Friday 19 December 2014

CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X7 Review

CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X7 is the latest version of Corel’s bundle of vector-illustration and image-editing applications for Windows. It takes its name from Corel’s most famous product, CorelDRAW. While you may think that this is a for artists and illustrators, there is, in fact much more to CorelDRAW. It is also suitable for technical design applications. We asked Dermot Hogan to evaluate CorelDRAW from the perspective of the more technically-oriented user.

You may think that CorelDRAW is only useful for illustrations like this. In fact, as Dermot Hogan explains, it is also useful for creating technical plans and designs.

How long is long? Over 20 years? I’ve been using CorelDRAW in some form or another over that period. Many times I’ve been tempted to bin the product, trying out various other tools such as Adobe Illustrator and various CAD packages. I’ve even used graph paper, but in the end I’ve returned to CorelDRAW for my technical layouts and engineering drawings. In all those years, I’ve sworn at Corel developers for not making it easy to do what I’ve wanted, been reduced to chewing the carpet over the bugs I’ve come across and, on occasion, nearly thrown my PC through the window when CorelDRAW has obligingly ‘lost’  a couple of hours work. But in spite of that, I’ve kept coming back to it, time after time. Why…?

The simple reason is that no other product (and I must have tried dozens) quite does what CorelDRAW does. In brief, it enables me to create technical and engineering drawings that I can use to produce my projects. Here, I don’t mean full CAD engineering which you can use to program a numerically controlled milling machine, say, or architectural designs. All I really want is ‘automated graph paper’, that is, a flat design surface which has a grid on it and some dimensioning tools. CorelDRAW does is very nearly perfectly.

Something Old, Something New…

The last version I used before X7 was CorelDRAW 10, released in 2000. X7 is actually version 17, so there’s a considerable time period – 14 years – between my old version and the latest edition. As you might expect, there have been many improvements. But, kudos to Corel, I was able use X7 immediately with my knowledge of version 10. The latest product behaves, more or less, the same as the version for 14 years ago! The menus are in the same place, more or less, and the tool-bar is pretty much the same. Even better, X7 imported version 10 files flawlessly.

Here CorelDRAW is being used for hardware design  – its design, measurement, layout and transparency options all assist in creating a precisely defined technical drawing.

I’ll just go over some of the things that I noticed immediately with X7. First off, it supports transparency (available since X5, I think). This is a big plus, since I can stack objects over one another and see how the parts fit (or don’t) together. The next thing I noticed was that the ‘graph paper’, aka ‘grid’, worked correctly. In my old version, it was somewhat hit and miss depending on the scaling. Then there’s MDI (Multiple Document Interface). With this, you can place the tool windows (Object Manager, Transformations, Object Properties, etc.) on one screen and have the main drawing on another. I found this greatly improved the ease of use, with my main drawing on my nice big wide screen and the tools on an older square-format monitor. You can also pull out multiple documents onto other monitors if you need, but not individual pages within a document. As in previous versions, documents (a .drw file) are hierarchically structured into ‘pages’ and ‘layers’, each page having as many layers as you want. You can move objects between layers and either edit just objects within a layer or select and edit objects across layers. Both modes have their uses.

Not such a snap!

The dimensioning tool is very good and easy to use. With this tool, just select an edge, say, drag across to another edge and release. The dimension will be drawn between the two points in the units selected in the defaults. So far so good. But I found a couple of problems with dimensions. First, they seemed a bit reluctant to ‘stick’ to an object. What should happen is that, as an object is moved, any dimension attached to the object should move with it. Well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, in my experience. The next problem was much worse. Adding a dimension to an object in a layer caused CorelDRAW to crash. I’ve no idea why – no explanation was given and no log file produced (as far as I could see). I suspect that the .drw file had been corrupted by an accidental attempt to move a dimension between two layers (I inadvertently dragged a dimension in the Object Manager which caused CorelDRAW to do some odd things which I paid little attention to at the time). I tried several ways to get round this but to no avail. Fortunately, I’d done nearly all the dimensioning on that layer, so I didn’t have to re-enter everything – an experience I’ve sometimes had with previous versions of CorelDRAW.

