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1,000 to 1,500 Jobs to be Lost at Middlesbrough Council

Exciting Times: Up to half of council's employees to be sacked due to budget savings - consultation to be opened.

The Northern Echo and Evening Gazette report that Middlesbrough must save an additional £11M on top of previous cost-saving estimates, which may result in the loss of up to 1,500 employees - over half the number of people currently working at the council (2,500).

In a subsequent article, the Northern Echo reports that 600 jobs have already been lost since 2010.

Looking at the Council's own 'employment details' figures published on their website, we can see that they have indeed reduced their headcount by 554. However, measured in terms of full-time jobs, the number of people employed has actually only reduced by 227 (Note: figures don't include school staff.)


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How to Switch Off Autorun on Windows XP

Windows XP will automatically open or run the contents of CDs and USB sticks when loaded or inserted. Here's an easy way to prevent it.











To disable autorun [current user, all devices]: click here

To disable autorun [current user, removable devices]: click here


To disable autorun [all users, all devices]: click here

To disable autorun [all users, removable devices]: click here

The links above will download Windows .reg files which if allowed to execute will modify your Windows registry settings. Please note that these files have only been tested on Windows XP Home Edition, but they should work okay for Win XP Pro. Obviously, you proceed at your own risk etc. but quite a few people have already used these links (as provided in my earlier guide to Windows XP security and so far no-one's emailed or commented to accuse me of blowing up their computer. You should check the contents of the files with a text editor such as notepad to ensure they don't contain anything malicious, but if you've found this page by searching for information about disabling Windows' autorun feature, then I doubt I need to tell you that. If you're looking for information on how to disable autorun in other versions of Windows (or information on additional settings for these registry keys), then this Microsoft article should prove useful.

The .reg files I've provided above will add or modifiy the following registry keys:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\policies\Explorer\NoDriveTypeAutoRun
- for the current user, or:-
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Explorer\NoDriveTypeAutoRun
- for all users.

The NoDriveTypeAutoRun key will be set to the value of 04 (hex 04) or 255 (hex FF) depending on whether you want only USB sticks (04) or all removable devices (FF) prevented from auto-running.

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While wandering the BBC blogs, I came upon this article by Rory Cellan-Jones.

It reminded me of something that's been bothering me for some time. What a strange, backward step it is to have to write 'apps' (programs) for different devices just to use a website.

The great thing about the internet is that it has standardised a formatting language (HTML/CSS), a transmission protocol (TCP/IP) and various programming languages (but mainly Javascript) so that any computer-like device can download a webpage and display it in exactly the same way as any other computer-like device.

Yet the arrival of mobile internet has somehow caused the rise of the 'app'. Instead of concentrating on making webpages that function correctly on all devices, suddenly we have programmers writing native code for lots of different devices. You could argue that at least it's creating jobs for programmers. True, but I'd argue it's time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

The argument in favour of mobile apps goes, as far as I can tell, that the processors in mobile phones are still quite weak compared to proper computers, and therefore it helps to use native code to speed things up. That might be understandable when it comes to things that need a lot of computing power, like iplayer, but it really doesn't explain why every other website has to have a mobile app just to render some text and pictures.

From a security point of view, the last thing you should want to do is install programs willy-nilly, yet websites are increasingly pushing mobile users towards the idea that this is a normal state of affairs.

If your website is too slow on a mobile device, I can't help suspecting that the underlying HTML/CSS and code that powers your website has become far more complex than is actually required - or someone's mobile's web browser isn't very good.

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How Javascript and cookies can compromise your security and privacy on the web.

The main thing about a computer, the thing that really defines it and makes it a computer, is that it's programmable. Not programmable in the limited sense that it will remember which TV programs to record while you're out, but in the true sense of programmable – your computer is constantly following a list of instructions, and it will absolutely follow them.

This is the great strength of true computers. Unfortunately, in the modern interconnected world, it is sometimes their great weakness.

Javascript

The internet , as you know, is made up of websites and webpages. The pages you browse to are displayed on your screen by a web browser, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or Safari. Generally speaking, the information sent to your browser from the web is quite simple – it's just text and pictures, and some simple instructions* on where to put them. That's basic HTML, the language the web is written in. Basic HTML can't do calculations, it can't run computer games in your browser, it can't really command your computer to do something in the way a programming language can. It just tells your browser what text and pictures to display, and where to put them, and nothing much more than that.

The nice thing about this way of doing things is that it's relatively safe from a security point of view*. If your web browser can only display things or play sounds, then it's not so likely that information sent from the internet can take over your computer.

