As a retired computer professional I spend quite a lot of my time helping people out with their computers and tablets. I often come across confusion over internet terminology. The world of computers and technology is awash with jargon, buzzwords and incomprehensible terms. Sometimes this ‘language’ helps to perpetuate the mystique surrounding computers. Some might even say that it can add value to manufacturers’ products by making something fairly simple sound complex to entice consumers to pay more for something. Getting the wrong idea about some of this computer terminology can really hold people back from using their computers and lead them to adopt practices that they think are correct but in fact are erroneous. In this first of a series of blog posts I hope to be able to shed some light on this confusing ‘techno-babble’ and help you to see that, with a better understanding, computers and the internet are not quite such a dark art as some would claim. To start with I shall deal with the Internet, Search Engines and Browsers.
Let’s look first at the Internet. Put simply the Internet is the place where the sum total of all human knowledge can be accessed. You may say that actually human knowledge can be found in books, writing, pictures and articles, which all existed long before the internet. This is true but the internet can lead you to where this information can be found. That is why I use the term "can be accessed" instead of "is stored". But what is the internet? A common misconception is that it is a massive computer hidden in a mountain range somewhere in America or India or Russia. In fact the information is stored on thousands of computers all around the world. Information about one particular subject might even be spread across several different computers in different countries. Some individuals permit their own computers to be used to store information that other people can access. Don’t worry, however, that your own computer might be being used in this way. You would have to give explicit permission to allow this to happen. On the other hand, say that you share some information with others (perhaps by way of a post on Facebook for example), and the recipient then shares that with others, you can see how several versions of that information can exist around the world thanks to the internet. This may help you to understand that the internet is not one big computer “in the sky” but exists as a massive collection of computers all connected by electronic communication. It is true that a great deal of the information is stored on massive computers. Amazon for example hold their information on lots of huge super computers (called ‘servers’) all interconnected. While we are about it, the expression I used about computers “in the sky” is maybe the origin of the other term for the internet that you often hear – ‘the Cloud’.
Now let’s look at Search Engines. To be able to find information on the internet you need to know where it is located. Individual websites all carry a unique reference number known as an Internet Protocol address (IP address). For example, the IP address of one of the BBC’s computers is 220.127.116.11. This IP address can be translated into something more readable called a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). The URL for the BBC’s IP address is www.bbc.co.uk (where WWW stands for World Wide Web). The hundreds of bits of news and information held by the BBC each have their own URL prefixed by the BBC’s URL. Thus News would www.bbc.co.uk/news. The numbers and letters that follow the / sign after the BBC URL can be very complex indeed. Very often they consist of a number which represents the number of the page where the BBC holds its information. For example, the starting point for information on the BBC about the forthcoming election can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2019-50347661 . Of course if you know the URL of the site you want to visit it can be easier to find that on the internet by putting the address into your browser (see below to read about browsers). But very often we want to find out about something but either do not know the exact web address or (more probably) we have a generic question. This is where Search Engines come into their own. A search engine is the start point for a query. It lets you type in what you are looking for and it then “goes off” and searches the internet for sites that might contain what you are seeking. The engine then displays (returns) a vast number of “hits” usually in order of the most relevance to your search. You can then click on one of these “hits” and the search engine will take you to the appropriate site. There are quite literally hundreds of search engines globally. Many are generic and others are subject-specific. A comprehensive list of these engines can be found at this link http://www.thesearchenginelist.com/. However, if you ask most people they will tell you that they use Google. Google makes up for about 70% of the search engine market. NB. Google is NOT a browser but it DOES own CHROME which is a browser. You can, though, use Google with any browser. An important point to make about search engines is that they get paid for finding web sites and presenting them to you in a list. If you “click” on a link and go to a web site a fraction of a penny will go to the search engine and, if you consider that Google alone handles some 3.5Bn searches every day those fractions soon add up. Not only this but some companies pay large sums of money to ensure that their sites appear as near to the top of the list of hits as possible. This is why you should always look out for the word Ad alongside the hit list which indicates a paid-for entry. Search engines also present you with their list of hits based on the popularity of particular web sites or the prominence of the topic in the latest news. If you are looking for obscure references and subjects it is often worthwhile going much further down the list of hits and seeing what is there. One other point to note about search engines concerns the choice of words you use to put into the search box. Many think that you need to write lengthy, full sentences to get an answer. Say, for example, that you need to find out about wiring a United Kingdom plug. There is no need to write “Please tell me how I can wire a United Kingdom plug”. Simply “wire uk plug” will get the same answers. Note, also, that you don’t need capital letters in a Google search.