Here is a close-up of part of a technical drawing showing the numeric dimensions.

The other problem I had with X7 was with snap-to-grid. Again, like the dimensioning tool this was somewhat variable. Sometimes it would and sometimes it wouldn’t – about 25% of the time, it seemed to me. Normally, this was just an annoyance and I had to correct the seemingly random numbers in the actual x-y coordinates to whole numbers. Where it proved to be more than troublesome was in trying to draw complex line objects and then convert the lines into a closed curve in order to fill the resulting object with a color. When I could get a closed curve it wouldn’t look right – jagged edges and a couple of times I could not get the curve to close at all. CorelDRAW ‘closed’ the curve, but it would not fill.

However, I’ve only used a small part of what’s available in CorelDRAW. From browsing around, some major uses of CorelDRAW  are the production of artwork for posters and signs and logos. I’m totally unartistic, so I’ve not touched on any aspect of this. There’s also some useful standalone utilities such as Connect which lets you search or artwork and Capture which is used for capturing screen images and animations for use in manuals and Photo-Paint – an image editing application, similar to Photoshop.


While I’ve highlighted a couple of problems I had with CorelDRAW, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bug-ridden application that you shouldn’t use. Far from it: CorelDRAW X7 is a superb graphical editing tool which does nearly everything that I wanted easily and simply. It also has a great advantage that you don’t have to buy  an ongoing subscription (as with Adobe software, for example). For me as a technical drawing package, CorelDRAW X7 is unsurpassed.

What else do you get….?

While CorelDRAW may be the most famous program in this suite, you also get a whole load of other useful applications.

Corel Photo-Paint is a fairly easy-to-use image editor which comes with a number of filters to apply distortions and artistic effects simply and quickly. Here a pastel effect has been applied to a photograph.

These are principal components:

• Corel PHOTO-PAINT: Image-editing application.
• Corel PowerTRACE: Converts bitmaps into editable vector graphics.
• Corel Website Creator: Design, build, and manage websites (CorelDRAW Standard Membership required)
• Corel CAPTURE: Screen-capture utility.
More details of these and other tools can be found on the CorelDRAW site:

This is the screen capture tool. It can grab images from the whole screen or a selected window. It can even capture freehand areas or ellipses. It’s generally an effective tool but it gave me some problems when grabbing images from a multi-screen system (I have three connected monitors) as it annoyingly repositioned my main screen onto my secondary monitor prior to capturing.


CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X7 is available either for ‘full purchase’ or by subscription. The full purchase price is $469 / £377 (ex. VAT). Subscriptions are available for $198 / £179.40 (1 year) or $24.95 / £22.95 (per month). For small companies or teams there is a ‘Small Business Edition’ which provides three full licences for £699 (ex. VAT).

Friday 21 November 2014

iPad – What, no File Manager ?

Having dashed off a few masterworks of modern literature on my new iPad Air, I naturally wanted to save copies of those documents on my PC. I looked for the iPad File Manager. And I looked again. But I could not find it. Which should not really be all that surprising as there isn’t one. To my bafflement, iOS doesn’t provide any way of browsing around its folders and files. So how, then, was I to get the documents from the iPad onto my desktop computer?

I turned to the iPad User Guide. This told me there were two ways to transfer files: either I could upload them to iCloud and then download them, again onto my PC; or I could use Apple’s iTunes software to receive documents one at a time after explicitly ‘sending’ from the iPad. To be honest, neither of these alternatives appealed much. I don’t like the iTunes option because sending documents one at a time rather than copying a whole directory of files is pretty slow and, what’s worse, I frankly hate the iTunes user interface. Uploading them to iCloud is even less appealing. Why on earth should I send my private documents to some unknown location quite possibly halfway across the globe just to transfer them to a computer sitting here on my desk?

Here, I have dragged files from my iPad using iBrowse (top) right into the Windows Explorer on my PC. There is also a free version of iBrowse for the Mac - that version has a somewhat different user interface but similar functionality.

