content, is that you now need to "click to activate", before you can interact with it. This is not IE being more secure, but rather it is a result of legal action from a company called Eolas who apparently owns a patent that has something to do with how plugins and browsers work together. Without going into the legal rambling the real issue for interactive media creators is how you get around it.

So you have crafted some smooth graphics and smoother actionscript all designed to respond to the mouse at it's merest touch. You object and embed it into a web page, the user opens the page, the mouse moves over the flash movie and... nothing happens.

At least not what you intended. Instead a grey box appears around the flash content and a message appears telling the user to "click to activate". That's alright for you - you know there is a flash movie there to activate. But do your users even know what the message means? Besides that, who wants to introduce another 'click' before your page works properly.

If you don't know what I mean, take a look here (click) and mouseover the yellow box on the home page.

The solution

Well, in fact there are several suggestions. But rather than go into details here repeating what others have said, take a look for yourself: >

and >

While Microsoft is not without its anti-fans wishing it ill luck, it is ironic that when in this case they are not having things their own way, the result is also very annoying for end users too.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Job Hunting Online? Graduates and others be aware...

Now is the time for all good graphics and interactive media graduates to start hunting that elusive, and highly competed job. But while you trawl the job pages, or more likely join all the job-hunting websites you can find, take a gander at this BBC article, and note the tips for personal security.

The BBC reports that, the US based jobs site was hacked and the personal information of over 1 million users stolen. Not much you as a user can do about that type of security breach, but you can go for damage limitation. In particular the BBC reported the following tips from computer security firm Symantec:
Symantec said users should always limit contact information posted to job websites and to use a disposable e-mail address.

"Never disclose sensitive details such as your social security number, passport or driver's license numbers, bank account information to prospective employers until you have established they are legitimate," said the firm.

Read the full article >

Monday 20 August 2007

Creative Commons and Copyright

If you're an interactive media producer then copyright is something that will effect you directly both as a user of other's work (as in Image Libraries) and a creator (as in other people ripping your work off). Protecting your work, and licensing it for others to use can be complex, but an organisation called the Creative Commons has made it easier. Read on.

This great video introduction explains what it's about so much better than I can:

Click to view >

So now you know what it's all about, you will want to know how to license your work so others know how they can, or cannot use it.

Nothing could be simpler, Creative Commons have even made this bit easy, just visit their "Choose a License" page, select your preferences and voila, the license that fits your needs is spewed out ready for use.

I have already put it into use on my Carrara shaders website - Virtual Matter. It was very straight forward, have a go yourself.

Saturday 18 August 2007

Free Graphics Software

Countless times since my student days (lets not say how long ago that was), when Ebay or (more often) my wallet could not supply my software needs, I have resorted to hunting down freeware. And let me tell you, when you have been looking for freeware for as long as I have, you accumulate quite a stash. So to save other people the pain of hunting - I listed it all on my website, among the mundane are some real treasures.

Of course the great thing about my site is - it really is freeware - unlike some other websites that rate high on Google in freeware searches, but are mostly full of shareware with the odd free tid-bit thrown in. (If I wanted shareware I would have searched for it - surely Google can do better).

Anyhow - you have been spared the pain, and while you are free to enjoy the fruits of my labours at your leisure, allow me to introduce some nifty alternative freeware offerings for the skint but honest digital creative:

The freeware alternative to Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro... of course The Gimp. There seem to be numerous download options for The Gimp, and while installable releases are available for Windows I have recently come to favour the trouble free Gimp Portable. Gimp Portable does not need installing, can run from a USB drive, or copy it to your HDD and shortcut to it in your Start Menu. It's a neat little package that just runs without having to mess about with all this GTK stuff.

The Gimp is pretty powerful, and in some places really does live up to the expectations of Photoshop users (layer masks, blending modes, magnetic lasso etc.) but if you need something less daunting I can recommend Serif PhotoPlus 6. I know Serif usually expect money for their software, but they are so confident you will like what they produce, and want to upgrade to the latest version, they are giving away slightly older versions of their graphics apps free. Definately worth checking out.