As the internet evolved, it quickly became desirable to add a bit more cleverness to the way web pages worked. It's impossible to run a shopping or banking website without a program being run somewhere to keep track of things and provide the 'brains' needed for dynamic content. It's at this point that programming languages have to be used, because basic HTML can't do that sort of thing. So the web very quickly evolved to make use of programming languages.

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The orange car has deployed a 16-valve engine configuration for this occasion that we've come to expect from their manufacturers - large pistons in a V8 configuration. The huge cubic capacity of this engine, combined with the symmetrically balanced layout of the pistons helps to give that amazing engine note and low-down torque that we're all so familiar with. In a radical move, they've opted for a suspension technology they're calling "leaf-spring", which they tell me completely removes the need for dampeners.

The grey car, on the other hand, has deployed an incredible 5-speed synchromeshed transmission system. Drivers have told me that the gear change is short-throw and very positive. Perhaps less exciting was their decision to stick with a familiar braking technology - drum brakes, rather than disc brakes. Sources close to the manufacturer claim this will definitely pay off in terms of higher speeds.

The blue car's manufacturers have been stressing the benefits of achieving a better power-to-weight ratio, and have managed to lighten their car by building the body of the vehicle out of plastic. They have also fitted the front and rear with a downforce-reducing technology they are calling "inverse spoilers". The manufacturers say this will significantly reduce the amount of weight on the road and "you'll see some serious performances at speeds over 80MPH".

And that brings my commentary on this event to an end.


Imagine if that was the radio commentary on a car race, and that the entire commentary for the duration of the race was like that.

This is the problem I have with a lot of economics journalism - and quite a few other types of journalism, too. The above 'commentary' may be interesting for people who know about cars (and the jokes might amuse), but surely even the biggest petrol head wants an occasional update on who's winning and which car is the fastest (or corners best, or even which is least likely to kill the driver). I'm not claiming that any of this is a brilliant metaphor for the current economic situation, of course.

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You cannot use the Twitter website without having JavaScript enabled on your web browser. Please re-enable JavaScript and refresh this page.

This is the misleading message that Twitter will sometimes show you if you attempt to read a Twitter feed using a browser with Javascript disabled.

To work around the problem, simply add a question mark, followed by any other character, to the end of the web address. Two question marks will work just fine. For example, if the URL for the blocked twitter feed in question is:


http://twitter.com/therealjoebloggs
then changing the address to this:
http://twitter.com/therealjoebloggs??
will bring up the front page feed without having to enable Javascript.

The strange thing about this Javascript problem is that it seems to happen at random - one day a particular feed will work fine without Javascript, the next it suddenly throws up this barrier. In the interests of getting to the bottom of what causes this, I (shudder) created a Twitter account and spent half an hour playing with all the settings trying to cause the public feed to display the Javascript error message. None of the standard Twitter settings appear to be able to cause the error.* This suggests that it's either being caused by a third-party add-on to Twitter that some of the celeb accounts I've been monitoring (purely research purposes, of course) are switching on and off at random, or this is something that Twitter itself is causing to happen centrally.

If it's the latter, then it's just further evidence of how Twitter (along with other companies) appears to be determined to screw up the basic principle of internet content being universally accessible in its pursuit of money. They recently accused Google of unfairly promoting their own social network in its search results at the expense of other networks such as Twitter and Facebook. That's a bit cheeky considering Facebook's (quite successful) attempts to create a walled internet, and Twitter's attempt to do something similar by presenting an unstable interface to the internet and then effectively sealing off their links to all but the unscrupulous via 'nofollow' links and third-party URL- shorteners.

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Sifting and ranking millions of websites into a top 50 or so is difficult, obviously. (I say 50, because people probably rarely dig further than a few pages).

Most of the time, Google's algorithm works amazingly well considering the scale of the challenge, especially considering that spammers are constantly trying to take advantage of it.

But I think there might be room for improvement.

Google definitely seems to rely at least partly on the popularity of a site (as measured in click-throughs) to rank it. This is clearly open to all sorts of abuse, hence I think ranking should be more about the merit of the text rather than the number of clicks.

Popularity is all well and good, but just look at some of the things that are popular. I'm not being snobby about this - I can enjoy I'm a Celeb as much as the next person, but it would be a bit annoying if I had to craft a fiendishly complex search term or scroll down 1,000 results before I could watch Newsnight.

A choice of algorithms would help to fix this problem. One could search by popularity, another by subject or level of language used, and so on. I think it would be a good idea if there was a learning algorithm that was manually adjusted by actual people moving things up and down the rankings - experts in their field, perhaps, though obviously there'd be issues of staffing and bias to address. A textual meritocracy approach might also enable blogs to be ranked more fairly alongside traditional websites - at the moment, although they do appear in normal search results, they seem to be somewhat ghetto-ised into a specific blog search option.

