Digital TV for people who don’t much care

Yesterday an old friend called to ask me for an explanation of this digital TV business as she needed to relocate her set and thought it was time for a sort-out. I’m not a TV fanatic; there are no plasma wide-screens hereabouts. However, she’s not what you’d call an avid TV viewer either, so calling me did make sense in a way.

So what is the current TV story for those of us who aren’t aficionados? This is how it is.

As the government as pointed out, ad nausium, the old TV system is being switched off. That’s the TV we all grew up with – transmitted form a mast on the top of a hill somewhere and received by an aerial on your roof. This was analogue.

Analogue is not dead. There are still going to be analogue transmissions from satellites and on cable TV. However, unless you have a particular wish to watch the local news in Mongolia you’re probably not going to be interested. It’s only for specialist foreign channels; your garden will look like Goonhilly and the kit will be expensive and cumbersome.

So apart from the TV junkies, most people will want just digital TV. The only questions you need to ask are “How should I get it?” and “Do I want High Definition?”

The digital TV system is called DVB (Digital Video Broadcast). There are three basic versions: DVB-S for satellites, and DVB-T, which means terrestrial (i.e. broadcast from a transmitter on the top of a hill), and DVB-C which is sent down cable TV. Cable TV arrives down a cable laid to your house and an expensive subscription to a cable TV company. Everyone hates their local cable-TV monopoly. Unless you already know you want cable TV for your own reason, you probably don’t want cable TV.

For DVB-T and DVB-S there are both free and subscription services:

DVB-T: Freeview and Top-up TV
DVB-S: Freesat and Sky

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Both systems need a specific receiver, which can include a decoder for subscription-based channels should you want them. These receivers cost:

DVB-T: ~£30 (but often built into TV sets, especially since 2007).
DVB-S: ~£50 (just starting to appear built-in to some high-end sets).

Here’s where it starts to get tricky. If you do want High Definition (HD) you can only get it on DVB-S (satellite) and you need a special HD receiver box. These cost £150 instead of £50.

With HD the picture is simply made up of more dots than on a standard picture. HD is only worth it if you have a large HD-compatible TV. On a smaller set the dots are so small anyway that you won’t see the extras, and if the set is not not HD-compatible you’re definitely wasting your time. The HD Satellite standard is often referred to as DVB-S2.

You can have a mixture of standard and HD satellite receivers, once you have the dish and the wiring in place, so if you have small sets you can use a standard receiver and get an HD receiver for the big set in the garage, or wherever you keep it.

You can, of course, get an HD receiver ‘free’ from Sky. You’ll see such offers all over the place (Tesco current has posters up offering a free Sky HD box with this set). In the small print you discover you need to take out a subscription to Sky TV for a couple of years – something like £500. This is fine if you want the Sky channels; the only people who I know who feel its worth it are the sports fanatics wanting a wide choice of live football.

What’s coming in the future, just to confuse matters, is HD on Terrestrial transmitters – DVB-T2. This doesn’t exist yet, but is planned for later 2009 in some areas. We’ll have to wait and see what actually happens but it won’t work with standard DVB-T (Freeview) equipment even if a TV does say ‘HD Ready’.

If you think it’s time to upgrade your TV you can buy one with a Freeview (DVB-T) receiver built in. In fact, since the start of 2009, you’d have been hard pressed to find one without it. Unfortunately if you want a built-in satellite receiver then you’ll have to wait. There are some around; they’re quite rare and expensive. Give it a year and I suspect they’ll be common enough too.

So to summarise, if your TV has a screen less than about 32 inches either get a new set with Freeview (DVB-T) or a £30 receiver box to work with your old set. If it’s bigger than 32-inch you’ll get a better picture with Freesat, but the decoder box will cost more and you’ll need to install a satellite dish. Or you can wait until 2010 (or later) when DVB-T2 turns up and gives you HD through a normal aerial. It depends on how good a picture you want.

Bailing out the devil

So the government’s big idea to save us from recession is to prop up the motor industry by giving everyone a £2000 discount on new cars, assuming you trade in an old one. Brilliant! This subsidy will keep the price of cars down while needlessly scrapping perfectly good vehicles that could have given many more years of service.

To make this lunacy palatable the usual emotive terms such as ‘gas guzzler’ and ‘old banger’ have been wheeled out again to try and hide the environmental nonsense of it all from the emotional, and anyone else not bothered to look more deeply into the matter.

And this is aside from the loans and government bail-outs taking place in England, Europe and the USA.

Wake up! We have too many cars because of an over-healthy motor industry able to pile them high and sell them cheap. If you want to reduce the number of cars then contracting the motor industry is the only way to do it. And right now it can be done ‘naturally’, without the need to legislate or tax.

Abandoning any veneer of environmental awareness the politicians will justify this subsidy by pointing to the jobs that would be lost. This is pure emotional blackmail as well as nonsense. If you have surplus workers and piles of cash available there are plenty of other more useful projects available. How about building facilities for sustainable transport with the same resources?

