Wednesday, December 17, 2014

UK: Cost of living falls as fuel & food prices drop

Christmas 2014 is proving to be a much cheaper for many consumers as lower fuel prices has also brought down the price of other commodities including food and other goods.

Cut price fuel

Supermarkets have led the way in cutting the cost of petrol at the pumps. In September, Asda's petrol price was as high as 126.7p a litre, with diesel at 129.7p a litre. However recent reductions have seen Asda customers paying no more than 110.7p a litre for petrol, with the company's diesel costing 117.7p a litre.

Other outlets have also slashed prices. In January was diesel was priced between 134.9p and 142.9p a litre at many forecourts. However, there are few outlets charging more than 130.9p a litre with petrol prices significantly cheaper.

According to the RAC the average price for a litre of petrol was currently 116.9p, nearly 14p a litre cheaper than at the start of the year. Meanwhile, diesel was nearly 16p cheaper at 122.33p a litre now, compared to an average price of 138.24p in January.

£1 a litre predicted

But prices could fall even further with some suggesting that petrol may drop to only a pound per litre.

The RAC has said that petrol could dip below £1 a litre in the new year, which would take prices at the pumps to their lowest level since the end of May 2009. Not everyone is so optimistic. AA president Edmund King was more cautious saying crude prices would need to drop significantly to bring forecourt prices so low. "With duty on each litre of fuel at 57.95p and VAT around 20p, plus the pound at its lowest level against the dollar for three months, it would take another almighty drop in crude prices to reach £1 a litre at the pumps."

"Drivers would love to see £1 per litre but a white Christmas might be a better bet at the moment. However, for canny drivers there are still variations in pump prices of up to 5p litre in the same town. So shop around and make the most of the lower prices."

The Petrol Retailers' Association have also dashed such hopes with chairman Brian Madderson saying the notion of £1 a litre "stretching imagination too much."

"Oil would have to fall to $25 a barrel for us to get to £1 a litre, when even the Saudis would wince. I would be very surprised if we saw it fall below $50 a barrel, even in the best case," Madderson added.

Nonetheless, there have been dramatic falls in the price of crude over the past few months. Oil has fallen by more than 46% from a high of $115.06 a barrel in June. The slide is a result of a plentiful supply of oil from the US, where shale oil produced by fracking has transformed output, and from the mainly Middle East Opec group of oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia, which have refused to reduce production to push up the price.

Motorists have certainly seen the effect of lower fuel prices. "Filling up the car is dramatically cheaper than a few months ago," one driver filling up his Jeep at a Texaco service station said. "Back in June it cost me over £70 for full tank but now it's closer to £50."

Effects on inflation, prices

The falling price of petrol is has had a knock on effect in other areas. Economists believe the lower oil prices will contribute to a fall in inflation.

Tumbling oil prices, cheaper petrol and falling food costs has already pushed inflation to its lowest level in more than a decade in November.

In a welcome boost in the run up to Christmas, shoppers are finding extra benefits of falling oil prices. With shipping and manufacturing costs down, so the prices of goods in the shops have fallen.

Indeed some experts suggest that households in Britain could continue to benefit from falling inflation in the coming months, with some predicting that price rises, as measured by the consumer prices index (CPI), could fall to 0.5% next month. This would represent the joint lowest rate of inflation since records began in 1989.

November's figures showed food and non-alcoholic beverages fell by 1.7% on last year, the steepest drop since June 2002. Meanwhile according to figures published by the British Retail Consortium food prices have fallen for the first time in at least eight years, promising lower bills at Christmas and into the New Year for many shoppers.

The drop in prices comes amid fierce competition between all the major supermarkets under pressure from German brands Aldi and Lidl.

The two German supermarkets now command a record 8.6% slice of the supermarket sector. Sales at Aldi soared by 22.3% on last year, while Lidl saw an 18.3% surge. Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury's have suffered declines though the more upmarket supermarket Waitrose has enjoyed a 6% rise in sales, extending a run of growth dating back to February 2009.

In order to entice customers big supermarkets are bombarding families with money off vouchers for food and fuel in a bid to get them through the doors.

Consumers have also benefitted from a flurry of pre-Christmas sales. Black Friday and Cyber Monday kicked things off in early December but some retailers have continued to slash prices further as the festive season approaches.

There are certainly bargains to be had with technology goods in particular being sold at knock-down prices. For those with surplus cash there isn't a better time to spend.

With unemployment also falling and new data suggesting much of the Eurozone economy growing there will be many having something to celebrate as 2015 approaches.