I soon discovered that other alternatives exist. Indeed, there is a small industry devoted to letting people get at their iPad documents more easily and transfer them to and from other computers. I won’t list all the products available – just Google for “iPad file transfer” and you’ll find them. The one I eventually opted for was a free program called iBrowse (made by Macroplant, a company that also sells a more complete file browsing product called iExplorer). iBrowse is available for both Windows and OS X. Once installed onto your desktop computer it lets you browse the folders and files of an iPad or iPhone that is connected via its USB Lightning cable. The only real limitation is that it can’t browse the root directory of your iOS device unless that device has been ‘jailbroken’. I don’t need root access so that has not been a problem for me. I do need a way to copy files around easily, however, and iBrowse does that very well.

One thing iBrowse doesn’t do is allow me to access my iPad wirelessly (with WiFi). There is another free product, RemotePC (including the free ‘Lite’ version), that can do that. I haven’t tried this out yet as iBrowse works fine for my current requirements and, what’s more, unlike Remote PC it doesn’t require that I install any additional software on my iPad. However, if I decide that I can’t live without WiFi file transfer, maybe I’ll try out RemotePC at some future date?

Monday 17 November 2014

BB FlashBack Pro 5 - review

BB FlashBack Pro 5 (£116 + VAT)
Blueberry Software

These days, it seems that just about every computer user need s to make some screencasts at one time or another. Maybe you want to publish software courses on YouTube or on an eLearning site such as Udemy or FutureLearn? Maybe you need to record simple tutorials for the benefit of the people in your company or to make software demos and promotional material? For all of the above, you will need a screen recording tool and, ideally, an editing environment for putting the finishing touches to your videos. If you are a Windows user, the recently-released BB FlashBack Pro 5 could have everything you need to take you from recording to editing to rendering.

If you’ve used previous versions of BB Flashback the first thing you’ll notice about this new release is the redesigned user interface. Not only does this have a new carbon-grey colour scheme but it also places the timeline at the bottom of the workspace (just like most other video editing applications) rather than at the top as it did before. If you prefer the appearance and layout of earlier versions of FlashBack (light colour scheme, timeline at top of the screen), tough luck – there is no way of customising the user interface to adopt the old look.

The Player (editor)

Recording and Editing

Before doing anything else you need to record one or more clips from which the final movie will be assembled. The BB FlashBack recorder lets you record your entire screen or (on a multi-monitor system) from one or more monitors simultaneously. Alternatively you can select a specific window or record from a rectangular area drawn on screen with a mouse. You can optionally make recordings with or without sound and you can even record from a webcam.

Once you’ve saved the recording, it is loaded into the FlashBack Player editing environment. Here you can cut out any mistakes, then add captions and annotations such as boxes and arrows. You can also add zooms and pans to focus in on specific parts of the recording. To do that you just draw a box on screen to indicate which bit of the screen needs to be zoomed or panned to. Then you click a button to apply the effects. Unfortunately once applied you can’t resize the zoom area using the interactive box on screen, though you can do so by editing numeric fields in a dialog box [Correction: Blueberry Software informs me that you can resize a zoom area interactively if you first disable 'Apply Effects' and then re-enable the effects after editing].

The Recorder
There are several other ways of drawing attention to specific areas on screen. For example, a magnifying tool lets you increase the size of a selected circle as though a hand magnifier had been placed over it. You may optionally add effects to highlight the mouse or mouse clicks. And you can add text and annotations such as arrows and ‘speech bubbles’.  You can also import previously FlashBack recordings or audio and video clips in standard formats such as .avi, .mp3, .mp4, .wmv, and .wav. When you want to blend one clip into another you can add a transition to create a fade effect.