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Facebook and Twitter are currently moving vast swathes of text, information and human interaction out of the reach of search engines. Of course, I'm not a Zuckerberg-style anti-privacy zealot, far from it. People should always be able to communicate conveniently and privately with their friends via computers. That's what email and instant messaging is for.

But where would we be if every little question asked and answered vanished into the depths of Zuckerberg's private network? What if, one day, you wanted to look up that strange error message your computer was giving you (or, to take a more life-and-death example, imagine you needed to know how to cook a haggis) and the only results that came back in Google were those spam sites that are increasingly clogging up the internet - because no-one was talking on forums or contributing to public comments any more?

No doubt there's also a lot of text stored in Facebook that is of no value whatsoever, and the internet would be a poorer place for having it, but that's the job of search engines - sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Not only is text vanishing from the internet, but so is information about that text. If hyperlinks to interesting content are increasingly shared via non-searchable social networks, then search engines will be increasingly starved of information used to determine what is popular or useful. Facebook delivers a double blow to the internet - not only is it siphoning off content, it may also be making search engines less able to sort the information they already have.

It's not just Facebook. Many websites are increasingly making use of facilities that can't be seen or used without enabling Javascript. This is annoying for people like myself who value their online security and therefore use NoScript, but it creates a much greater problem. For example, look at the comment facility on this very website, provided by IntenseDebate. It's convenient for me to use because I didn't have to write the comments system myself and all the processing is stored and handled by IntenseDebate's servers, elsewhere. But because it uses Javascript, it can't easily be indexed by Google, nor any search engine for that matter. The comments left on this website do not appear in any search engine.

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A Guide to Security and Privacy for Windows XP Home Edition

A complete set of instructions for installing and configuring Windows XP for maximum security and privacy.

This article may also be useful for other versions of Windows, it's difficult to say - Windows XP is the only version of Windows that I run. Why? Because it's a good, solid version that still has a few years left in it (support for Windows XP ends April 2014) and it has quite modest demands in terms of how modern and fast a computer it requires. The less your computer is being overrun by Windows' demands, the more of its resources are available to the actual programs you want to run. That's why, if you look at the minimum hardware requirements for computer games, software developers tend to specify more memory and processor power for Vista and Windows 7 than they do for Windows XP. In many ways, it pays to stay with the oldest version of Windows that Microsoft still supports that also meets your requirements.

Follow this advice at your own risk, and remember that with today's delightfully complex operating systems, there is no such thing as a completely hack-proof, internet-connected computer. No, not even a Linux or Apple Mac PC. I've tried to make this article as understandable as possible, though you will need some familiarity with various IT concepts. In an attempt to offset this, I'll try to provide helpful links to explain things where I can. Be sure to read and understand the entire article before attempting to follow the steps.

The Quick Version / Checklist / Table of Contents

Get a clean copy of Windows
Download all relevant security patches and service packs
Install Windows - Formatting, partitioning and other considerations
Install Windows - Initial network settings
Install Windows - Setting usernames
Install all Security Updates
Disable unnecessary services
Disable remote assistance and switch on DEP
Disable Autorun
Finish network settings and install firewall
Set up and Secure the user accounts
Disable hidden file extensions
Secure BIOS
Remove unwanted software / List of default Windows processes running on a minimal system
Connect to the internet and run Windows Update
Secure Web Browser
Configure Email
General security and privacy hints and tips
Advanced Security Issues
The Problem of asking an operating system to check itself and the bigger picture
List of useful free software


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Cars are increasingly being fitted with GPS screens, trip computers wired into the engine management computers and on-board entertainment systems that can display TV, play MP3s, and even connect to the internet.

All great stuff, but computer security can be really complicated, so I hope car manufacturers' software engineering is more rigorous than that often found in the home computing sphere.

It's fine if all these systems are separate from each other, but convenience, interoperability and efficiency suggests that all of these systems will get knitted together into one in-car IT system. Once this happens, a vulnerability in one system could open the doors to exploitation of all the other systems. For example, a music CD burned with some encoded malware might be able to instruct the engine's fuel injection system to shut down, disabling the engine. In my opinion, engineering and diagnostic functions should never be accessible via a method that could be potentially invisible to the car owner. The possibilities for a car equipped with mobile internet connectivity could be horrifyingly endless.

I like in-car gadgets, but I hope the car industry has learned from the mistakes of other sectors and are keeping their various systems completely separate, or at least keeping the security and engine management systems apart from everything but immobilisers and diagnostics.

I'll be surprised and impressed if we don't hear of cars being hacked within the next few years.

