Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Boiler Room Scams

If the profit sounds too good to be true and someone unknown to you phones you out of the blue then it is most likely a scam. You should be particularly cautious when the "company" making such an offer is not regulated by any government body.

A friend of mine who has a great deal of experience in investing and also investigating "Boiler Room" scams showed me me an example of a case (here and here) that matches those criteria. It is a UK Company registered  in July 2010 called Nemesis Commodities Ltd who called him at home with an unsolicited call. In that call and several subsequent calls they made unsupported claims about a wonderful trading opportunities with natural colour diamonds.

The general idea is Nemesis buy certificated natural colour diamonds from investors, sell them to you based on the value of the certificate. Then Nemesis enter the diamonds as parts of batches into auctions at Sotheby's where other rich  investors buy them at a high price and so you make a profit. They told my friend Sotheby's generously give a reduced them a reduced commission fee. Oh dear oh dear me.

They even sent him literature describing diamonds as being weighed in "carrots".

My friend's view was that anyone how gave Nemesis Commodities money would learn they'd chosen their company name well!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

US Presidential conversations tapped?

I was reading an article in the BBC news website when I came across the following statement: 
"Nothing in a SCIF is allowed to operate on a remote control because that's a frequency that can be tapped," he says. "Much of what is distributed is done on fibre, not copper as fibre as yet can't be hacked into."

The SCIF is a secure tent used by the President of the United States to take confidential phone calls/conferences  when he on tour somewhere. They are designed to prevent eavesdropping of the confidential information. However the follow up statement that Fibre cannot be hacked into is total rot. It is in fact very easy. strip back the insulation covering the fibre, bend it in a radius of about 2 cm and attach a laser sensor. Bob's your uncle, you can read the data traffic as if you are plugged in to the fibre. I've see this done live at a security demonstration.

Hopefully any such communication to the SCIF via copper or fibre will be end-to-end encrypted  to defeat any such line tapping.


Sunday, 20 March 2011

The great US$ pricing rip off

One of the great features of the Internet is it's truly global nature. A business can offer services without having to worry about geographic constraints. The electronic delivery cost are the same if you are Texas USA or Almaty in Kazakhstan. Coupled with credit card payment your company can have a global presence for no additional cost. For electronically delivered products you no longer have to worry about overseas shipping or warehouse costs.

It is regretful to see some  companies attempt to take advantage of this Internet opportunity by giving differential pricing depending on your location. One example of this is a company called Brighttalk.com who provide hosting of online webinars and web presentations. They target the business world around the globe. However if you are located in the UK they attempt to charge you 149 British Pounds a month for their basic subscription. If you are based in the USA, their fee is 149 US Dollars per month. On today's rate of exchange they are charging UK customers 162% of the USA price. There is no excuse for this type of price gouging.

Brighttalk use a technique called IP Address Geolocation to identify where you are based. If you are based in the USA your web browser will be show a price in USD; if you are located in the UK your web browser will show a price in GBP.  The geolocation technique detects the Internet IP address assigned by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to your business. There are central lists of the location of the IP addresses assigned to ISPs. Those lists are used to translate  into an approximate geographic location for your business. Unfortunately for them there are techniques which allow people to change the "geographic location" of the client PC; so we can see the differential pricing. They also embed location details in "cookies" stored on your PC by them when you access their website.

Of course Brighttalk are not alone, there are USA based software companies like Adobe conduct similar inexcusable price gouging on software downloads.

The company I provide consultancy services to has a programme of video webcasts for its marketing and educational services delivered by the Internet. Needless to say we will not be using Brighttalk. That company has been blacklisted by us for its I-gouging practices. We are not the only people upset by Brighttalk.


Thursday, 17 March 2011

Councils attack Scouts

Under the the need to save public money Local Authorities in the UK have cut libraries. In some areas they've halved the number of branch libraries. These "savings" are disproportionate and politically motivated cuts aimed to punish the Coalition Government for reining in the excessive expenditure of  the Local Authorities. 

The reason for the national government cuts are because the the previous Labour Government was massively overspending while at the same time failed to regulate UK banks. They have left the country with massive debts and equally massive additional interest payments on the debt.