Pros and Cons

All of which may sound pretty good. However,  by comparison with some other competing products, such as TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio 8, BB FlashBack suffers from a number of limitations. For example, the editor provides just one video track (plus various audio and ‘objects’ tracks) and all video clips must be placed sequentially on this track (in Camtasia, the number of video tracks, which can be placed one under the other, is theoretically unlimited). FlashBack also has rather basic annotations (unlike Camtasia, arrows and boxes cannot be ‘animated’ – just ‘faded in’) and it has just three simple transitions: cross-fade, fade-through-white and fade-through-black (Camtasia has 30 transitions as standard including fancy effects such as page-turns, a rotating cube and Venetian blinds). I won’t go into any more detail on the editing. Suffice to say, the Camtasia editor is vastly more powerful in almost every respect. An area in which BB FlashBack is stronger is in precise frame-based editing. Its editing timeline shows each individually captured ‘frame’ and you can edit these one by one. For example, you could select one or more frames and then delete them or crop them (that is, delete the frames on either side of the selection).

Magnifying glass effect

I also like FlashBack’s easy mouse-cursor smoothing tool. If you happen to have made a recording in which your mouse pointer moves irregularly around the screen you can tell FlashBack to get rid of all the irrelevant movements by making the pointer move smoothly between two critical points (say a button click and a menu selection). This is particularly useful when creating software demos in which you want everything to look as slick as possible.

Moving Making

Creating a movie from a number of separately recorded clips is unnecessarily difficult, however. You can’t simply drag videos into FlashBack from the Windows Explorer. Instead you have to select them via a dialog box and then ‘import’ them. The importing of video clips is horribly slow.

One thing I particularly dislike is that BB FlashBack insists on loading each separately recorded clip into a new ‘instance’ of its editor. So if I record ten short clips I end up with ten FlashBack windows, each of which contains one clip. This strikes me as weird. Why would anyone ever want to do that? In Camtasia, each newly recorded clip is appended to the end of any existing recordings in a single instance of the Camtasia editor, so that it is ready to be included in the movie you are currently making. When I asked Blueberry Software if there was any way to have newly recorded clips loaded into a single instance of  the editor I was told that there wasn’t as “That’s not anything we’ve ever been asked about before,” which (to be honest) I find rather astonishing.


While BB FlashBack Pro 5 provides a decent combination of a screen-recording tool and a fairly simple editing environment, there is no doubt in my mind that Camtasia Studio 8 is a superior product. That being said, if you are making a choice between the two, the deciding factor in favour of FlashBack might be its lower price. Camtasia Studio costs £206.50, compared with FlashBack Pro at £139.20 (both prices are inc VAT).

There are two other, money-saving editions of BB FlashBack: the Standard edition (£62.40 inc VAT) and the Express (free). The free edition does basic screen recording and rendering to Flash or AVI format but does not include any editing features; the Standard edition exports to a larger range of formats (such as MPEG4, QuickTime and GIF) and it also includes the core features of the video editor including the ability to add text boxes, selectively highlight or blur regions and highlight the cursor. The Professional edition has all the features of the Standard edition but adds additional editing capabilities such as frame-by-frame editing, multi-track audio, zoom, pan and cursor smoothing. For full details of these three editions, refer to Blueberry Software’s comparative chart.

In summary, for demanding users needing to create and edit high-quality screencasts on Windows, I would recommend Camtasia Studio 8. If you only need basic editing capabilities, you can save yourself some money by going for BB FlashBack Pro. But if saving money is your main concern, and you don’t need frame-by-frame editing, FlashBack Standard might be a good choice.

See  also, my previous reviews:

Wednesday 12 November 2014

iPad Air – the best laptop I’ve ever had!

I am seriously in love with my iPad. Pah! those are words I never expected to write. Until a few years ago I would have considered anything made by Apple to be beneath contempt. I mean, i-This and i-That – they are all just glitz and slogans aimed to syphon money from the weak minded (I might once have said).

My iPad Air with the Logitech keyboard - a great combination!
My descent down the slippery slope started a few years ago when (rather against my better judgment) I bought an iMac. There was a good reason for this. I was teaching some online programming courses  and many of my students were Mac users. They started requesting help about using the Mac, running programs in the Terminal and so forth. The only way for me to answer those questions was to buy a Mac and try it out myself. I have to admit that the Mac is a lovely piece of kit – both the software and the hardware look so much nicer than any PC I’ve ever used. Even so, most of my day-to-day work continues to be done on Windows (version 7) on my PC.