From the standpoint of someone who makes some effort to keep up with the very fast-moving world of IT (sometimes needlessly fast, in my opinion), car manufacturers often seem very slow to innovate. Maybe this is as a result of being cautious of new technologies and extensive testing and engineering.

Progress is generally a good thing. Few people today would want a car that had to be started with a crank handle because it lacked a starter motor. Similarly, most people would not want to be without an engine management computer, as the computer can generally adjust the fuel/air mixture better than a human operating a manual choke, and manage a number of other engine parameters better than the old mechanical methods that were used.

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More Info on the Raspberry Pi Linux PC

Since my last article on the amazing Raspberry Pi miniature computer, the Raspberry Pi team have been extremely busy.

The specifications as reported in my original article have now changed, and there are now two different models planned.

Both models are equipped with a 700Mhz ARM11 processor. I did some rough calculations around the time of the Raspberry's announcement and decided the processing power would probably be roughly equivalent to a Pentium III running at about 600Mhz. Delvings into the Raspberry Pi website suggest it might be closer to a PII or PIII@250Mhz. However it should be noted that it's very difficult to fairly compare the performance of different processors against each other in an easy way. The proof of the Raspberry Pi will, of course, be in the real-world feel of how it performs - something we might discover by the end of November, which is the earliest mentioned launch for their initial 10,000 unit production run.

Both models are based on a Broadcom BCM2835 board, with a surprisingly powerful on-board OpenGL ES 2.0-capable VideoCore IV graphics processor (my rough guess is that it's somewhat better than an old Nvidia GeForce 2).


The Raspberry Pi running Quake 3
.

This means that the RasPi will probably be capable of running all my favourite Linux games.

The graphics card will share the memory available to the system, and the amount of RAM it reserves (and removes from the memory available to the system) will be variable and can be customised depending on need.

All versions of the Pi will come with a full-sized SD memory card slot. This will provide a solid-state hard drive and swap memory facility. It could also be used like a video game cartridge slot, since the graphics chip will boot whatever Operating System (OS) it finds on the card.

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Lessons from History - Part 1: Economic Depression in 1930s America

While looking for a book to read, I found one of my old History textbooks. Having read the section on the great depression of the 1930s, I thought I'd share it. Hopefully the original publisher's and author's drive to educate will outweigh any temptation to enforce copyright, should they stumble upon this page.

It's interesting to compare the current economic slump to what was written about the 1930s'. There are a number of common elements, but many of the locations, players and types of debt and speculation have changed somewhat.

Extract from Mastering Modern World History, Second Edition, by Norman Lowe, published by Macmillan - pages 111 to 113. The numbering and use of bold and italic type are from the original text.

(a) What caused the great depression?

(i) American industrialists, encouraged by high profits and aided by increased mechanisation, were producing too many goods for the home market to absorb. (in the same way as American farmers). This was not apparent in the early 1920s, but as the 1930s approached unsold stocks of goods began to build up, and manufacturers produced less; since fewer workers were required, men were laid off; and as there was no unemployment benefit, these men and their families bought less. And so the vicious circle continued.

(ii) There was a maldistribution of income, which means that the enormous profits made by industrialists were not being shared evenly among the workers. The average wage for industrial workers rose by about 8 per cent between 1923 and 1929 but during the same period industrial profits increased by 72 per cent. An 8 per cent increase in wages meant that there was not enough buying power in the hands of the general public to sustain the boom: they could manage to absorb production for a time with the help of credit but by 1929 they were fast approaching the limit. Unfortunately manufacturers, usually in the form of the super-corporation, were not prepared to reduce prices or to increase wages substantially, and so the glut of consumer goods built up. This refusal by the manufacturers to compromise was shortsighted to say the least; at the beginning of 1929 there were still millions of Americans who had no radio, no electric washer and no car because they could not afford them. If employers had been content with rather less profit there is no reason why the boom could not have continued for several more years while its benefits were more widely shared. Even so, a slump was still not inevitable provided the Americans could export their surplus products.

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It's a long-standing argument, and no doubt there's a lot of truth in it. Local businesses seem to manage to stick around, but it must be difficult to compete with the power and resources of the supermarket giants.

Supermarkets succeed for various reasons, but the most important one is that most people prefer to shop in a supermarket rather than trail round the local shops. I like the idea of supporting local business, but supermarkets are more convenient, usually have a better range and thanks to their massive buying power, they're often cheaper.

The solution seems obvious - become a supermarket.

No one market trader or local shop owner could do it alone, of course, but if they got together and pooled their resources perhaps they could rent or buy a town centre location or a big plot of land out of town and make their own supermarket.