Not everyone is benefiting from lower oil prices however. Venezuela loses around $700 million for every dollar drop on the price of a barrel of oil. Russia has also lost out too. Russia requires oil to be set at around $110 per barrel just to balance its economy. Sanctions, low oil prices and other factors have severely impacted on Russia over the last year and attempts to support the financial system has resulted in higher interest rates and rising prices.

Reports: Sky News / BBC / Daily Mail / This is Money / Telegraph / This is Money / Scotsman / Daily Mail / NYT

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, December 13, 2014

New laws are breaking up the Internet

There has been a continuing debate as to whether the spelling of the Internet should have an initial capital letter. Given that in general terms there is only one Internet the argument is surely academic, and ICANN - the body that dishes out web addresses - seems to have the opinion that the Internet is a proper noun.

But there is a gradual erosion of the Internet as more and more countries apply restrictions which are effectively creating many different internets and even intranets.

China, Iran, Cuba and North Korea are often cited when it comes to Internet restrictions. But there are a growing number of western democracies that are also imposing restrictions.

"Right to be forgotten"

In the past year Europe has seen dramatic changes to what might be searchable on the web after a so-called "right to be forgotten", ruling imposed by the European Parliament, forced search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing to remove links from search results about aggrieved individuals.

The issue arose from the desires of some individuals to "determine the development of his life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past."

However, the law has essentially created a two tier internet where those outside Europe can search for something that is unsearchable within the EU [Wikipedia]

Copyright issues

In the last few months legislators in parts of Europe focused on Google News which they said infringed the copyright of publishers. The search giant eventually decided to stop publishing such snippets in October [WSJ]. But while Google certainly benefits from its news portal, so too do publisher since traffic is often directed to their site from the Google News page.

Indeed Germany's biggest news publisher Axel Springer has since scrapped a move to block Google from running snippets of articles from its newspapers, after finding that traffic to its sites had plunged.

A Google spokesman in Germany praised the turnaround and said, "The decision shows that Google is making a significant contribution to the economic success of news publishers." [Reuters

While German publications made a U-turn in Spain legislators brought in new laws which forced

This week Google will shut down its Spanish News service in response to a new law that obliges anyone to pay publications for displaying even the smallest snippet of an article [BBC].

Spanish publishers angry

Whilst lawmakers may be happy at their victory, Spanish publications may see a sharp decline in web traffic. In fact such a prospect has already prompted Spanish newspapers to beg their government to drop the proposals which come into force in January 2015.

Following Google's announcement that it would shut down its Spanish version of Google News, the Spanish Newspaper Publishers' Association [AEDE] issued a statement saying that Google News was "not just the closure of another service given its dominant market position" but recognised that Google's decision "will undoubtedly have a negative impact on citizens and Spanish businesses".

"Given the dominant position of Google [which in Spain controls almost all of the searches in the market and is an authentic gateway to the Internet], AEDE requires the intervention of Spanish and community authorities, and competition authorities, to effectively protect the rights of citizens and companies". [The Spain Report / TechDirt]

Google maintains that it makes no money directly from its news aggregator which shows no advertising. Where it may make money is through adsense advertisements shown on the news websites to which it directs its users.

"This new legislation requires every Spanish publication to charge services like Google News for showing even the smallest snippet from their publications, whether they want to or not. As Google News itself makes no money [we do not show any advertising on the site] this new approach is simply not sustainable," the tech company said in a statement.

Google may lose out since traffic to Spanish news sites will undoubtedly decline. However, the news websites themselves may also a markedly downward decline in revenue. It could be devastating to such websites as those who pay to advertise directly on the said website withdraw from any commercial deals it may have with publications. After all paying to advertise on a site that gets little traffic would make no financial sense.

The Spanish legal move has been branded a "suicide pact" which "invited Google to pull the trigger" by some web commentators [The Spain Report]. Others have called Google's response has been referred to as a "thermonuclear response", but understandable given the circumstances. Furthermore there are fears the Spanish law could even affect the likes of Facebook and Twitter [The Spain Report].

Russia targets western tech companies

Meanwhile in Russia new laws targeting foreign tech companies looks set to change the way Russians use the web forever.

The new law, which bans companies from storing data about its citizens on servers outside Russia, may see its Internet users effectively banned from using the likes of Google services, Facebook, Skype, Adobe Photoshop and even the buying of airline tickets from foreign carriers.

Google has already responded saying that it plans to move engineers out of its office in Russia. Whilst the firm said it "remains committed" to Google users in the country the move will likely have a dramatic effect on the way the company operates inside Russia.

Should other companies obey the letter of the law it would deprive Russians of the opportunity to use Facebook or even buy plane tickets from foreign airlines through their websites. And whilst tech companies have been vague in their response to the new legislation it is clear the Internet won't be quite the same as other tech firms announced their departure.