Windows Pains

Yes, there’s the point. I still use Windows 7. That’s significant. I first used Windows in version 2. I started using Windows as my default operating system with version 3.1. I’ve used every version of Windows ever since (including the unlovely Vista) right up until Windows 8 appeared. I took one look at the Windows 8 user interface and read one or two glowing reviews written by journalists who seemed to think it was the bee’s knees and decided Windows 8 would never darken my PC screen. Microsoft was clearly trying to nobble the established mobile marketplace by forcing its desktop users to switch to an operating system that was designed for a mobile device. I would have none of it!

But what Microsoft also succeeded in doing when it launched Windows 8 was making me rethink my long-term dedication to Microsoft operating systems. Windows 8 made me realise that I could no longer trust Microsoft to provide me with the system software I needed. My experience with the iMac had convinced me that there was no essential reason why I should use Windows when OS X ran all the software (mainly programming, word processing and multimedia editing) that I require. And when I finally decided that I needed a mobile device, it never occurred to me even for one split second to think about something that ran Windows. Only two realistic choices presented themselves to me – Android or iOS. And iOS won.

Air Today, Gone Tomorrow

When Apple launched its new iPad Air 2 recently they dropped the price of its previous iPad Air  model. The entry-level 16GB iPad Air used to cost £399. It now costs £319. Having glanced over the new features of Air 2 it didn’t take me long to decide that I could do without the new gold colour scheme and 1.4 mm decrease in thickness. I’d rather save the cash and get an Air 1, which is what I did. I decided to go for 32GB model which set me back £359 (including VAT and delivery). This comes with a very decent range of software including audio and video editing packages (Garageband and iMovie) plus the Pages word processor.

The Logitech keyboard attaches to the iPad so I can 'close them up' like a regular laptop.
Now I plan to user my iPad principally for word processing with the possibility of also doing some programming at a later date. While you can type text using an on-screen keyboard, this is definitely far from ideal for my purposes. So the next thing I needed to get was a keyboard. There are many keyboards available for iPad but the one that pretty consistently gets the best reviews is the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. Once again, my decision to go for the last version of the iPad rather than the latest one saved me some money. The Ultrathin keyboard for iPad Air 1 used to cost about £90 but now you can get one for under £30. And what a fantastic addition to the iPad this is! The iPad slots into a magnetised groove to hold it at an angle on the keyboard or closes over the keyboard area to create a sort of hinged-cover that transforms my iPad into a fantastic, lightweight alternative to a conventional laptop computer.

I must admit that I had my doubts when I first decided to buy an iPad. But once I added on that keyboard the doubts vanished. This is absolutely perfect for doing work pretty much any time anywhere, at a desk, at home or on the move. Definitely the best portable computer I’ve ever owned.

Friday 10 October 2014

CyberLink PowerDirector 13 Ultimate - review

PowerDirector 13 Ultimate - $129.99

Maybe you need to make a promotional video for your business. Or possibly you are producing eLearning videos for sites such as Coursera or Udemy. You might even be directing a full-scale movie with actors, multiple cameras, stunts and special effects. Or maybe you just want to upload funny cat videos to YouTube…?

The fact of the matter is that most of us own some sort of video-recording equipment, be it a mobile phone, a GoPro or a dedicated digital-video camera. And whether you are recording your holiday highlights or a home-made blockbuster, in order to transform the raw video into a slick movie you are going to need to edit your clips using dedicated video-editing software. CyberLink PowerDirector 13 (for Windows) is one of the best choices for serious video-makers on a tight budget. In fact, in spite of its modest cost, it is perfectly capable of producing extremely high-quality results.