Now the local authorities are attacking voluntary organisations such as the Scouts Association by massively increasing the rents paid by scout groups for the "rental" of public rooms and halls. The Local Authorities know such fees will attract wide public concern. I do not need to provide any explanation of the useful social function provided by the volunteer charity organisation called the Scout Association. It is again a politically motivated decision.

At the same time we hear of over 2000 local authority employees paid more than £100,000 a year. Before increasing the fees to charities local authorities should be looking closer to home and cutting the excessive salaries of their own bloated bureaucrats. There were massive increases in Council Taxes over the past 10 years, way above the rate of inflation. What have they done with all of that money other than been profligate?


Thinking of a USA holiday?

If you go to the USA for a holiday think twice about using an ATM to get cash US dollars. The banks out there are looking to charge $5 a withdrawal. That is on top of any charge by your domestic bank for a foreign currency transaction. Now that is what I call price gouging by overpaid Banking executives.

The banks introduced ATM as a cost saving. It meant they could reduce the level of tellers at the bank counter. It now looks like they are now pushing the service as a revenue stream.

I like visiting the USA, but this type of price gouging coupled with the "reception" at immigration where you are fingerprinted like a common criminal does rather push the country down the level of attractiveness.


Thursday, 10 March 2011

Yodel with delight

I have had an unexpected additional day/night in Geneva. I knew that would happen as soon as I approached their telecomms room. The dead table on the floor indicates the great care they bestow on their room. The ancient dusty ceiling tiles are another hint. This is just an initial glance of the greater horrors I saw later.

Their comms room
It contrasts a lot with the hotel room they booked me into for my stay. I hate to say it but if they spent the same money on their technology rooms I wouldn't have to be paying them a visit.

Hotel room

I'm surprised the normally so efficient Swiss workers allow this to happen, but life is full of surprises. Most of the stuff is fairly cosmetic and can be tidied with a few day's work. Their CEO was astonished when I took him through the obvious security errors in their set up.


Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Your wireless microphone will be banned

Amazing what odd snippets of information you come across while travelling. Apparently in the UK many of the wireless microphones will be banned in 2012. The radio frequency they use is being/has been sold off by Ofcom.
Searching on Google soon finds references to the issue. Here's one.

Channel 69 will be permitted in London in 2012  during the Olympic Games.


Credit card Government - we are now seeing the bill

The previous UK government made great use of a form of credit card spending called Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) to build hospitals and schools. The loved this method because it "hides" the actual committed expenditure from the normal measures of government debt/expenditure.  The idea is to get private investment in return for agreeing to lease back the building/facility for a long time from the private company. These deals can last forty or fifty years. A good idea except that the actual long term costs are enormous. 

Now the National Health Service is  reaping the wind as a consequence. A BBC report gives just one example of this in a Hampshire hospital. The hospital was rebuilt using PFI. Now the local Health Trust cannot afford the charges from the PFI private company and wards are being closed. This happening throughout the country. Front-line clinical staff, nurses and doctors are losing their jobs as a consequence.

When the PFI contracts are set up the private companies borrow the money to finance the project (it doesn't appear on the government books). The cost of the loan is then charged back to the local Health Trust, plus any administration costs involved in providing the service. Unfortunately the contracts normally give the PFI company exclusive rights to provide the accommodation services for the long duration of the PFI contract. There are literally no limits to the charges levied.  It gives rise to light bulbs that cost £85 when replaced by the PFI contractor. The private companies (and Banks) make an absolute killing on this racket. 

One other trick is the PFI companies refinance the original loan at a lower interest rate than the original loan. They then pocket the difference in interest rate payments with no sharing with the NHS or tax payers.

We have burdened the next generation with enormous costs because the previous government was not honest about its true expenditure requirement. It would have been far cheaper if the government had borrowed the money themselves. The politicians who allowed this to happen despite warnings will retire on fat pensions funded by the tax payer. Their will be no penalty for their financial negligence. 