More here >

Dreamweaver or FrontPage are out of your budget...

...and Word is just too lame for words (forgive the pun), when it comes to web page design. In this case NVU is the best freeware alternative. I am of course assuming you want a web page design app that helps you manage your files, has built in FTP, allows WYSIWYG and Code View, previews CSS in design view, and doesn't "break" your PHP formating. All for the grand price of free.

More here >

Corel Painter also has a free alternative... the form of Art Rage. The software's designers Ambient Design offer this program in Full and Free versions. Admittedly the free version does not have all the features of the full version, but it is still a credible alternative for natural media simulation. And if Art Rage does not meet your needs, you can always try Deep Paint 2 or Project Dogwaffle 1.2.

3D comes free as well...

...with some very powerful software. In fact the options for 3D freeware are so exciting I hardly know what to say. So I won't say anything apart from to list them below so you can let them speak for themselves (I hear you sigh with relief):

Blender - 3D modelling, animation, rendering, powerful but tricky
Bryce 5.5 - 3D landscape generation, animation, rendering, powerful but not too difficult
True Space 3.2 - 3D modelling, animation, rendering, powerful but easier than Blender
Plant Studio - The easy way to produce 3D plants for use in the above programs

More here >

And finally...

I could go on and on, but why bother when it's all on my website anyway. Just one more thing before I go, an important point to be aware of. Just because software is freeware, does not mean you can pass it on to your mates. Make sure you check you are OK to do that. Some freeware allows it, other freeware is more strictly controlled by the publisher. Be nice to the people who are kind enough not to charge and stick to the agreements you make with them when you install.


Friday 17 August 2007

Adobes Auctions Advice

Further to my last blog, this information from Adobe may be interesting. They don't explain how to ask an auction seller if something is legal (why would they), but this article makes essential reading if you want help avoiding being ripped off:
"Auction sites can be fun, exciting sources for unusual and hard-to-find treasures. The vast majority of individuals who use online auctions are honest people conducting legitimate business. However, buying software from auction sites can be an extremely risky proposition. Here are some tips for purchasing from auction sites..."
Read more >

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Buying Software on Ebay

Though I see a lot less in the way of dodgy Photoshop copies these days, buying software on Ebay is not without risk. This is my approach to filtering out the rip offs.

As a design teacher (ex-freelancer) I use all the industry standard tools: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Flash, Dreamweaver etc. In fact software has to be the biggest cost apart from the building I work in. The fact is that software licensing is not at all cheap. If I want my own copies to use at home it would cost as much as any business. If like me you prefer to stay legal and avoid pirate copies - buying second hand is pretty much the only option - and Ebay is one of the best places to do it. But tread carefully.

What you are after

Finding the software you want on Ebay is easy enough, what is not so easy is finding a genuine bargain. When you do spot what looks like a bargain among a forest of expensive "Buy it now" items, it is really helpful to know what you are after.

What many people don't realise when buying software, is that the most important things are the license and the serial number. Not the disc, not the manual, not the box, but the license and serial. Those other things are wanted too, but without the license and serial owning the disc is of little legal value.

This license is in simple terms a recognition by the publisher that you have their permission to install and use that software. It may come in a tangible form such as a certificate, but more commonly these days licenses are managed through the software serial number via online registration (hence the importance of the serial number).

You are after:

  • Original Publisher Produced Media (Media means CD/DVD, whatever the software comes on) and not a copy
  • Original Serial Number sticker/card etc.
  • Any other original documentation, manuals and packaging (if available)
  • That you are also buying license (the right) to install and use the software (and not just a disc with the software on - there is a difference)
  • A full commercial use license (there are other licenses that give you limited use rights, if you plan to use the software as part of a business you need a full commercial license)
  • Assurance that if the software is currently installed elsewhere it will be uninstalled
  • If the software has been registered before, you are also after appropriate license transfer documentation (so you are not duped, this documentation is available from the publisher website, and should be signed by the previous owner with all correct details). This is your proof that the previous owner really did transfer the license to you.