Adobe Systems, maker of Photoshop and other popular software, announced that it was closing its Russia office [Vedomosti].

Microsoft has yet to make any announcement on how the new laws may affect its Russian user base, however given that Skype also keeps its users' personal data on servers outside Russia, Russian citizens may also be deprived of the popular Internet telephone service [BBC / Bloomberg / Economic Times / Guardian].

Brave new world

And in another step toward the construction of a Chinese-style Great Firewall, communications providers may soon be required to install filtering equipment.

Whilst VPNs [Virtual Private Networks], Tor networks and other circumvention methods are usually used by people in places like China to avoid Internet censorship and by dissidents wishing to avoid state surveillance.

However such software may become the norm, even in European countries, if such trends as seen in Germany, Spain and Russia continue.

What was once a single unified Internet is fast becoming a string of internets and intranets which are far from free and unified.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, December 01, 2014

All change for Dartford River Crossing tolls

One of the most congested bottlenecks on the M25 may become a little more free-flowing as it dispenses with physical toll booths in favour of an online payments system.

While the switch-over may not have come so smoothly as traffic was rerouted several miles whilst the toll booths were removed, first indications seemed to show that traffic was far less congested as vehicles crossed the Dartford River Crossing on Monday morning.

The new payment system at the Dartford Crossing came into force at 06:00 GMT, replacing the toll booths on the Kent side of the crossing. The current 27-lane system will be replaced by four express-ways in each direction and lanes to help turn away vehicles unsuitable for the tunnels.

Charging is enforced through the use of an Automatic Number Plate Recognition system which logs vehicle details with those which have paid. It is similar to a system already used to police London's Congestion Charge.

However, while congestion may have decreased, charges have increased overnight with car drivers now being charged £2.50, a hike of 50 pence.

The charge for goods two-axle heavy good vehicles including vans has risen by 50p to £3 whilst multi-axle good vehicles will now be charged £6, a rise of £1.

As an incentive to register with the Dartford River Crossing website, drivers using a pre-paid account will save up to one third. Motorists can also pay at some newsagents or through a dedicated telephone service.

However, those who don't pay are liable to receive a hefty penalty. Anyone not having paid by midnight on the day after making a crossing will receive a penalty charge of £70 which must be paid within 28 days. It's reduced to £35 if paid within 14 days and increased to £105 if unpaid.

There is some concern that foreign drivers will escape being charged, though the Highways Agency says it has plans in place to chase up people in other countries.

There has also been some worries expressed by some motorists who have said they have had difficulty registering on the Dartford Crossing website. Others have said the new system assumed all motorists have Internet access. Indeed, whilst there are other ways to pay the toll, finding information without Internet access is difficult.

The news Dartford Crossing toll changes came into force on the same day the government announced a £15 billion investment in England's road network [BBC / Sky News].

For those using the river crossing payments can be made by one of several methods

Alternatively, motorists can set up a pre-pay account now and receive savings of up to one-third on every crossing made during the charging hours [06:00 – 22:00]  [BBC]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Google: sour Lollipops, sour grapes & other reports

Google has had a bad rap this last week with criticism coming from a hardcore of its otherwise loyal fans angry at bugs in the company's latest Android software. The technology giant has also been criticised by some European politicians who claim the company has become too big and needs to be broken up.

Sour Lollipops

There was an outpouring of anger from many tablet users over the last few days after an OTA [Over The Air] update severely affected the operation of their devices.

Early adopters of Google's latest Android operating system warned others of problems with the software on social networks and in a Google discussion thread which ran into more than 20 pages in a little over a week.

Many users of the Nexus 7 tablet, made my Asus and once a flagship product of the Chocolate Factory, said their device began to run slowly and repeatedly crash after the software update. Some complained their tablets had become "unusable".

While there were hundreds of comments related to the issue on the thread, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks, Google has been almost completely silent. Their silence has only compounded the anger felt by some Nexus 7 owners.

Some forum users were a little more pragmatic, believing that Google would likely come up with a fix, but nonetheless criticised their silence.

"I would be a lot happier - and a great deal more patient - if an official Google representative made an announcement," one forum user said.

Perhaps something to the effect of "We are aware that this update is causing serious problems for some, if not all, Nexus 7 users. We are working hard to find a fix to this, and we aim to send out a further update soon which will rectify these issues.  We apologise if these users have felt that we were ignoring their complaints, but we have been working very hard to find a solution, and appreciate your patience and forebearance [sic]."

The lack of any coherent message from the tech giant and frustration felt by users prompted some to suggest conspiracy theories. Some claimed that Google may have foisted the update on Nexus 7 tablets, rendering them useless such that people might upgrade to the new flagship Nexus 9 tablet.