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The joys of travel and lack of Acrobat

Off to Zurich today then Geneva tomorrow. It's really annoying that just about all flights go via London Heathrow. It really adds to the journey time. It's amazing how you can get to hate airports. Still it is the essential part of our business in the financial centres around the world. I'd thought I'd got away from all of the travelling, but if the client says meet me for lunch tomorrow near Hauptbahnhof you just pack your bags and go. At least the weather forecast is good, normally it rains whenever I visit Zurich.

I mentioned I'd complete the story on Adobe software on my PC following the upgrade to 64 bit Windows 7. I might as well use the time while I wait for the flight call. A nice thing about Google Blogspot is you can update it from anywhere.

The "PC Mover" software did a great job of moving my application software, but the Adobe licensing schemes seem to be particularly devious and resisted the upgrade process. I guess I should have un-installed their products before attempting the upgrade. Part of that process allows you to move the product to another machine and then re-licence the product. 

Anyway I didn't migrate the licence. When I came to use Adobe Acrobat it refused to work with some message about Acrobat could not load the core DLL. The acrobat "printer" didn't work either. My heart sank. I didn't realise just how much I use the Adobe Acrobat product. Things were just as bad with Adobe InDesign. That wouldn't work either.  Those products are just about essential for my author activities.

I tried un-installing and re-installing both products but had no success in getting them to run. The problem would not go away.  I contacted Adobe. They wanted a prince's ransom for a support contract before they'd talk to me. It was time for some intensive Google work to see if other people had the same problem. Eventually I discovered for InDesign the Adobe licence file had become corrupted. There seems to be a hidden central licensing system installed on your PC whenever you install their purchased/licensed products. I managed to find a utility program buried in the Adobe support pages. After downloading the program and running it I seem to have fixed the InDesign problem.

The Adobe Acrobat problem was more intractable. After un-installing Adobe Acrobat again, I used CCleaner to tidy up the Windows registry file. Then, following some hints from the Google searches, I manually deleted all of the files relating to the previous Adobe Acrobat installs. Many of those were in hidden directories. One more run of CCleaner and then a new install of Adobe Acrobat 9. It finally burst back into life. It was frustratingly complex. It is annoying when software vendors do not pay attention to tidying up the PC when you un-install a product.

That seems to be the end of that story, at least I can get back to normal computing now, though I'm having great fun playing with the video effects on PowerDirector. It is amazing how much disk space these video files consume. My loyal laptop would stand no chance of supporting the editing.

Back to reality in the airport. I have a feeling that I'm going to be pleased I bought a good thick book with me to read while I'm waiting.


Sunday, 6 March 2011

The author in 64 bit video editing land

The continued story of migrating to 64 bit computing for video editing...
In earlier posts I described the decision to use PowerDirector video editing software to help make promotional material for my book series. I'm now just starting to cautiously tip toe into that arena as the Microsoft Windows 7 (64 Bit) install disk whirs into life in the DVD drive of my PC. If things go wrong I might lose a whole computer load of programs and data. The process is amazingly simple. Just one question about whether I want to reformat the disk? No way! I want to keep years worth of data thank you.

The Win 7 Professional install went smoothly, but few of the original application showed on the screen. Remember I'd chosen a fresh install (but no reformat) so the process would not look for and activate existing applications. Time to get the Laplink PC Mover into motion.  I found the PC Mover install file and installed it. Within a few moments it was hard at work rebuilding the application software links from the earlier created "Moving Van" file. When the Microsoft Win 7 install was in progress it had found the earlier windows installation and moved the relevant files to a folder called windows.old. PC Mover was digging into the old windows folder to find the applications. I did not need to intervene except to de-install the Kaspersky anti-virus software to prevent it interfering with the software rebuild (I re-installed it later).

Within a couple of hours my PC was back and working. I deleted the trial version of Cyberlink's PowerDirector 9 that I'd installed under Vista 32 bit then re-installed it from the original install file. The install software recognised it was in working in a 64 bit operating environment and installed a 64 bit version of PowerDirector 9 which was fully capable of addressing as many gigabytes of main memory as I could cram into my PC motherboard. Increasing the available amount of memory greatly improves the video rendering time.