The reason, presumably, is that sustainable transport means just that. Once the infrastructure is in place it lasts, and you’ll end up with a load of workers with no more work unless you can think of further projects. Sustainable energy or agriculture, perhaps? Unfortunately we are stuck with politicians that can only see as far as the next election, and they have vested interests to placate in the mean time. But one thing we can learn from this – when the chips are down they don’t care a jot about the environment, carbon emissions or sustainability.

Vegetable Deluxe

In 2004 (or thereabouts) McDonalds in England dropped the Vegetable Deluxe, which is a pity. If you ordered it without the egg-based sauce it was actually pure vegetarian. Not particularly nice to eat, but no animal products.

The Vegetable Deluxe was replaced by the Quorn something-or-other, and Quorn contains egg, so its demise was a step in the wrong direction. This was itself replaced, apparently, by a vegetable and cheese sandwich; available without the cheese on request.

So what are McDonalds up to? I decided to write to them and ask, and they replied saying that the Veg Deluxe was simply discontinued. Hmmm.

The next time I was at a McDonalds (some considerable time later) I asked the manager for his views, and was told I could have one. Great! Well, not great; but better than nothing. Can I have a receipt with that?

Armed with the receipt to prove that it was still on the menu I wrote back to head office and this time I received an apology – apparently it’s available, but at the manager’s discretion. The manager I spoke to had no intention of stopping, and supplies were readily available even if it didn’t appear on the menu.

But why should anyone care? Surely McDonalds is the Great Satan of the catering world. Well, actually, they’re not as bad as many and they do respond to public opinion. Any business that doesn’t is, by definition, selling the wrong thing.

So consider this: If people don’t order the Vegetable Deluxe from time to time then McDonalds really will stop selling it. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I say it’s bad. It reinforces their (supposed) corporate idea that meat is the only thing that sells. Actually, if you go to McDonalds in India you’d be hard pressed to find meat, which is proof enough that they do respond to what the locals are demanding. If they’re not selling what you’re after, go and demand it. A boycott isn’t going to scare them.

The only downside is that if you buy a Veggie Deluxe to encourage them you’ll have to find something to do with it, unless you propose to eat it.

The road to hell…

I’m not a communist, but it’s pretty obvious to me that there are some things that are best not left to the free market. The management of Internet domain names is one of them. And no, I’m not about to discuss the pigs breakfast that the American’s have made involving Network Solutions. This problem’s home grown, and fortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.

Nominet is the not-for-profit company that manages the allocation of most of the .uk domain names (notable exceptions being .gov.uk and .ac.uk). By and large it does a pretty good job; and anyone who thinks otherwise should look across the Atlantic and think again.

But this, apparently, is not enough. The management wants to widen its terms of reference to allow it to undertake new projects such as the allocation of telephone numbers. Now I don’t have a problem with this – Nominet has proved it can allocate domain names, so they’re a sensible choice to take on this new role. However, the terms of reference they are asking for allows them to offer ‘consultancy’ services. According to the document, they’re being asked for this and turning potential customers away. I say ‘Good!’

Nominet has a ‘public service’ charter. It’s a monopoly because we need one. The Internet community in the UK effectively owns Nominet, and it represents everyone’s interests. This is why it was set up with such narrow terms of reference – it’s a one-trick pony. It does what it does, and it does it well. It’s not competing in the marketplace for anything else, and no one can compete with Nominet.

But what if it could complete with other companies? It wouldn’t be doing so on equal terms – it holds the levers of control for the whole UK DNS. It has a guaranteed income stream form issuing domain names. It can take risks and lose money without worrying because it has a goose laying golden eggs. It’d make one hell of a player! But it would do so at the expense of everyone else.

Is the management of Nominet actually bent on world domination? Well I’ve had a chat with the people responsible and they insist that they only wanted to bid of the telephone number allocation business and while they were at it they wanted some general clauses added to cover future eventualities without having to change their terms of reference again. They had no intention of competing with their members or anyone else. That’s great, but will it remain so for the rest of time? I doubt it. With nothing in the terms of reference to hold them back, sooner or later someone would take advantage. What’s the point of having power and not using it.

If you’re going to have a non-profit organisation managing a monopoly for the public good then it should do just that. No more, no less.

For more information take a look at Nominet’s web site under consultations.

For Nominet’s Consultation Document click here.

How to prevent spammers getting your email address

Everyone knows this one, right? Just obey the following rules:

  1. Don’t give your email address to strangers
  2. Never post your email address on newsgroups
  3. Don’t leave your email address lying about on web pages.
  4. Don’t reply to spam – they know you’re reading it.

Unfortunately this advice is seriously out-of-date, although some emails are still harvested by spammers this way. People keep asking the question “I didn’t do any of the above, so how come I’m getting all this spam?”

