Archive for the 'Personal computing' Category

BCS Transformation – just what is going on?

Last week I received my calling notice for an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) of the British Computer Society (BCS). It seems that there is a bit of a fracas going on over the future vision, strategy and direction of the BCS and it’s “Transformation” programme. The motions on the agenda at the EGM include no-confidence resolutions in the Trustee Board and the Chief Executive – pretty serious stuff!

The petitioners, which include a past President, have set-up a blog to argue their case, whilst the BCS Trustees and management have a slicker site for their official response. There’s also a health debate in the blogosphere and on Twitter via #bcstransform and #bcsegm.

It’s clear to me that the petitioners feel the Trustees have not adequately consulted. An argument I have some sympathy with since I didn’t realise there was any major transformation programme going on. However they also express concerns about the direction of the society and this is where I’m less clear as to what’s going on.

The petitioners make vague complaints about ‘the membership’ being marginalised in favour of ‘the business’. I can’t really make a judgement on this. Unfortunately the official, glossy BCS response is full of nebulous waffle and impregnable ‘business speak’ which leaves me none-the-wiser as to what the vision, strategy and direction is that the society is going down (and which the petitioners are apparently opposed to).

I joined the BCS two years ago, as an engineer, because of it’s learned society activity. I joined the IEE (now the IET) over 10 years ago and still see it as my primary professional body. I didn’t join the BCS at the time because everyone advised me it was a bit of a joke. However, of late I had discovered the Special Interest Groups and found some really useful events which I now see as a valuable complement to my IET membership – even though I’d rather the two would just merge.

I’m not really sure what’s going on with the BCS, in terms of it’s future direction. Hopefully someone reading this blog could throw some light. I guess things like the Chartered IT Professional (CITP) qualification indicate that it wants to be more of a body for business-folk involved in corporate IT than computing practitioners such as engineers and scientists. I can see a need for the former, but fail to see how it would not undermine the latter. Perhaps the learned society aspects of the BCS ought to transfer to the IET allowing the rump BCS to complete it’s transformation into a “Chartered Institution for IT” – if that’s what they want to be.

The only thing I’m fairly sure about is that the Special Resolution put forward by the Trustees to raise the threshold for calling an EGM must be resisted. There may be a case for raising the threshold, and I’m very sympathetic to that, but that could be done at the next scheduled AGM. Doing it at this meeting smacks of shutting down opposition and re-inforces a sense of a dismissive attitude to members expressing their right to use the society’s properly constituted governance process to challenge it’s leadership and management.

AI fatwas

I was somewhat amused to read the controversy regarding a French team working on an electronic Islamic fatwa machine. Here’s a snippet quoting the inventor (emphasis added):

I have consulted with several Islamic scholars and clerics in elevated positions there is no need to mention their names so as to avoid stirring up public opinion however, they have assured me that such a device is not ‘haram’ [prohibited by Islam]. But there are fears and scepticism regarding misuse and causing any misrepresentation or defamation to the figure of the Prophet. There are also fears in terms of Arab and Islamic public opinion and their acceptance of a machine such as this.

Source: Can a Machine Issue Islamic Fatwas? [Asharq Al-Awsat]

Personally I think the dons at Al Azhar ought to lighten up. Obviously, any AI device must be supplied with caveats. Nevertheless I think such a machine, could be very valuable aid for those exploring Islamic jurisprudence for themselves.

Ditching Safari RSS

I have finally stopped using Safari‘s built-in feed aggregator [Wikipedia]. It’s not that it’s a bad feed client – I actually think it’s quite good for providing basic functionality. It’s also not that that I wanted to use a more advanced stand-alone package (I have plenty of other software toys to amuse me). No the main reason was that it was simply affecting my productivity.

Essentially the simple beauty of the way Safari RSS works is also a curse. Feed subscriptions are stored as bookmarks and appear within the normal bookmark interface with the number of new articles shown in parenthesis. So, every time you navigate the bookmark feature your mind is distracted by other people’s latest blog posts.

It’s even worse if you organise your browser bookmarks the way I do – all either on the Bookmarks toolbar or in sub-folders of the toolbar. Consequently I always have an advert in my browser window trying to entice me away from whatever productive I’m work I’m trying to do. For an avid blog reader, it’s just as poisonous as the dreaded email notification icon.

So I had to free myself. Consequently, I’ve turned Safari’s RSS features off and installed a separate standalone feed aggregator, Vienna. I’ve not tried any others but it seems nice enough. It has smart folders as well as conventional ones and I think I’ll be much more effective at organising my feed subscriptions now that they are separate from my browser bookmarks.

Tip for anyone else considering dumping Safari RSS: See Export OPML out of Safari RSS [macosxhints.com] for a quick and easy way to migrate your feed subscriptions into your new feed reader – assuming, it can import OPML files [Wikipedia].

I’ve also found some side benefits of the change:

  1. Safari is now ever-so-slightly less of a randomly crashing memory hog with the RSS feature turned off.
  2. If Safari continues to annoy me with it’s randomness there’s no more RSS shackle stopping me from going back to using Camino.

Norton Anti Virus is rubbish

My brother’s PC succumbed to a fate not uncommon to Windows systems: being utterly unusable as a result of getting bogged down by various spyware, viruses and other malware. Just logging in was like watching paint dry – literally. The killer was opening a Windows Explorer or Internet Explorer window – which would initiate in a mad pop-up frenzy that could only be ended by power-cycling.

My brother had Norton Anti Virus installed. It’s a very popular product, one of the big two, along with McAfee. There is a national Higher Education licensing deal with the publisher, Symantec, which allows university students to take a copy home and install on their own computer. So it’s very common for students (and recent students who have not “got around” to uninstalling it) to use it.

Running the Norton Anti Virus scan showed up a couple of viruses. I didn’t think much of it and assumed the job was done. Sadly not. The computer was still barely usable, despite the latest virus database updates being installed. Undeterred I set about manually sniffing my way through the Windows registry identifying spyware components and then deleting them. And then I wondered why I was having to do this.

So, I downloaded Avast! Anti Virus which is free for home users. I’ve installed this a couple of times for friends who don’t own an anti-virus product. It’s nothing short of fantastic. Where Norton had reported a “clean” system, Avast! found viruses and trojans left, right and centre. After a good clear out the PC was finally back to performing as one would expect from the hardware. The computer under Avast! also seemed much faster than Norton (less bloat clogging up the system memory and CPU cycles). Despite being faster the resident virus scanner iss much more extensive than Norton’s, and much more configurable, with the ability to set-up transparent proxies for filtered web/email traffic as well as hooks into IM and P2P file transfer applications. It can even send you IM and/or email alerts whilst working in a fully automatic mode: perfect for when you are setting it up for a non-technically inclined user.

At a price of £0, Avast! is absolutely brilliant and I cannot recommend it highly enough for protecting a Windows PC. As for Norton Anti Virus, I can’t believe it’s so bad, considering many large, respectable organisations pay good money for it. It explains why the computers in the Imperial College library (“protected” by Norton) were often riddled with the same sort of pop-up spyware that crippled my brother’s PC. To quote a bulletin board comment I read somewhere “I think Peter Norton [Wikipedia] ought to sue Symantec for ruining his name”.