I shut down the PC and opened its casing to install the new video card I'd purchased. I'd purchased a cheap (£40) Asus ENGT220 card. It comes with a gigabyte of its own memory and also 48 processors using CUDA technology. It was possible to buy a much more powerful card, but that would cost in the region of £200 and put a greater load on the power supply of my PC. I chose to avoid the expense. The key thing is that the PowerDirector 9 software can make use of the CUDA technology and offload some of the graphics processing work from the main processor on the motherboard to the 48 processors embedded in the video card. Hence even faster video processing.

When I restarted the PC Windows 7 recognised the new video card and started without major problems though the screen image quality could be better. Using the software driver install program supplied on the CD accompanying the new video card soon fixed that problem. Now any heavy graphics applications like internet TV are noticeably faster on my PC.

The PowerDirector software works fine on the upgraded PC and recognises the new video board. Editing videos is noticeably faster over the trial version running under Vista 32 bit with limited memory in the PC. One small snag arose in that my microphone had stopped working in PowerDirector. It was a basic microphone plugged in to the pink socket at the back of the PC. Some investigation (really geeky) led me to realise Windows 7 had installed some generic 32 bit driver software for the sound processing chips installed on the motherboard. A search on the manufacturer Foxconn's website revealed some 64 bit driver software for the sound processing chip. It was easily installed and the problem went away.

So there it is all complete; a powerful video editing configuration on an upgraded PC for a couple of hundred pounds sterling.  I did have some problems with my Adobe products as a result of the upgrade, but more about that later.


Saturday, 5 March 2011

A step into the unknown

After deciding to upgrade to Windows 7 64bit my first action was to order an extra 4GB of memory for my PC. With memory priced by the dollar it is quite cheap at the moment. A quick visit to www.crucial.com and £50 from the credit card soon had memory on its way to me. When that arrived it was a matter of a two minutes work to open my PC box and plug in the extra memory.

Next was the task I'd been fearing. I wanted to go from Microsoft Vista Home premium (32 bit) to Microsoft Windows 7 Professional (64 bit). This is not on Microsoft's automatic upgrade paths. It needs a clean install of the operating system with the joys of reinstalling all of the applications from their original DVD, CD's or downloads. Do you always keep those DVD's and their product key numbers?

Fortunately I remembered a company called Laplink produce a software tool called PC Mover Windows 7 Upgrade Assistant. For £20 this tool takes a lot of the pain out of moving from an old version of Windows to Windows 7. You install the software on the "original" PC and set it running. Its first action is to examine your software and to create a "Moving Van" file. It stores almost all of your software settings in the moving van. Then you install the new version of Windows 7 on the PC but not allowing it to reformat the hard drive. Once the operating system installation has taken place reinstall the Moving Assistant. It will then use the "Moving Van" file to reconstruct the settings of your original application software and you are back in business.

But wait; I'm getting ahead of myself. On a major upgrade like this it is essential to take a complete backup of your PC and create a recovery DVD before proceeding with the changes. Then if things go wrong you have a chance to rebuild your PC without a loss of data. I have some disk backup software called Paragon so I chose to use that. It told me the backup would take 17 DVD's to backup the entire machine. I settled in for a long slow process of swapping and labelling DVD's. This where the problems started. After a few Gigabytes of data the backup would fail with an I/O error. The DVD's were effectively destroyed. I needed another solution.

It was time to spend some more money. I quickly located a suitable 320 GB external hard drive with a USB connection for about £50 from dabs.com. A moment's work with a credit card then I just had to sit back an wait for the post to deliver it a couple of days later. Once that was done the total backup of my PC using Paragon was complete in less than 3 hours. Another couple of hours to run PC Mover.

Now, finally, I was ready to install Windows 7 64 Bit. I slid the DVD into the drive door pushed it shut and took that step into the unknown... to be continued.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Reverting from author to geek

In the last blog entry I described how I had the Digital Video camera communicating with my PC. My first trial of video clip editing started with Microsoft's free Windows Movie Maker software. This was already present on my PC, so I presume it had been supplied free by Microsoft. Using that tool I fairly quickly produced a complete video. I was able to remove video sections I didn't want and also play around with the sound. Unfortunately I could only get output in the form of a .wvm file which is a native Microsoft video file format or too a DVD. I was able to load the file onto Youtube without too much effort, but for longer term plans I need a wider range of output formats. It is a pity really because Movie Maker is really easy to use, but sadly has been discontinued by Microsoft. Its replacement "Windows Live Movie Maker" has far fewer features and was only worth a cursory look.