However, such a move would likely be counter-productive given the vitriol coming from some forum members, some of whom said they were tempted to move to the Apple ecosphere and were unlikely to trust Google again.

Google had not been entirely quiet, and reportedly told The Register that it was looking into the matter.

"We're aware some Android users are facing issues and are looking into what might be the cause," a spokesperson for the advertising giant told the technology website.

Nonetheless, the message was not getting through to owners of Android devices and particularly Nexus owners who were beginning to feel the name may have been chosen for a reason.

Google's choosing the Nexus name was deemed by some as somewhat ironic given the demise of its branded products. "Why oh why did Google name its own special brand of devices after the replicants in Blade Runner which had artificially limited life spans?" ITWire's Alex Zaharov-Reutt wrote. "Was this a secret sign from Google all along, hidden in plain sight?"

He has a point given the rather quick cycle of Nexus products. The Nexus One was only released in 2010 yet its low memory and its inability to be upgraded beyond Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread has made the device redundant.

There are still those who still use the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively, but many owners experience performance issues after only three years of use and support has ended for both these phones which for most people remain on Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.2.1.

Indeed, the latest Android slogan "be together, not the same" seems only to count for those with the latest Android devices [BBC / Independent / Daily Mail / PhonesReview / 9to5Google / The Register].

EU call for Google break-up

It wasn't just Nexus and other Android users that were berating Google this last week. Some MEPs have called on Google to be broken up to curb its dominance of the Internet. The European Parliament is reported to be calling for the firm to be split into separate components in the most audacious attempt yet to loosen its grip on the sector.

A draft motion backed by several MEPs and leaked to the Financial Times said investigators should look at "unbundling search engines from other commercial services".

This would mean separating Google's search functions from other features such as its YouTube video-sharing website, or its Internet maps service [Daily Mail].

But many users of the search giant have criticised such plans suggesting that it amounted to sour grapes. Google is successful because it is good at what it does, people posting in comments sections said. "What about the the big boys in their own back yard? such as Nestle," one person responded angrily.

"The fact is that everyone who uses Google does so by choice, most of the time because it is simply better. Only in the EU is success viewed as a crime," another person posted. "I've got an idea for the next Olympics, let's not give medals to the winners of events, it's obviously unfair that they're better than the others."

The proposed plans come after several months of criticism coming from certain parts of Europe, particularly Germany and France.

Much of the anti-Google stance emanating from Germany soon after the Snowden revelations which claimed Google were in collusion with the NSA and were spying on German politicians and ordinary citizens.

In the months that have followed Google has been accused of privacy violations [Techcrunch] and of exploiting the copyright of others by publishing news snippets fron German newspapers in its Google News portal.

The search giant eventually decided to stop publishing such snippets in October [WSJ]. But while Google certainly benefits from its news portal, so too do publisher since traffic is often directed to their site from the Google News page.

Indeed Germany's biggest news publisher Axel Springer has since scrapped a move to block Google from running snippets of articles from its newspapers, after finding that traffic to its sites had plunged.

A Google spokesman in Germany praised the turnaround and said, "The decision shows that Google is making a significant contribution to the economic success of news publishers." [Reuters]

Google is the target of a European antitrust investigation into the operations of its online search business. The US firm accounts for more than 80% of the European Internet search market and more than 90% of that in Germany.

The European Union's new digital commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in October that he was mulling a regional Internet copyright levy, taking aim at Google. However such plans are likely to fail in the long term.

Whilst Google last year agreed to pay 60 million euros [$75 million] into a special fund to help French media develop their presence on the Internet, search engines will not be required to pay publishers in France for displaying content.

Google, as a search engine, is merely trawling and displaying what is available on the Internet. Should publishers not wish results to be displayed they have of course two options. The first is not to publish publicly on the Internet. The second is to request that Google not index their site. Of course by doing so will drive down web traffic, as Germany's publisher Axel Springer has found.

Others have also had to backtrack on such decisions. Rupert Murdoch also found that traffic to The Times and other News International publications dropped significantly when he ordered the search giant to stop indexing its sites. Thus Murdoch eventually made a U-turn and allowed Google to once again show snippets of its publications.

Misunderstanding of modern web

There is not just a fear of Google that exists in Germany and elsewhere [NYT]. There is also a misunderstanding of the way the web works and how well a company performs. Google is only successful simply because it is good at what it does.

There are many other search engines but they often fall flat when compared to Google.