So why isn't it happening all the time?

I really don't know. I can think of various reasons, but I'm not sure any of them are correct. It actually does happen to some extent (most of the major retailers started out as market traders or small businesses), but not as much as I might expect. Near me, there's a nice little indoor market. If all of those people got together, they'd have the basis of a proper mass retail business. I suppose an indoor market is already almost a supermarket, but it would be better if it worked more like a proper supermarket, with shopping trolleys and a place to pay at the end, after the shopper had gathered everything they wanted.

That indoor market space could act as the start of a business conveyor belt: The existing businesses move up to being a proper supermarket, and the space gets filled with a new generation of market traders, who eventually save up enough money to go on to make the next supermarket.

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People often think that the most powerful people in the country are politicians.

They make the laws that rule us all. Despite their power, they are elected by us, the people and we can throw them out of office every five years. There are more than 60 million of us in this country. If most of us want something, a politician hoping to be elected will probably promise it. If the government oversteps the line, there are potentially 60 million people to scare the living bejeezus out of them by violently smashing through their police lines and then queuing politely for their turn to sit around peacefully in Fortnum and Masons.

So, perhaps it is us, the people, who are most powerful. But how would people have protested against the Iraq War if they didn't know it was happening? In the most part, we got that information from the news industry. If they hadn't reported it, or if they'd reported only the pro-war arguments and none of the anti-war arguments, then how many would have turned up to that protest?

This is the bluntest of tools the news industry has at its disposal. They have other, more subtly sharp ones, all the more effective for being less noticeable.

It would have been difficult for the media to suppress the flaws in the stated arguments for the Iraq war, because they were quite obvious and so a lot of people would have noticed them and passed them on by word of mouth or the internet.

But not all flaws in arguments are so obvious, and some things do go unreported.

Recently, the press ran several days of coverage on the issues surrounding equality - equal pay, equal opportunities, and so on. Between their news pieces, editorials and comments they covered almost every aspect of the issues. Except, in all the excitement, they somehow neglected to mention that the government was running a public consultation on exceptions to the age discrimination laws (or if they did, it wasn't very prominent - I didn't see it and I was actively looking for it). This consultation was published on the government's Central Office of Information website, which I'm guessing journalists must check regularly for government press releases. Or perhaps they rely on press releases via email, I don't know. There are now less than 10 days left on this consultation.

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I don't like Twitter. Here's why.

The 140 character limit encourages the use of URL-shortening services such as Bitly.

The problem with such services is firstly, that you can't see what website you're being redirected to - it could be the BBC, or Goatse, or a site infested with malware and viruses. There's no way of knowing - hovering over the link tells you nothing, unlike normal links.

Secondly, the way the URL-shortening service works means that anyone who clicks a shortened link is briefly passed through the shortening services' webservers, meaning they can track everything you click. At best, they'll keep that data to themselves. A slightly worse scenario might be that they make that tracking data public. Just like Bitly does.

The worst case scenario is they use a combination of tracking data, cookies and information gathered from other sources, such as advertising, to build a profile of the people you know or follow on Twitter and what things interest you, and then sell that data to the highest bidder.

It would have taken 9 tweets to explain this simple point. That's another thing I don't like about Twitter.

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Perhaps in this internet age it would be more accurate to say, "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to misquote people and then attribute the quote to the wrong source".

Try a Google search for the bits of the quote you feel sure about and see what I mean.

Having spent a few years carefully reading and sifting the news available online, I have come to the conclusion that critical thinking is a vital skill that everyone needs. I sometimes see comments on news websites calling for it to be taught in schools. It's a long time since I was in school, so I don't know what's being taught these days, but I was taught critical thinking skills at school - in history lessons, for example.

All the required elements were there - think about the source of the information, and what ulterior motives they might have. Look at the way information is presented - what's being pushed to the front as important, and what is being omitted? Did the source have access to all the facts? What was the social background to the source?

In maths we were taught to examine statistics and recognise the tricks used to misrepresent data. In history, we even studied Goebbels - repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. In English we saw how language can be used to persuade and beguile, though at the time I didn't even begin to suspect just how deep that particular rabbit hole went.

In general, my learning experience was a good one: I was lucky to have good teachers and the teaching methods employed in the late eighties and early nineties seemed to really suit my particular psychology. I found most lessons quite interesting, which always helps. But my point here is about what wasn't taught, and what went unsaid. All those valuable critical thinking skills I learned turned out to be useless to me, for the simple fact that no-one ever taught me (as far as I remember) that they needed to be applied to everything, all the time. Not just against history.