I decided I'd need something with better video/sound editing capabilities. plus a better range of output formats:

Adobe Premiere - fully featured product, with a steep learning curve and an even steeper price of £810 (equiv. to US$1320). You also need a powerful PC running 64 bit Windows 7; with a small range of recommended powerful "multi-core"graphics cards (£150 +). I've used an earlier edition of the software.

Adobe Premiere Elements 9 - a cut down version of its big brother Adobe Premiere, reasonable editing features but a more limited range of outputs. It can run on a reasonably powerful PC and costs £79 (equivalent to US$129). It runs on Vista, probably XP, Windows 7 (32 bit and 64 bit), but unlike its big brother it does not take advantage of the 64 bit processor's ability to a massive amount of computer memory.

Cyberlink PowerDirector 9 Deluxe - a well featured editor with a reasonable range of outputs. It has a better range of functions and formats when compared with Adobe Premiere Elements 9 and will run on similar PC hardware. The PowerDirector 9 can take advantage of the processors in multi-core gaming graphics cards and shifts a lot of the processing load from the main CPU (central processing unit). The limitation is that it uses 32 bit memory addressing - max of 4 gigabytes. Editing and rendering large video files would take a long time. It is priced at £60 (equivalent to US$98).

Cyberlink PowerDirector 9 Ultra64 is like the Deluxe version but makes use 64 bit architecture so it can use as many gigabytes of processor memory as you can cram onto your motherboard. This coupled with the ability to use multi-core graphics cards give much faster (video render) processing.

I also looked at Corel's VideoStudio Pro X4 and also Xara's Magix Movie Edit Pro 17 but was not attracted to them. Eventually after trying each product on their trial period (not Adobe Premiere - far too expensive) I decided to go for PowerDirector 9 Ultra64. I've ordered a packaged version of the software.

This will mean I have to upgrade the memory and operating system on my PC to Windows 7 64 bit. This is when my trials and tribulations start ... to be continued!

The trip from paper to digital media

As part of my promotional efforts for my series of books (Adam Cranford) I’m beginning to look at the production of video material  to be held on Youtube.com and other locations such as Vzaar.com.  I’d discovered on investigation that my old Sony digital handycam provides a fast “Firewire” connection through it’s DV (Digital Video) link.  My PC was set up using Microsoft Vista and has a powerful processor – 4 core Intel (it was on sale cheap "end of range" at the store honestly). Downloading  DV through the Firewire should be straightforward!

First snag:
I’d lost the Firewire cable for the camcorder. Searching on the internet quickly sourced an alternative for a couple of pounds. It arrived two days later.

Second snag:
The firewire port was labelled on the back of my PC. When I tried to plug in the cable to the socket it felt very loose. A bit difficult to see in the dark under the desk what was happening so I sighed, switched off the PC  and grabbed a screwdriver. After some rapid unplugging of various other cables, the PC  lay on my desktop, its insides exposed to the eye of this author. Lo and behold! Despite the manufacturer specifications for the mother board it was obvious that no firewire socket had been installed on the motherboard or in the PC casing. 

More rapid searching on the internet (after reassembling the PC) located a suitable four port Firewire interface card priced at a few pounds. It arrived a couple of days later. Despite there being no software CD in the package I was pleased to see it worked without problem. Fitting it into the appropriate motherboard PCI slot took a couple of minutes. The card was automatically recognised by  Microsoft Vista and the appropriate software drivers were automagically installed. With no great expectations I plugged the cable into the back of my PC and into the socket of the digital video camera. As soon as I switched on the camera power a message flashed up on the screen announcing the recognition of the Sony DCR-TRV20E and asking if I’d like to download video using a standard Microsoft interface. It worked!

It was now time to start looking at the software needed to produce video clips...