Don't be fooled

Some areas you need to look out for to avoid being ripped off include:

  • Type of License
  • Media Only
  • Fakes
Type of license

The type of license is everything if you are planning to use the software commercially (that is for business - and possibly for doing favours for someone else who is in business). Here are some licenses you might find yourself buying if you don't watch it:
  • Educational or Academic License
  • Beta, Demo or Trial
Educational or Academic licenses are the ones you might get caught by. This license provides the lastest full version of the software at a really low price, less than £100 when you know that normally you might pay 5 times that. It comes in nice packaging, brand new, probably even advertised on Ebay as "new sealed" so you know no one will have used it or registered it before. The only problem is that the Educational or Academic license does not permit the software to be used for commercial purposes. It is specifically aimed at students and educational establishments, if you use educational license software for your business you are using it illegally. If you are a student using it only for personal and college work, and happy to have an educational license, the chances are you are not making that big of a saving shopping on Ebay, since it is sold cheap anyway by the publisher.

Beta, Demo or Trial software usually works just fine, and then stops working when the trial or demo period runs out. It is also not licensed for commercial use. This is intended for professionals to try out new features and decide if they want to buy a full commercial license.

Read Carefully. Make sure you read the full description provided by the seller. I have lost count of the number of times I have clicked a listing that says something like "Flash 8 Professional - Full Version" at a great price, only to find when I had read through loads of drivel that it was an educational license they were selling. Except that I nearly didn't find out, it was only that I bothered to scroll all the way down that I saw the small red writing that warned me it was an educational license, right at the end of the listing. Who are they kidding, pretending to be up front about the type of license. If they really wanted people to know it was an academic license they wouldn't put "Full Verion" in their listing, or at the very least, they would let me know in big writing at the top of the advert. Apart from the real pirates, it's these guys that annoy me the most, it is blatant deception in my opinion, hoping to trick the unwary.

So be wary. Check the small print.

Respect to this seller for being up-front: click to view >

Media Only

Be careful that the software you buy includes a legitimate license and those other things you are after that I mentioned earlier. "Media only" sales may only be just that. The media. That is the disc and nothing else.

Some sellers may say "media only" to indicate that no packaging or manual is available. It doesn't mean it comes without a license. Just be aware and make sure you ask the seller a question to confirm it is what you are after.


The seller is highly unlikely to be up front if they are pedalling pirate software. If you are unsure, ask the seller a question to confirm it is what you are after.

Some seller claim not to sell pirate copies, but rather be selling "backups" or "replacements" for people who already own a license to use the software. Whatever they call it, if they are duplicating media and selling it without the publishers authorisation it is a pirate - avoid at all costs.

Some software is not pirate, it is simply not the software you are after. It is common on Ebay for sellers to list Freeware that does a similar job to the software you want. It's not illegal to sell it, but paying an Ebay seller for sending it on a CD would also be a waste of money since you can download most freeware for nothing (see my site for instance). You do have to be careful you don't buy it by mistake however, sometimes the way it is listed can fool you.

Take this example for instance: click to view >

To the trained eye this is obviously not Flash, but it is close enough to make you look, and to the untrained eye it might seem a real bargain. I do wonder what Freeware Flash software they might have burned to a CD for some naive customer. PowerBullet Presenter maybe? Perhaps they even threw in Squirlz Morph, Draw SWF and Live SWF Lite...

Double Check to be Sure

You have probably heard it said before but, if it looks too good to be true - it probably is.

Not wanting to be bitten I have got into the habit of double checking with the seller of every software item I have doubts about. The best way I have found to check the legitimacy of a software item on Ebay is to be completely up front with the seller.