PowerDirector 13 Ultimate - the editing environment

I reviewed the previous release of this software earlier this year (when I compared PowerDirector 12 with Sony’s competing video editor software, Movie Studio Platinum). At first sight this new release of PowerDirector looks little changed from the previous version. The slick, multi-page environment is just as before – the Capture, Edit, Produce and Create Disc (DVD and Blu-Ray design-and-burn) tools are all grouped together in their own selectable pages. The editing environment is divided into three principal areas: the media library where you can store video and audio clips and images; the timeline where you actually do the editing; and the preview window that shows either a selected clip or the fully-edited video. Down the left-hand side of the screen there are icons to select other tools such as video effects, titles and audio-recording.

The Balance Of Power

Ease of use and speed of rendering – in my opinion, those are the two most striking features of PowerDirector 13. Even though the software is at the budget end of the market, it is by no means under-powered. PowerDirector 13 has a 100-track editor so you can place and edit numerous video and audio clips on synchronized horizontal tracks of the timeline (though I have to say that, personally, about 10 tracks is my limit). It supports super High Definition (4K) video and it also provides tools to let you create and customise animated titles and transitions between adjoining clips.

The new transition designer may sound more useful than it  really is. In fact, it is not really all that sophisticated. It lets you import an image that will define the shapes shown when one clip is faded into the other. This provides the possibility for creating fairly simple transitions but it won’t  let you create transitions to rival those that are supplied as standard -  for example, you can’t create animated transitions that slide, flip or chop up adjoining clips into moving mosaic-like fragments. There is also a title designer. You can use this by popping one of the existing title templates in a dialog. Here you can change fonts, borders, colours and various animated properties such as position, rotation and transparency.

This is the Transition Designer. I have uploaded a photograph which is used to create the outlines shown as one clip fades into another

Other new things in this release include auto-fixing of videos to make easy adjustments to colour density and white balance. It also has a variety of colour presets to intensify and fade colours or transform a full-colour video into black-and-white. Another handy tool is the built-in stabilizer. This analyses your video and tries to smooth out the wobbles and ‘camera shake’ that you likely to accumulate when shooting videos with a hand-held camera.
You can enhance videos by changing colours and white balance or even by auto-stabilizing to smooth out camera shake

But possibly the most useful new feature, as far as I am concerned at any rate, is the automatic synchronization of tracks. This is handy if you are using clips simultaneously recorded by more than one camera or if you have recorded a high quality audio track separately from the lower-quality audio recorded by your camera. In the editing process you will want to synchronize the multiple tracks so that the audio on one track corresponds to the audio and video on the others. In the previous version of PowerDirector, this could be done only by using a separate tool to produce a new video clip (created from multiple source clips). This new clip then had to be imported into the editing environment.

Here I have two video clips that were recorded simultaneously by two cameras. I want to synchronize them so that when I cut between the clips my voice correctly matches my lip movements. To do this I just click the 'Sync By Audio' button.

These are the clips after they have been synchronized. PowerDirector has aligned them using the waveforms of the audio recorded by the two cameras. I now 'mute' one audio track by unchecking the speaker icon on its left.

In PowerDirector 13, you can sync the tracks in the timeline without having to create a new clip first. The software analyses the wave forms of the audio in selected clips and then shifts the clips along the timeline to synchronize them. This is incredibly useful. However, I would also like the ability to arrange clips by hand-and-eye too. PowerDirector is not so good when doing that. In other packages, such as Sony Vegas, you can scroll one clip beneath another, matching the waveforms visually. While you can, in principle, do this with PowerDirector too, in fact it is made hard work due to the fact that when you scroll a clip PowerDirector only shows the ghosted outline of the clip – not a ‘live’ display of the waveform – which makes it almost impossible to align clips precisely in this way.

PowerDirector Editions

There are three principal editions of PowerDirector 13: Deluxe ($69.99), Ultra ($99.99) and Ultimate ($129.99). There are also PowerDirector ‘Suite’ editions which include additional applications for audio and image editing. In this review I have been using PowerDirector Ultimate. The principal difference between the Ultimate edition and the lower cost Ultra edition is that PowerDirector Ultimate supplies a greater number of video effects to tinker with the colours and sharpness of your clips; it also has themed ‘holiday’ and ‘wedding’ packs that provide animated titles to jazz up your videos. For a comparative table of the main features of these editions see HERE.