Google for example has indexed more than 40 billion webpages while Microsoft's Bing search engine has only indexed 13.5 billion pages. Russia's Yandex and China's Baidu do well on their own turf, however they are clearly not as powerful as either Google or Bing. Yandex is largest search engine in Russia with about 60% market share within the country, but beyond its borders Yandex has barely been heard of. It also falls flat on the number of pages indexed, reportedly numbered at less than 2 billion. China's Baidu also does well in its own territory and amongst Chinese nationals living abroad. However it has only indexed a reported 740 million web pages, the lowest of all the major search engines, and many are even according to its founder Robin Li mostly Chinese pages.

However Baidu has an advantage in China, not so much to do with how good it is as a search engine, but more to do with the political and business environment existing in China.

Li has been criticised for tolerating censorship, piracy, and lax advertising standards, but he argues that search is a different game in China. He may be right. Li cited Google, one of his major global competitors, as an example of a firm that stumbled after expanding to China.

The US company met significant resistance from the Chinese government, especially on the issue of censorship. After repeatedly running afoul of regulators, Google chose to exit mainland China in 2010 and redirect its web traffic through Hong Kong. And Baidu was the direct beneficiary of Google's woes with traffic soaring after Google left and censorship to Google domains increased.

Return to China

But four years on there are reports Google may be thinking of returning to China. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google is considering bringing a version of its Play mobile-app store to China, a tentative but important step back into the Middle Kingdom.

In Google's absence, there are multiple Android app stores in China, spawning piracy and prompting many developers to hire large teams just to manage relations with the stores. In the US and across much of Europe just two app stores dominate; Apple's App Store for iPhones and iPads and Google's Play Store for Android mobile devices.

To bring order to the app chaos in China, and of course boost revenue, Google wants to open a version of its Play Store there. It may prove an uphill struggle. At present most Android phones sold in China are stripped of Google apps and its flagship Play Store which often cannot even be installed on the device.

The company will also face a battle with authorities and legislators if it wishes to play in China once again. Google has declined to comment on these reports, just as it has been rather silent on Lollipop issues.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

GCHQ boss calls for increased surveillance powers

A little over 400 years ago a man named Guy Fawkes conspired with others to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England's Parliament [Wikipedia - Gunpowder_Plot]. He failed in his attempt after the plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, on 26th  October 1605. During a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4th November 1605, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder and he was arrested.

In more modern times security services are not always so lucky as to receive anonymous warnings related to potential terror attacks. Instead they have to be proactive and carry out surveillance on suspects they believe may be involved in the planning of atrocities.

In recent decades the security services and police have still relied on informants, but they have also infiltrated organisations and terror groups and conducted surveillance operations.

But in the advent of the Internet traditional surveillance is outdated.

Hiding on the Web

No longer is it possible to send in an undercover officer to hide amongst terror groups, animal rights activists and environmental groups.

In the past those involved in such groups would often meet in person, at pubs, in parks or other venues to discuss plans. Extremist Muslim groups might gather and meet up at mosques while animal rights activist would use the cover of demonstrations to organise and plan direct action.

But nowadays people hide themselves in the anonymity of the Web and more particularly the Dark Web.

The increased use of the Internet to organise and plot illegal activities has raised alarm in security circles. Whilst there is no absolute anonymity on the Net, it is more difficult for authorities to track individuals and identify potential attacks.

Calls for more surveillance

This week the UK's spy chief Robert Hannigan called for ISPs and tech companies to open up their networks to allow security services to conduct in depth data mining.

In an article published in the Financial Times Hannigan said Web giants such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp had become "command-and-control networks... for terrorists and criminals" and that they were "in denial" about how their services were being used [BBC / Sky News / Daily Mail].

Data mining

While it is true that terror groups such as ISIL and other extremists have used Facebook, YouTube and other platforms to disseminate their message, wholescale data mining would likely have little impact especially in the long term.

In the short term many individuals might well be identified. But in light of recent self-censorship by Twitter and Facebook concerning the posting of graphic beheading videos has shown, extremists have merely shifted to new platforms [Independent].

In the weeks that followed the deletion of material from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Islamic extremists siding with ISIL began to use Diaspora, a social network that by its very nature is harder to regulate and censor [tvnewswatch: Social media provides battle ground for terrorists].

Bitcoins, Tors, VPNs and the Dark Web

Surveillance is proving ever more difficult as those wishing to hide their Internet activities increasingly use specialist encryption software, web proxies and digital currencies.

The Tor network was originally developed with the US Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications.

However it has increasingly been used by ordinary members of the public wanting to hide their identity.

There are examples where many might see such use as legitimate. In China and Iran many people use Tor or VPNs [Virtual Private Network] to circumvent Internet censorship and communicate with people outside the country. Dissidents in such countries use such tools to avoid being arrested.