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David Braben, the programmer famous for the classic Elite and Elite II: Frontier games, is heading up a charitable foundation that aims to provide a £15 Linux PC the size of a memory stick, whilst providing today's schoolchildren with access to the sort of flexible computing experience that was more common in the past.

The Raspberry Pi is (according to the provisional specification) based on the ARM11 700Mhz processor. It's to be loaded with 128MB of memory, a USB2.0 connector and a composite/HDMI video output. This means it can use a TV as a display, while the USB connector allows cheap and standard accessories to be plugged in, including mice and keyboards (and much more). It will also have a SD/MMC/SDIO memory slot and a 'general purpose' interface. The operating system will be Ubuntu, and software will include Iceweasel (a re-branded version of the popular Firefox web browser), Koffice (similar to Microsoft Office) and the Python programming language. Braben says he hopes the Raspberry will be ready within the next 12 months.

128MB might sound like a very small amount of memory for a modern operating system, so after reading about Raspberry Pi I tried installing the latest version of Debian Linux (Ubuntu is based on Debian) on an old 128MB machine*. After removing some of the unneeded software components, it was actually perfectly usable, if a bit slow at times. These are only the provisional specifications, though, and I expect Raspberry Pi will strip down the software down more carefully than I did. Also, I was using KDE4 as my desktop manager (which is roughly equivalent to Vista/Windows 7 in terms of fancy graphics and polish), whilst Ubuntu's default desktop environment is probably a little lighter on the processor and memory.

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In addition to the usual tricks used in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), there's an aspect of the way Google ranks pages that seems to get little attention, yet if it's true then it opens a potentially serious weakness in Google's rankings, and possibly in their entire business. I suspect that this flaw, if not corrected, might forever place them at the mercy of social networks of one sort or another.

Google is the world's favourite search engine. In theory that means getting a website displayed on or near the front page could make a huge difference to the amount of traffic it receives, and that makes page ranking worth money. The internet, as they say, is serious business.

Naturally, that leads to people studying the way Google works and then adjusting their websites to fit the pattern. Thus, the SEO industry was born.

I've learned a fair bit about SEO over the years, though I don't deliberately optimise this site for rankings. I just designed it in such a way that it would have a fair chance, nothing more.

SEO is complicated, but the important parts of it are pretty well known - have good content and acquire incoming links. There's all sorts of technical bits and pieces too, but this isn't meant to be a technical article so I won't go into all that.

Supposedly, one of the ways that Google judges the quality of a webpage is by how many people do a search and then click on that website.

That seems sensible, but it opens Google's rankings to being gamed. It would be easy to make a page look more popular than it really is. Friends of a website owner could repeatedly do searches and click the link, making it rise up the rankings. Even worse, companies could recruit hundreds of people across the country or the world and have them click links for their clients. It would be very difficult for Google to figure out which clicks were genuine. Worse still, a well-designed botnet could do the same thing, with the owners of the compromised machines having no idea that their machine was quietly doing SEO on behalf of a hacker.

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Poor Nick Clegg.

Before the election he was perhaps the most popular man in politics - even other politicians were clambering over each other to agree with him. Or so the press would have us believe, anyway. Actually, while some newspapers were singing his praises, others were mocking him. Arguably the latter sections of the press were those that might be seen as part of the establishment, and their mockery acted as reverse-psychology support for his anti-establishment positioning. I may be over-thinking that, but probably not.

I'd guess Clegg's support came from two main groups. Firstly, political tacticians who probably wanted to see Labour removed from power, but didn't trust the Conservatives to rule by themselves and thus wanted a coalition government. The second group of supporters were probably a little less politically astute and supported him because of the policies he said he wanted to bring in.

Many of Clegg's policies were extremely populist, but perhaps rather unrealistic. The biggest clue was probably his opposition to Trident. On the face of it, it might sound like a brilliant idea - the US are our allies and they have plenty of nukes, let them take up any slack while we save money. Or, you could take the compelling view that nuclear weapons are just downright evil and wrong, and we should set a good example to the world by reducing our ability to project death across the globe in the hope that others will see the light and be nice to us.

It would be nice if the latter argument was true. If the world's dictators were sane, kind and reasonable, and democratic states were made up of voters who were well-informed and logical, then it might just work. The evidence of history and current affairs suggests this is not the case. Even if I'm wrong about this, there are probably deep-rooted political reasons why it doesn't matter one way or the other.

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In the recent budget, the government once again put up prices on tobacco and alcohol - just like every government always does. Rolling tobacco in particular took a heavy hit, going up about 50p on a 25g bag, or £1 on a 50g bag.

The details weren't announced in the budget speech, but were buried in the budget document. The alcohol increases weren't really mentioned either, they were also hidden away. Those changes don't take effect until October, and came about as a result of changes made in 2008.