Over the past few years, the boundary between amateur and professional video makers has grown increasingly blurred. This is no doubt due to the fact that not only are increasing numbers of people making increasingly ambitious videos for YouTube and educational platforms such as Udemy and Coursera, but also because the price of professional-grade cameras has, over that period, dropped dramatically. Small companies, educators and movie-makers can now seriously aspire to create high-quality videos which would have been unthinkable on a small budget a few years ago.

The Ultimate edition of PowerDirector comes with a larger collection of effects and titles than the lower-cost editions.
There are several fairly low cost video editing packages aimed at meeting the needs of this new generation of film makers. Sony’s Vegas product range, for example, is widely used. In my view, PowerDirector 13 offers extremely strong competition to its competitors. In particular, the Ultimate edition is not only fully-featured and easy to use but it is also benefits from unparalleled speed in rendering.

Sunday 5 October 2014

We Know Where You Are - Privacy is a thing of the past

Isn't it weird: you've just been looking for a watch or a smartphone or some doggy-treats at an online store. Then you log onto some other site or start browsing around Facebook and there, by sheer coincidence, you see some adverts for exactly the items you were just looking for. What are the chances of that happening, 'ey...?

Well, the fact of the matter is that the chances are very good indeed. Because there really is nothing coincidental about it. When you log onto a site, there are lots of little software snoopers scurrying about behind the scenes keeping track of exactly where you go and what you look at. But wait a minute! you say, They can't do that because I've disabled cookies in my browser!

Nah, cookies are old technology. These days there are much sneakier ways to keep track of where you've been (see this article in The Observer newspaper for more information) and there's nothing you can do to prevent it happening. Well, actually, there is something you can do. You can install the Ghostery plugin. This monitors each site you visit and provides a report on all the trackers it finds there. It lets you selectively disable trackers for each site. 

Here I am browsing an online store. Ghostery tells me it has no less than 16 trackers watching me! I can block them one at a time. With luck that may help reduce the unwanted advertising that targets me when I visit other sites.
My advice to you: get Ghostery. But will this guarantee your Internet browsing privacy? I very much doubt it. This is big business; and where business is concerned the big money usually wins. So for every counter-measure we take to protect our privacy, you can bet that there are people out there working away at counter-counter-measures. But for the time being, Ghostery is the best thing I know of to try to grab back at least a bit of control over your life (and privacy) online.

Saturday 20 September 2014

U2 or Not U2

What could possibly go wrong? Everyone loves Apple, don't they? And U2 are one of the biggest-selling rock bands in the world, so when Apple decided to give away free copies of U2's new album, surely the world would rejoice! Well, not exactly...

According to the UK newspaper, The Independent, the free U2 album that was auto-downloaded by iTunes has proved to be a "PR disaster".
"...negative social media reaction to the giveaway seems to have proved that you can’t give U2 music away these days, and that Apple has misread its relationship with its customers.
U2-haters went to town, with some tweets mocking the band’s philanthropic reputation: “Makembe is 12. He has to walk eight miles for clean water. His iTunes account has a free U2 album. Please donate to help make this pain stop.”
Rapper Tyler, The Creator said discovering the free album on his iPhone was “like waking up with a pimple or like a herpes … Fuck Bono. I didn’t ask for you, I’m mad.”
Apple was forced to release a tool to remove the album from its customers’ accounts, with a dedicated webpage providing step-by-step instructions."
Personally, I'd have preferred an album by Dolly Parton. Or maybe The Andrews Sisters. Is  there any way I can do a swap? Now rest the rest of The Independent article.

Monday 11 August 2014

How to copy or backup a web site – for free

Finding that someone has hacked, cracked or maliciously exploited your website is not something guaranteed to put you in a good mood. When this recently happened to the Bitwise site, I have to admit to the fact that I responded with a few choice words, many of them containing precisely four letters.