What the American spammers are actually doing is using malicious software on innocent computers (installed using the normal virus channels). Amongst other things, this software searches the victim’s hard disk for all the email addresses it can find. It then sends the results back to be added to their spamming list. In order to have your email address added to a spamming list, all you need do is exchange an email with an infected PC – or a PC that becomes infected in the future.

As to item four, about never responding to spam, this is no longer the case. Spammers don’t use their real return address anyway. They track who’s reading their wares by embedding a reference to an image in an HTML email. When the message is displayed the image is downloaded from their server; when this happens they know who it was. Microsoft Outlook allows this to happen; Microsoft doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to fix it.

So what can you do? Not much! If you can, use disposable emails. For example, if you’re the secretary of a club and you correspond with a large number of people, some of whom are likely to be hijacked, make your email address ’secretary1@…’. When this is compromised, change it to ’secreatry2@…’ and so on.

A proper solution is needed, but there’s no political will to solve it. The identity of the criminals doing this is well-enough known; the American’s just let them operate virtually unhindered. Something to do with ‘freedom of speech’!

Using AOL with a Router

Why does everyone hate AOL (America On Line) so much? Probably because it allowed Joe Public access to the Internet, and Joe Public didn’t know how to behave. AOL also provides a simplified service at what has often been a premium price. And their marketing makes the technically literate cringe with embarrassment.

However, people do use AOL Broadband, using a modem. Today I had to get ADSL running for a small charity that happened to have a live subscription to AOL, so why not use that? No information on if or how it would work with a router, that’s why not.

However, some experimentation, judicious guesswork and a polite but firm telephone call to an overseas call centre produced the following results:

First off, remember this is for England only. Secondly, AOL calls the user-ID a ’screen name’. Make sure you get the case exactly right – it’s sensitive!

So, to make AOL work with your router as follows:

  • PPP User ID: [screen name]@aol.com
  • PPP Password: [usual password]
  • PPP Authentication: CHAP (or PAP+CHAP)
  • VCI: 38
  • VPI: 0
  • Modulation: G.DMT
  • Dynamic IP address
  • Encapsulation: VC Mux (Multiplexed)
  • Protocol: PPPoA

This assumes you know what PPP is, and how you program your router. If not, I hope you’ve got a good router manual. Set this lot up and away you go – LCP will provide the necessary IP address, DNS and so on – filtered down to the machines on the LAN by DHCP automatically. Well it worked for me!

AOL doesn’t provide a full-on two-way Internet connection, but it probably does what most domestic users want and if they’re caught in a twelve-month contract there’s no sense in cancelling early.

Beefeater – what do you expect?

I’d normally give any chain of eateries with a name like Beefeater a very wide berth. About ten years ago I went with a group of friends to and Angus Steak House, and it was the vegetarian starvation zone you’d expect – with an attitude to match.

Today I was looking for somewhere to eat near Borough Green with Barry (a devout, but discriminating carnivore) and he was very keen to try the Beefeater. To be honest, there wasn’t any choice in the area and we’d been suck in the M25 traffic for what seemed like eternity and we had a lot of work ahead of us, so I went along with it.

As it turned out they didn’t have much that was pure veggie (a side order of chips?) but if you each cheese or fish you’d be okay. But at least they didn’t have the attitude.

E7Even

I’ll try not to say “I told you so”, but e7even (aka e7broadband) has ceased providing any kind of service to its customers. Has it gone bust? No. It seems to have done a deal to let Mr Marrocco (186k) take over their customers – they won’t give the MAC to anyone else. For another ADSL provider to take over a line from another provider you need a MAC (Migration Authorisation Code) and guess what? E7even aren’t providing one of those either. It seems doubtful that the customers that paid up-front will be receiving a refund.

E7even was the cheapest ADSL provider by quite a large margin. When they launched their customers felt they had a bargain – it did work quite well. The rest of us figured out that they’d either be unable to provide proper backup at that price; had swung a fantastic wholesale deal; or had found a sure-fire way of going bust.

As time passed there were signs of disagreements and problems with E7even’s wholesale suppliers (yes, they had more than one) and the whole thing started to fall apart.

Now E7even’s customers are faced with either losing their service (their money already seems to have gone) or sign up with Mr Marrocco for a high-priced alternative. I’ve seen nothing to prove that 186k is capable of supporting retail ADSL users. As a company it’s seems to be going around with a pot of money and buying everything it can.

This story will, no doubt, roll on for some time to come.

Flamin’ Forty!

Well that’s it – forty years old. I’ve just turned forty. This is pretty much half way, and I’ve never kept a diary. In fact, I’ve never had much to do with paper in any form – but technology has moved on.

An old colleague of mine from journalism days – David Brake – started a blog years ago and I thought it was a fun idea. So I’ve set this one up using the same software on the assumption that he knew what he was doing.