The government is also steering towards forcing cigarette manufacturers to put their products in plain packaging, suggesting that this will somehow reduce the appeal of perhaps the most addictive substance in the world.

In my experience cigarette manufacturers, like many other companies, follow predictable patterns with their products. Every now and then, a new product will arrive which is packaged similarly to some other similar product, but is cheaper. The similar branding gives a clue to the customer that the new, cheaper brand X is similar to Brand Y, allowing customers to switch. Once hooked, the company slowly increases the price over the years that follow. Eventually the profit margin becomes so great that there is room in the market for a similarly-branded but cheaper competitor to steal their customers away, and the cycle begins again.

Quite often, the 'competition' is actually between different products made by the same company, as the tobacco industry is heavily monopolised - most products are made by either Imperial Tobacco or British American Tobacco, in much the same way that a lot of household cleaning products are made by either Unilever or Reckitt. Despite this, there is some competition.

Plain packaging may reduce this competition, by making it difficult for competing products to advertise themselves as being similar to a more expensive alternative. Customers may find themselves locked in to a particular brand, at which point the manufacturer may feel free to crank up their profit margins safe in the knowledge that their customers won't know where else to turn to get a better deal.

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Robert Peston muses on the latest developments in the Murdoch phone hacking scandal.

The interesting thing about this scandal is that it very much looks like a case of the stupid being caught and the more deviously clever getting away, as is so often the case.

From what I've read, it appears that (most of?) the phone 'hacks' have consisted of celebs having their mobile phone voice mail accessed by the press because they didn't bother to change the default PIN on their voice mail service.

Mobile phone providers generally provide a service whereby if you ring a mobile number and get put through to voice mail (for example by not answering the phone), then you can not only leave a message but also listen to recorded messages if you know the PIN. Not changing the default PIN is rather like leaving your front door unlocked. Yes, the mobile phone companies should do more to make customers change the default number. Yes, it's unethical and perhaps downright criminal for anyone to take advantage of someone who doesn't know what they're doing. Yes, it's foolish to not read the manual and secure your voice mail.

My reason for highlighting the stupidity of the celebs for not changing their PINs is not to ridicule them (who hasn't made a mistake of this sort, at some point?) but to point out that the simplicity of this so-called-hack means it is easy to do, and also easy to track down and catch. The unsaid reverse of this, is that there are probably much more sophisticated hacks currently undetected and unreported.

On a 'social engineering' level, it would be somewhat surprising if there wasn't some bribery or blackmail going on within the lower-paid sections of major communications companies, such as Virgin or BT. As communication hubs for telephone and internet, they'd be obvious and valuable targets, and the people who work there who have access to the recordings, logs and traffic probably aren't paid enough for all of them to resist bribery, nor sufficiently vetted to resist blackmail. If that sounds far-fetched, then perhaps you didn't read the news stories quite recently about phone banking call centre staff giving up information about their clients for money in their lunch breaks, as reported in the press. I'll add a link if I can find it again.*

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Lord Hutton Publishes Final Public Sector Pensions Report

Lord Hutton of Furness' report on recommendations for the future of public sector pensions was published today.

The full text of the Hutton Report, running to 215 pages, can be found here.

As was widely predicted, Lord Hutton has recommended a Career Average Revalued Earnings (CARE) scheme to replace the current final salary schemes.

Both The Guardian and The Independent report that public sector unions are threatening large scale strike action over the pensions reforms.

Lord Hutton's main recommendations are as follows (taken directly from the report):

Recommendation 1: The Government should make clear its assessment of the role of public service pension schemes. Based on its framework of principles, the Commission believes that the primary purpose is to ensure adequate levels of retirement income for public service pensioners.

Recommendation 2: Pensions will continue to be an important element of remuneration. The Commission recommends that public service employers take greater account of public service pensions when constructing remuneration packages and designing workforce strategies. The Government should make clear in its remits for pay review bodies that they should consider how public service pensions affect total reward when making pay recommendations.

Recommendation 3: The Government should ensure that public service schemes, along with a full state pension, deliver at least adequate levels of income (as defined by the Turner Commission benchmark replacement rates) for scheme members who work full careers in public service. Employers should seek to maximise participation in the schemes where this is appropriate. Adequate incomes and good participation rates are particularly important below median income levels.

Recommendation 4: The Government must honour in full the pension promises that have been accrued by scheme members: their accrued rights. In doing so, the Commission recommends maintaining the final salary link for past service for current members.

Recommendation 5: As soon as practical, members of the current defined benefit public service pension schemes should be moved to the new schemes for future service, but the Government should continue to provide a form of defined benefit pension as the core design.