Lastly let’s look at Browsers. A browser is the software that enables you to visit sites found by your search on the internet and displays them on your computer/tablet/phone screen. All browsers have an address box and this will show the internet address of the site you are visiting. If you already know the site you want you can also start your browser and enter the site address yourself in the address box. Most browsers have facilities like Favourites, Bookmarks and History so that you can go straight back to a previously-visited site without going through the search engine or typing in a lengthy address. Like search engines, there are many browsers; some are Microsoft-specific others are not. The traditional Microsoft browser was Internet Explorer that newer versions of Windows now call Edge. Other popular browsers are Firefox (produced by a company called Mozilla), Opera (originally developed by a Norwegian company called Telenor but now called just Opera) and Chrome (which is produced by Google). In fact, there are literally hundreds of browsers around the world. Some are generic for everyday use and others are subject or profession specific. Take a look at a great list of browsers at http://www.thesearchenginelist.com/. Try some out and see what sort of information they present you with.
Hopefully this post has clarified some of the mystery surrounding computers. If you need to ask a specific question feel free to get in touch through my Contact page. In future posts I plan to explain some of the other terms we use in the world of computers.
Death is not something we want to think about but sadly it comes to us all eventually. It is always difficult for those left behind to come to terms with their loss. One of the most distressing things is the need to sort out personal, financial and other legal affairs. As many people have found, dealing with banks, building societies, pension companies and other institutions can be a nightmare and only add to one’s heartache. In addition, there is the need to cancel driving and TV licences, sort out phone and public utility accounts, notify societies and other accounts, and so on. These days we are being advised to draw up wills and powers of attorney appropriately in the hope that these will smooth the way when dealing with all this.
However, with today’s technology and widespread internet usage, all of us who use a computer in any form have a digital footprint around the world (whether we realise this or not). This means that we “leave” information about ourselves and our activities all over the place. In its most common form this amounts to social media and email accounts with their attendant information that we have contributed over the years. If we have followed advice about security and passwords this information is quite likely to be protected against unlawful or malicious access. Upon our sad demise, unlike our physical bodies, this information does not “die”. This is increasingly being referred to as our digital legacy.
Recent research by a company called LifeSearch (and referred to last week on the Sky News website) examined the concept of a "data death" soon after physical death whereby social media and email accounts might be automatically deleted, instead of leaving it to their relatives to have to go through their data and close down their accounts. Most social media sites will close or suspend accounts if they learn of a user's death. But that can take time and paperwork, unless relatives can access the deceased's profile and passwords. Google and Facebook offer "legacy settings", where a user can select a contact to "curate" or preserve selected parts of an account after their death, in the same way an executor would organise assets according to instructions in a will.
But making this automatic is unlikely ever to happen given the complexity of internet law around the globe. Quite apart from the legal aspects, surviving relatives might find it exceptionally cruel to have their loved one's life history automatically, digitally expunged. Yet, sadly, research also shows that the vast majority of people have never discussed what they want to happen with their online data after they die.
LifeSearch spokesperson Emma Walker says:
"With our online presence increasingly a part of everyday life, it's important that we consider what will happen to our social media profiles, email accounts and the thousands of photos, videos and memories that go with them. Avoiding essential conversations about our digital life after death could leave our loved ones locked out, unable to take control, or at the mercy of hackers should the worst happen."
Very few people are putting such instructions in their wills or living Powers of Attorney. Furthermore, the legal profession in general has not fully caught up with this issue. Those that have probably lack sufficient technical knowledge to advise clients accordingly.