However, the Tor network and VPNs have increasingly been used by those wanting to share copyrighted material such as music and feature films without fear of prosecution. But while illegal, the sharing of ripped CDs and DVDs only hurts the profits of musicians, filmmakers and production companies.

But there are others using circumvention software to plan terrorist activities without being watched [BBC Click - online anonymity 17/05/2011 audio].

Moreover, the so called Dark Web is also being used to buy and sell illegal merchandise from child pornography to drugs and weapons. And by using virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, even financial transactions are virtually untraceable.

Bitcoin and Dark Wallets

There has already been suggestions that Jihadist groups may be funding operations with Bitcoin. According to a post entitled "Bitcoin and the Charity of Violent Physical Struggle" on a pro-ISIL blog, the author argues donations using the virtual currency would be "untrackable" by Western governments [Sky News]. 

In February this year, the Canadian government warned that Bitcoin could be used for money laundering and financing terrorism. There are those that say that money laundering is not so easy, but that its use as a way of buying and selling with anonymity is certainly an advantage for criminals and terrorists.

Author of the book BitCon Jeffrey Robinson has dismissed the currency, calling it a "pretend currency". He says "Bitcoin is a lousy way of laundering money" but "a very good way for criminal finance, tax evasion and for capital flight; for moving money." [YouTube]

Indeed it is because of the anonymity associated with Bitcoin use that is fast making it the currency of choice for criminals and and terrorists [Could Dark Wallet hide Bitcoin user identity? BBC Click].

Growing encryption

Hannigan has an uphill battle on his hands if he wants to win over legislators. While the risks to Britain and the West from terrorism and others is real, his proposed measures will likely bring only minimal results.

Encryption is growing and becoming more sophisticated. Indeed it is something we are reliant upon since without it online banking would be impossible. But online encryption has now entered everyday platforms with most Google services being encrypted and with social networks such as Facebook even creating the ability for users to connect directly to the social network via anonymising "dark web" service Tor [BBC].

There is an ideological issue too. Civil rights groups such as Big Brother watch argue that while discussions are certainly needed, blanket surveillance is not the answer.

Discussion in the media point to strong opposition to the GCHQ boss's proposal [Sky News].

It is understandable that GCHQ and the US counterpart, the NSA, want to carry out surveillance. The revelations earlier this year that the British spy agency had snooped on YouTube and Twitter users was hardly surprising [BBC / NBC]. 

Indeed similar assertions had been made two years ago following the Snowden leaks concerning the NSA surveillance program PRISM [Guardian].

Double edged sword

Data mining is perhaps necessary to some extent. But such procedures need to be carefully guided. Too much data mining not only treads on the toes of those concerned about privacy, it also creates a headache for security services.

Sifting through massive amounts of data necessitates the use of computerised algorithms to identify potential threats and links between suspects. Thus surveillance should be targeted [Guardian].

There are no clear winners. Increased surveillance may uncover plots, but may also send the plotters elsewhere. On the other hand, while the public may be safer from terror attacks, some may feel increasingly paranoid that their online activity is being monitored.

How long for instance before journalists or bloggers researching terrorist activity become targeted and charged for possessing illegal material. What of those who illegally download a film or album? Will they too find themselves in court as a result of increased surveillance powers.

The danger is that such powers that Hannigan proposes risks Britain becoming a totalitarian state envisaged by George Orwell in which Thought Crime is punishable.

Protection of the state and the public must ultimately be balanced as to how far we are prepared to give up our freedom in order to stay safe

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween: harmless fun or a growing menace?

Halloween is once again upon us, a festival dating back hundreds of years. But while many people enjoy this annual event, it is a celebration which many others now dread.


Halloween is observed in a number of countries on the 31st of October. The true origins are still one of debate, but there are indications that the festivities were connected to the end of the harvest and to pay homage to the souls of the dead with the lighting of candles and taking part in eating, drinking and games.

Many people might think the idea of Trick or Treat is a modern or even American import. However the roots of such activity can be traced back several centuries to places in Ireland and Scotland. In parts of southern Scotland a man dressed as a Láir Bhán [white mare] led youths house-to-house reciting verses, some of which had pagan overtones, in exchange for food. If the household donated food it could expect good fortune from the 'Muck Olla'. Not doing so would bring misfortune. The wearing of costumes at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century, as did the custom of playing pranks.

The festival is closely associated with Christian celebrations. According to some scholars, All Hallows' Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots.

Modern day festivities

However, today Halloween is associated with guising, ghouls, ghosts, Trick or Treat and of playing pranks. But rather than paying homage to the dead, most Halloween celebrations are focused on dark, sinister and murderous imagery.