Using the Ebay ask the seller a question facility I would send the seller a general question about the item that goes something like this:
Hello, please could you confirm the following:

1. The item is original Adobe media
(original CD, with case and manual) and not a copy, pirate, backup, clone etc.

2. The item is unregistered.
3. The item is no longer installed on a computer.
4. The item comes with original Adobe Serial Number sticker and documentation.
5. The item comes with a full commercial license and is not an academic or educational license or a beta/demo/trial etc.

Sorry to be so specific, but there are some dodgy vendors on ebay.
Thanks very much.

And there you have it. It is polite, direct and unambiguous. There is no need for the seller to take offence, anyone would want to make just as sure as you are trying to be.

Typically I have had one of three responses from sellers, to this type of query:

1. No reply. This is fine by me, it tells me something may be wrong. If they simply did not get round to replying - too bad, but it's not worth the risk.

2. Total confirmation. They confirm all my points, and I am more confident to bid. Of course they may be lying but because of the detail of my questioning I will have a good case for claiming my money back since the item was not as described.

3. Partial confirmation. They might confirm some points but not others. This might be harmless - for instance they no longer have the packaging but everything else is in order. But do be careful with these. Don't assume that because they only mention one problem that everything else is confirmed. Anything you ask which they do not specifically confirm may be a problem. What you want is positive confirmation of each point. In this case I would simply send another question asking them to confirm all points except, for instance, that the box is missing.

Being this cautious might smack of paranoia, but I have never been sold dodgy software on Ebay yet.

Monday 13 August 2007

Making BBC Listen Again Do What You Want

The continuing problems with the BBC Listen Again Radio Player inspired me to find my own method of listening again.

I am a big fan of BBC Radio listen again and I tap into it regularly to catch all the best programs that I miss while at work or otherwise. Usually this consists of the Art & Drama listings where I can check out what plays have been on and if there are any decent books being read. I also love BBC 7 for The 7th Dimension - devoted to SciFi and stuff like that.

One of the best things about BBC Radio listen again is their groovy web based radio player. Built in HTML it appears to use Javascript to communicate with an embedded Real Player. It's a really good piece of work (though it fails to work for my Ubuntu Studio - no embedded player you see, it is great on my Windows XP machine) for most users, designed to be easy on the eye and the brain, with all available programs no more than 2 clicks away listed by genre or station.

Only problem is, for the last 3 weeks (ish) the BBC Listen Again player has experienced problems that at first seemed to be short term but have now become part of using the system. Not only has their apology message become an almost permanent fixture in the interface (along with the sinking feeling every time I see it is still there) but it has caused considerable disruption to my listening pattern.

The BBC report that the problem is related to a corrupted database, and that "A team of BBC engineers are working full time to fix the database problems and restore normal service." Bless them, they are trying.

In the meantime I found myself being directed to the BBC 7 homepage to find direct links that would let me listen in a standalone Real Player (rather than the BBC player). OK, so here was a workaround. The only drawback was that unlike the BBC player, the listen again page only showed programs from the previous day, and not from earlier the same day.

I thought I would take a look at the construction of the links to the audio files. To my delight they were completely human readable. For instance, the following link plays the program that aired on Friday at 13:15:

How simple could it be? There is named the radio station, the day and the time in 24 hour clock.

It only took a little curiosity to see if by pasting the link into the browser address bar, and altering day and time, whether I could listen to program from today (the link for which would not actually be published by the BBC until tomorrow). The experiment was a success:

Evidently the BBC publish the audio files in advance, but publish the links to the audio later when they want the public to access them.

So if you want to listen to BBC7 and you know the day and time your program aired just copy the following line, paste it into your browser address bar, and fill in the [day e.g. monday] and [24 hour time e.g. 1800]:[day]/rams/[24%20hour%20time].ram

Happy listening.