What steps have YOU taken to ensure that relatives can access your passwords and accounts and are in possession of the necessary authority to act on your behalf when you have gone? You can find some very helpful guidance on the LifeSearch web site at https://www.lifesearch.com/talkdigitaldeath. Why not take a look now?
(I have no connection to LifeSearch and, doubtless, a Google search will turn up many other useful sites).
It is over a month since my last blog post and you may wonder if I have given up. However, I am still maintaining and monitoring my site and the statistics for the number of 'views' per day still suggest that I am being read.
When I started this blog I decided that I would write as and when the mood takes me or when I have something worthwhile to say. Throughout the month of June I guess I have been pretty laid back and have not felt the need to burst into print. However, I do now want to say a few words about the BBC's decision to scrap the free TV licence for over the 75s. Why should I want to write? Well, in August I reach the age of 75 and - just typically - a much-awaited benefit will be eluding me just as I reach the qualifying age.
Let me put my cards on the table. The annual cost of a colour licence is £154 or approximately 42p per day. Unlike many elderly people, I can afford the money and will not be standing outside Broadcasting House waving my knickers in the air in protest (much to your relief or disappointment depending on your personal proclivities!). However, I spend a lot of time with other elderly people helping them with their computers and technology and am keenly aware of the way in which modern life is increasingly dependent on access to computers and the internet. The fact is, however, that technology is rapidly eroding our everyday social structures and friendships. If something can't be done 'on line' well that's tough. Furthermore, there are vast numbers of older people for whom computers and the internet are unbreachable barriers. Did you know that 5 million people in the UK have never accessed the internet? Many of these people are house-bound and unable to socialise in the way that they used to. For them, the TV is often the only friend they have and the sole connection with the outside world apart from the radio and the phone. I know that for many on limited means and slender old age pensions £154 is a lot of money. Subjecting them to a means test to see if they qualify for a free licence is both degrading and costly to administer.
And what are they paying for? The majority of BBC's output these days is DROSS. Repeats, youth-focused 'entertainment', endless biased news reporting and those awful adverts for BBC Sounds - another form of technology that escapes most pensioners. This, along with the exorbitant and indecent salaries paid to third-rate non-entities and presenters, is what their £154 is paying for. It's enough to make you switch off. If only one could block BBC in the house I am not sure I for one would miss it.
How many did you get right? Everyone's a virtual winner!
Ancient Damascus steel
A castrated ram
(of an old person) Thin; sharp; withered
A summer outing or dinner provided by a printing house for the workers
A purple-faced monkey from Sri Lanka
Kangaroo; Wallaroo; Wallaby. The middle-sized of the three
An obsolete Russian measurement of distance just over 1km
A herbaceous plant with magical and medicinal powers
A lawsuit for recovery of damages from wrongful taking of personal property
A swimming stroke like the crawl with scissors movement of the legs
A hole saw used in surgery for removing a circle of tissue or bone
Hand-painted wooden peg dolls
A bright spot in the sky appearing on either side of the sun
The former parliament of Denmark
One of my interests is etymology - the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. So here is a short word quiz. See how many of these you know. Give yourself 2 points if you know the correct meanings without using Mr Google and 1 point if you can find the correct meanings using Google or a Dictionary. Answers on Tuesday. First prize - a virtual glass of wine!
I am not sure I necessarily fully subscribe to the doom mongers' claims that we only have a few years left before the planet succumbs to global warming and we all go to hell in a handcart. I accept that there is a lot we can do in our own country to reduce waste and harmful emissions but the UK's contribution to global warming must be miniscule compared with the big polluters like China, India, Russia and so on.
However, it is not my intention here to start a debate about climate change or to denigrate those who passionately believe in man's destruction of the planet and are prepared to glue themselves to railings in protest. We are all entitled to our views however extremely we might express them.