Swearing at the unknown perpetrators of the aforementioned hack, crack or exploit did not, however, fix the problem. More radical measures were needed. I decided to convert the site from one that is dynamically generated by a PHP-based Content Management System (CMS) into one that is made up of static HTML pages. The problem was: how was I going to do that conversion? By their very nature, dynamically-generated pages don’t actually exist until someone tries to log onto a certain web address; this causes the CMS to go into action by getting data from a database and a page-layout from a template file; it then stuffs these together along with assorted styles and images to create the requested page.

Initially I wasn’t even sure if it would be possible to create a static site from one that was dynamically generated. And then I stumbled upon a wonderful piece of software called HTTrack Website Copier. This lets you log onto a web site and download all the pages, with the links, styles and images intact. Better still, it can transform dynamic pages into static HTML ones. If you ever want to make a backup of your (or someone else’s) web site, I recommend this program.

But be careful! It is so good at following links – both to pages inside and outside the current site - that you may end up downloading half the Internet by accident. I was halfway through downloading Wikipedia (which was certainly not my intention!) before I noticed the problem. HTTrack does let you set options to download links only to a specific ‘depth’ or to avoid downloading certain file types but you may need to experiment with these before you commit yourself to downloading a site. HTTrack is free (I used the Windows version but there are also Linux and OS X versions) and can be downloaded here:

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Apple's Swift Language - free at last!

Last month I welcomed the news that Apple had released a new programming language, called Swift, for OS X and iOS. I am not a huge fan of Objective-C, an unwieldy mix of C with (supposedly) Smalltalk-like extensions. But that language, until now, has been Apple's default for developers.

However, it wasn't all good news. It turned out that Apple had decided to make the Swift language available only to paid subscribers to its Developer Program. So if you wanted to try it out you would have to fork out $99 a year for the privilege of downloading beta software. I thought that was pretty daft. And I'm glad to see that someone at Apple seems (finally) to have thought the same thing. A few days ago, the Swift download became available for free, HERE. You have to register in order to download it (as part of the XCode 6 beta download) but registration is free. I shall be learning Swift over the weeks ahead and I'll let you know how I get on with it.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Bitwise Magazine - a new beginning

It's the sort of thing that makes your heart sink. The web site that you've lovingly tended over the past nine and a bit years is suddenly deemed by Google to have been hacked. You look on site but everything looks just fine. But Giggle sends you a link to a non-existent page that begins with your web site address and, sure enough, there is this page of junk text advertising drugs!

Now, why anyone would buy drugs from a page that has obviously been maliciously hacked into someone else's web site remains a mystery to me. My only concern at that moment was to get my site unhacked again. But since the 'hacked' page didn't even really exist (it was dynamically created from the fake URL) I had no idea where to begin. The real problem was that the Bitwise site was all dynamically created. That's because I decided, many years ago, to move away from a site made up of 'static', hard-coded HTML pages and use, instead, the altogether more modern approach of having pages constructed 'to order' whenever someone logged onto a specific address. To do that, I used a CMS (Content Management System) which used the PHP programming language to insert the text of articles from a database into pre-designed HTML 'templates'. The CMS I chose for the job was Spip and in spite of my recent problems, if I were ever to use a CMS to publish an online magazine again in future, Spip would still be my choice.

But the problem with any CMS is that i) they are prime targets for hackers and ii) they have to be regularly upgraded and maintained by the webmaster. I simply don't have the time or interest to do that. So when my Spip installation became the target of a hack-attack I was faced with two possible choices: 1) I could try to figure out where the weakness in the system lay, upgrade to the latest Spip and hope for the best or 2) I could revert the entire site back to the old-style static HTML.

I chose the latter option. If I had more time, or if I had a small staff of helpers, I might have decided to upgrade Spip and fix the problem. Since I have neither, I decided the simpler option would be to reimplement the site in HTML, with no PHP or similarly dynamic (and potentially insecure) programming language involved. But how do you convert a dynamically-generated web site into a series of linked HTML pages? I'll explain that in a future post.