Television schedules will be filled with tales of horror, and films such as John Carpenter's Halloween are dug up for a repeated showing.

Those taking to dressing up for Halloween no longer adorn traditional costumes depicting ghosts, witches or werewolves. Instead one is more likely to encounter people replicating characters from horror films from the last two decades such as the Scream, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. More recently zombies have become popular due to the growing number of movies which began with George A. Romero's 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.

Commercial overload

As the 31st of October approaches shops are filled with merchandise. From the humble pumpkin to aisles full of witches hats, broomsticks and spray on cobwebs, one can't walk more than a few metres around a supermarket without being reminded the witching hour is upon us.

The sweet aisle is overloaded with special Halloween candy for the obligatory Trick or Treat adventures. As we stroll past the fruit and veg we are reminded to buy apples for Apple Bobbing and as one passes the bakery we are thrust into a land of Halloween cakes, donuts and other ghoulish confectionery.

Trick or Treat

For kids, Halloween is perhaps harmless fun. There is the joy of dressing up as a witch, ghost or skeleton before engaging in party games. Some may even join their parents and knock at their neighbours in a game of Trick or Treat.

But Halloween is becoming increasingly sinister as older children and youths harass householders and play pranks that could be considered anti-social or even criminal.

Egg throwing has become such a problem in some areas around the time of Halloween that some supermarkets ban their sale to young people.

Intimidation and dangers

Police say the tradition of "Trick or Treating" has resulted in many people having eggs thrown at them and their property. Anyone on the receiving end can feel intimidated, but the elderly can feel particularly threatened [BBC].

The practice can also prove to be dangerous. Throwing eggs at moving vehicles can be extremely dangerous as it could cause drivers to lose concentration and have an accident.

Aside of the risk to life, throwing eggs at vehicles can cause thousands of pounds of damage. Damage might be minor with just a mirror being broken. However damage can be much worse. Protein in the egg can damage the paint surface and may result in the car needing a respray. For high end cars the cost could run into thousands of pounds [ / Popular Mechanics].

Eggs can even break windows, especially when the vehicle is travelling at speed, and can dent a body panel or chip paint where the shell breaks.

There have also been isolated incidents where people have lost their sight. A nurse was blinded in one eye when an egg was thrown at her from a passing car in March 2008 in Dublin [Irish Independent]. And in 2005 a boy in Long Island also lost sight in one eye after teenagers from a local high school threw eggs out of a passing car during Halloween.

In the US Halloween pranks are becoming more and more extreme with the cost to property owners and motorists running into millions of dollars.

Violent attacks

But more disturbingly this year has seen violent attacks in the run up to Halloween with people dressed as clowns attacking passers-by on the streets of France [Telegraph / Guardian].

And in recent days there have been reports that the chilling pranks have also spread through US and Britain as Halloween approaches.

"Evil" tradition

It is perhaps no wonder that some people are fed up with the annual Halloween festival and have even called for it to be banned [CBN]. It's a debate that has gone on for at least a decade [BBC]. Indeed the Vatican has called the event "evil" [Daily Mail].

However there would be no easy way to enforce such a ban, only mitigate potential property damage through restrictions of the sale of certain products, increasing police patrols and informing people of the consequences of anti-social behaviour.

The Daily Mirror suggests there are several reasons why we should keep Halloween. The paper claims that aside from its ancient origins, people "love to be scared". Try telling that to a French passer-by who was recently accosted by an axe waving clown as she got out of her car in the Avenue François Trinquand in Chelles, on the eastern outskirts of Paris.

The Mirror describes describes Trick or Treat as "a wonderful neighbourhood activity in some areas". Some areas, maybe. But for a great many people, the time of Halloween is one of foreboding and an unwanted aftermath of clearing up egg splattered cars, houses or worse.

"Bottom line...It's fun!" the paper finally exclaims. Tell that to the police, insurers, irate motorists cleaning egg from their vehicles or the Dublin nurse who will never experience a 3D showing of Final Destination 5.

Despite all this, most people manage to enjoy the Halloween festival without incident [BBC]. Whatever you do this year on Halloween, try to stay safe, out of trouble and avoid the ghosts, demons and ghouls.

Happy Halloween

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Google unveils new Nexus products at premium prices

This week Google unveiled its latest Android operating system along with three new devices that will undoubtedly have Android fanboys salivating. However the expected price points will likely put many people off despite the high specifications of the new offerings from the Chocolate Factory.