What I do want to do, however, is to return to a topic I wrote previously about last November and which continues to get me "steamed up". This is the horrendous amount of printed paper waste from all the leaflets, adverts and so on that pour through the letterbox and burst out of the plastic wrappings that papers and magazines come in (not to mention that plastic itself). Last time I wrote, I did a rough calculation of the amount of excess paper generated nationwide by weekly circulations of the Radio Times, based on the weight of one weekly edition's supplements and adverts in our house. I came up with a figure of 250 tons of excess paper from this one magazine alone. How many forests are being destroyed to make all this paper?
I am sure it is getting worse lately. Not only are magazines stuffed full of rubbish but the poor old postman is now obliged to feed it through our letterbox. On days when we have no other actual post he/she is still required to use up fuel and footwear delivering to houses that would otherwise be bypassed.
Maybe our charities, advertisers and other proliferators of such waste could do their bit towards improving things. Screams of protest about affecting their income from sales or donations but I am sorry; it's a question of priorities.
On 16th February I posted a blog item called 'They've got you covered'. This described an innovative new addressing system called 'what3words' which enabled any 3x3 metre square anywhere in the world to have its own unique address by using three words. You can test this out for yourself by going to their website what3words.com/ and clicking on "Explore the map site". Each square has been allocated a set of three words chosen randomly from a dictionary of 40,000 words. The three words are separated by a dot.
I got to thinking about the perennial problem of creating secure passwords for internet sites - especially for older folk with difficulty remembering the complex set of letters and numbers that many sites are now insisting that you use. You will have seen how, trying to register on a new site, you are informed that your password is too weak, does not contain enough characters or does not contain a mix of upper case, lower case, numbers or other squiggles. This is why so many people I come across have passwords that (though they might conform to some of the rules) nevertheless are easy to "crack" eg Rover123. Worse still is the repeated use of the same password for different sites.
The Government-sponsored National Cyber Security Centre has been advising home users that using three random words provides a secure password that is both easy to remember and very hard to crack - even using powerful computers. Read the article on this at
It doesn't matter what the words are and you can choose three that are relevant to you. Don't be tempted to use the names of family, pets or your house. It is surprising how easily these can be discovered by criminals and this vastly reduces the number of words that a hacker has to work through. Also avoid words of less than 4 characters if possible since these tend to be commonly used words; but you can make the words as long as you like. When you choose your 3 words make sure, when you type them in, that there are no spaces between the words (space is not permitted in any password); however, you can use punctuation marks like full stops if you wish. Indeed, if you make sure that one or more of your words begins with an upper case letter and make the punctuation mark something like an asterisk, @ sign, £ sign or a number, then you will satisfy all but the most pernickety of web sites. Here is an example:
A password constructed like this will be highly secure since the possible combinations of words will run into trillions and will take many years for even the most powerful of computers to "crack".
Of course we are still left with the problem of remembering these passwords - especially if people have quite a lot of sites they visit and want to adhere to the good advice not to have the same password for different sites. So how can we devise a simple system that uses the three random words principle whilst helping failing memories? Here is one suggestion:
First of all write down in a single column 24 of the 26 letters of the alphabet but leave out X and Z (because there are far fewer words beginning with these letters). Then, against each letter, think up a word starting with that letter. Use a dictionary if you wish. You will then have a page looking something like this:
...and so on down to
When you want a new password pick three words from your list and insert a punctuation character between the first and the second and a number between the second and the third (see my example up above).
Now, on a separate piece of paper, write down the web site title (forget the www and the .com). Thus you might write 'Amazon'. Against this write down the first letter of each of the 3 words you have chosen interspersed by a punctuation character and number. Trying to use a different character and number for each password and vary the letter that you put in upper case. So, if I do this for my example above I would write Amazon F&c9p
Note that this is only a clue to your password; it is not the actual password but you can then write down this list of all your password clues and even put it by your computer and NOBODY would be able to guess the actual password. Important. Put the page with 24 words on it safely away in a hidden place and refer to it when you need a reminder. You will probably find that, after a while, you will easily be able to remember what word you selected for each letter.