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How to Get a Job in the Public Sector

Council recruitment is at an all time low right now, but these tips apply to a wide range of public sector organisations and other areas that tend to be influenced by the public sector's methods, such as universities and charities. Just bear in mind that the latter examples are free to be a bit more individual in the way they work.

Of course, all the usual advice for job hunting applies, there's plenty of good tips on recruitment websites and similar: Do some research on the place you're applying to. Do try to guess what questions will be asked and plan some answers. Don't put your feet on the table during the interview. Do write your application form in blue or black ink. Don't use crayon or your own blood. That sort of thing.

Public sector recruitment follows rules and a formula that is supposed to make recruitment fair and open to anyone who has the skills to do the job, no matter where those skills were learned. For example, if you've done something as a hobby or as part of school work then in theory that's just as good as skills picked up in a proper job.

Thanks to this system, if you have the right skills and you follow the formula on the application process, you should be almost guaranteed to get an interview.

The Application Form

Forget CVs. The public sector never accepts CVs, they judge everything on how you fill in the application form. If you send a CV, they will ignore it. Most of the application form will be quite easy to understand - just follow the instructions. Most of it is simple personal details and the previous work history and education history sections are basically just in a familiar CV format anyway. The part where you really need to pay attention is the big blank boxes they leave for 'Any other information', or 'Information in support of your application', or similar. Sometimes these sections are split between a few different sections, such as 'Outside interests and hobbies relevant to the application' and 'Relevant work experience'.

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Eric Pickles Strives for More Council Transparency - Nottingham City Council Resists

The government has published a code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency, and has opened a consultation on the proposed measures. The consultation is open to anyone and ends on 14th March. Responses can be given by email, post or online on their forums. See the above link for details.

The government has already asked that councils provide details of all spending over £500, and many councils have already complied - you can see the results here.

There are still a number of councils dragging their feet, such as Nottingham City Council. * This new code of practice strengthens the government's position in requiring the data from local authorities, as it is being issued as an official code of practice under Part 2 of the Local Government, Land and Planning Act.

The proposed data requirements are as follows:

  • All expenditure over £500, with grants and payments under contract to the voluntary and social enterprise sector clearly itemised and listed.
  • All senior council staff are to have their salaries published, along with job descriptions, responsibilities, budgets and numbers of staff. Senior staff are defined as anyone earning more than £58,200, which is the starting wage for a senior civil servant [Note: a 'senior' council worker wage is usually much lower than this, at around £40,000.] Staff can opt-out of having their names published.
  • An organisational chart of the staff structure of the local authority.
  • Councillor allowances and expenses.
  • Copies of contracts and tenders to businesses and to the voluntary community and social enterprise sector.
  • Policies, performance, audits and key indicators on the authorities fiscal and financial position.
  • Data of democratic running of the local authority including the constitution, election results, committee minutes, decision-making process and records of decisions.
The proposed code of practice also states that local authorities should create an inventory of all the data they hold, and sets out a number of basic (but useful) technical requirements, such as requiring that the data be published in CSV format (Comma Separated Variable - a data format readable by a very wide range of applications, including the ever-popular MS Excel).

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Tony Blair's been in the news a lot recently thanks to his second appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry into the handling of the Iraq War.

There's been various news stories suggesting (again) that Blair had made up his mind to go to war long before the government 'officially' decided to go to war. He also stands accused (again) of running an almost presidential style of government, and not properly consulting his cabinet.

I've recently been reading The Blair Years - Extracts from The Alastair Campbell Diaries, published in 2007.

What does Mr Blair's long-time spin doctor and loyal supporter have to say about it all?

Strangely, his book pretty much confirms it all, though admittedly it's somewhat open to interpretation - he certainly never explicitly says Blair made up his mind about Iraq beforehand (it would be strange if he did, all things considered), though he's fairly clear that Blair called the shots and cabinet consultation was very limited.

On the latter point, Campbell tends to look at everything through a prism of what is "professional", and presents a very black-and-white view of either working for the good of the party, staying "on-message" and toeing the line, or working against it. Cabinet members who spoke out, or spoke their mind, are regularly described in very derogatory terms, and Blair is said to have spoken in much the same way. Many of the female cabinet members in particular are derided for their lack of what Blair and Campbell see as 'professionalism', and even the popular Redcar MP Mo Mowlam is blasted, and her importance in the Northern Ireland negotiations is talked down compared to her own, more detailed description of events in her book, Momentum.

Campbell's description of the final cabinet meeting to discuss Iraq essentially describes the cabinet being railroaded into agreeing what had already been decided.

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