Lollipop, lollipop

Android 5.0 otherwise known as Lollipop promises to change the face of Google's mobile operating system. The company describes the update as a "quantum leap forward" due to its revamped design and new features []

Security has been upgraded with all new devices being encrypted by default. But on the surface the changes will also be apparent with a slicker more customizable user interface. Google also talk of better information sharing across devices [BBC / Googlebog].

While Lollipop certainly looks promising, it is the three new devices that have got the Android community excited [BBCD Mail].

Nexus 6 'phablet'

First up is the much talked about Nexus 6 phone made by Motorola. This new device has been described more as a phablet than a phone given it falls halfway between the size of an average smartphone and a tablet device .

Coming in at 159.3 x 83 x 10.1mm and with a nearly 6 inch [150 mm] display, one will certainly need big pockets and large hands. And while some people on web forums have questioned the size of the device, phablets are becoming more popular. Indeed the Galaxy Note was particularly popular, especially amongst business people who demanded the flexibility of a tablet like device with the functionality and more notably the connectivity of a smartphone. In fact the Galaxy note and Nexus 6 have almost identically sized screens [5.7 inches and 5.96 inches respectively].

However the Nexus 6 is in a different class when looking under the hood, though the cameras are arguably better on the Galaxy Note [BetaNews].

Some have unsurprisingly begun to compare the Nexus 6 with the iPhone 6+. Even here the Nexus 6 beats the Apple device on almost everything. However Apple offers 16, 64 and 128GB devices while the Nexus 6 only comes in 32 and 64GB.

And while design may be a factor for some, the Nexus 6 certainly appears well crafted [ITProPortal / GottaBeMobile / Independent].

The most important consideration is of course cost. A SIM free iPhone 6+ will set you back around £619 for the 16GB model with the 64BG device costing £699 and the 128GB version pricing in at £789.

While only US prices have been published thus far, Google's Nexus 6 will cost $649 for the 32GB device and $699 for the 64GB model. This would equate to around £406 and £437 respectively, though tax, import costs and other factors could swing these figures either way - though more likely upwards. However with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 currently priced at around £400 for a 32GB model, even these price points are certainly competitive [IBT].

Nonetheless, Google has received a fair bit of criticism for its apparent departure of marketing affordable yet powerful Android devices [Google+].

Nexus 9

After the success of the Nexus 7 tablets, Google has jumped a number and released the Nexus 9. Again the specifications are excellent, and the new tablet even supports a specially designed optional keyboard.

However, the price of the HTC manufactured device is once again likely to make many people, even Nexus fans, balk at spending out so much on a tablet.

It could well be argued that Google are attempting to offer better, premium quality products. But in so doing there is a cost both in terms of the product itself and of alienating loyal fans.

Again only US prices have been published but it is estimated that consumers could be looking at paying £330 for the 16GB tablet, £400 for the 32GB device and around £500 for the 32GB model which comes with 4G connectivity.

The official Google Keyboard Folio case, for the soon to be released Nexus 9, is of course an optional extra. The device is held in with magnets, pairs with the tablet using NFC and turns the tablet on and off when opened and closed. The keyboard has mechanical keys, and while needing a separate charge is said to last months between charges. The price is as yet unknown, but given the price points of the aforementioned gadgets it is unlikely to be cheap.

A real Android fanboy could well be expecting to shell out around £1,000 if purchasing both the top spec versions of the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9. Even if grabbing the lower spec versions one will still be looking at a little over £700.

It is perhaps unsurprising that many users have expressed their likelihood of holding on to their Nexus 4, 5 and 7 devices, at least for the time being. The good news is that all these devices will still receive the Lollipop update in the coming weeks.

Further forays into TV & the car

The one device that made less of an impact in the news is the Nexus Player, Google's latest foray into TV. Built by Asus it allows users to stream movies, music and videos to through an HDMI connection. It also acts as an Android gaming console if used in conjunction with an optional Bluetooth gamepad. There's no news on the price of the gamepad as yet but the Nexus Player will cost around $99 or about £69.

Google are also planning to invade the car with built in Android devices offering navigation, music and telecommunications. Dubbed Android Auto Google describes its plans to incorporate its OS into the car as having been designed with safety in mind. "With a simple and intuitive interface, integrated steering wheel controls, and powerful new voice actions, it's designed to minimize distraction so you can stay focused on the road," Google says.

A number of manufacturers have expressed interest with several already incorporating the new technology in its latest models. It remains to be seen whether one will be able to retrofit older models.

As for the release dates on Google's latest gadgets, they should hit online and physical stores in November. Pre-orders for the Nexus 9 and Nexus Player start on October 17th, but Nexus 6 pre-orders are not expected until October 29th. The devices will not start shipping until early November which at least gives consumers a couple of weeks to start saving!

tvnewswatch, London, UK