With computers and the internet pervading - if not almost ruling - every aspect of daily life, electronic payment for goods and services in the High Street is becoming the norm. As well as the use of credit and debit cards, increasingly we are using phones with apps like Apple Pay and buying a couple of coffees is as simple as tapping the card reader.
However, you are usually asked if you want a receipt. Invariably you hear customers declining and that certainly saves paper. Being of the old school, however, I have always kept a close watch on my personal finances and like to maintain a comprehensive record of everything I have spent and a running total of funds left for the rest of the month. I operate a monthly budgeting spreadsheet for regular payments and direct debits plus how much I should 'put aside' for things like holidays, fuel, insurances, major purchases and so on. With my system I can enter miscellaneous sums of money I have spent and then check them off against monthly credit card bills and bank statements. Some will say that all I need are the monthly statements but I cannot feel that I would be able to recall what each and every minor item of expenditure was for.
I was taught how to budget and manage money at an early age. Mostly I picked this up from my father who kept meticulous records both in his business and his personal life. It just became a habit with me too. Over the years I have come to enjoy a satisfactory end of the month feeling when everything balances. I do wonder whether people would be less likely to run into financial problems if careful money management was taught and practised a little more.
This article was published recently by Matthew Webster who writes a weekly newsletter called 'Ask Webster (A guide to Digital Life)' which is well worth subscribing to at bit.ly/2uUjxrF
This piece relates to the accuracy of opinion polls/petitions and just happens to be Brexit-related. It is not intended to be political in any way and does not relate to my own Brexit persuasions be they 'In', 'Out' or 'Shake it all about'.
The Government's online petition site includes a petition to 'Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU'. It has over six million signatures, which is impressive, although it turns out that 72,000 of them are fictitious. They were planted by a Digital Marketing firm in Manchester, costing them £22 and a few hours work.
How is this possible? First, one of their technical wizards wrote a little programme that created unique submissions and completed the email conformation procedure. Then, they used a free online service to generate random but genuine postcodes and a random name generator. They spent £12 setting up a new email mailbox and £10 on a month’s access to thousands of what are called 'proxy IP' addresses. This made it appear that the entries were coming from different computers. They left this system to run over the weekend, at the end of which 72,000 fake names were added to the petition.
To show how easy it was they then went public with the stunt and, in so doing, cast doubt on this and any other online polls. Read about it at bit.ly/2UqWbco. If one small firm in Manchester can do this, imagine what a determined organisation with time and resources could do.
Given the simplicity of the deceit, it is hard to believe that they were the only ones trying to skew the results of the poll. Remember to treat all online polling with caution, even if you do agree with the results!
If there is one thing guaranteed to raise my blood pressure it is surely those annoying telephone calls claiming to be from (BT/Microsoft/[insert your 'favourite' here]) and warning you that your computer is at risk or that your internet is about to be switched off unless you click 1 to speak to an adviser.
When it comes to calling out scammers for blatant lies and shaming them for criminal actions, no one did it better than a friend of mine BBC Click reporter Kate Russell. In 2011, Kate was told by her parents about a call from a "nice gentleman from an Indian call centre" claiming that their computer was infected with a virus. Russell took the next call herself and recorded the telephone conversation which you can listen to here soundcloud.com/kate-russell/phone-scammer-busted (Reproduced by courtesy of CreativeCommons.org open licence).
The call lasts about 16 minutes and Kate manages to keep a straight face/voice throughout whilst listening to his spiel. Unless you wish, I wouldn't bother listening to all of his rantings but click on the spikes in the sound trace bars (indicating where Kate is speaking). The outcome is hilarious and should be required listening for anyone tempted to respond to one of these bogus calls.
Remember that reputable companies will not cold call you like this. BT does NOT arbitrarily switch off people's internet connections (unless they have given prior warning for something like non-payment of bills). Remember that scam callers have not singled you out for any particular reason; they are simply ringing their way down a long list of numbers. Remember NEVER to agree to type in a series of numbers or a code to allow them access. If your phone is provided by BT set up their free Call Protect service which enables you to block the last call to your phone. Other providers have similar schemes.