Archives for January 2011

The best things in life are free

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Guy Clapperton Guy Clapperton | 10:53 UK time, Thursday, 27 January 2011

...but you can keep them for the birds and bees, I want to manage my money.

OK, the intro kind of falls to pieces around there but it's that time of year, 31st January is advancing alarmingly quickly so even if you don't self-assess your income tax you might be thinking in terms of getting your financial house into a bit of order.

There are a number of ways in which your computer can help - but the first advice has to be: don't trust the computer alone. I once had a VAT inspection in the days when they wouldn't look at computerised records and I didn't have a colour printer. Given that my computer program at the time kept a note of my expenditure in red and income in black, the inspector understandably couldn't make head or tail of my records. So the first thing is: how would you cope if there were a power cut or the computer was in for repair when you needed to know something?

Whatever you do, you need to back up your information, whether that means putting it on a memory stick or CD as well as your computer, some sort of off-site backup (make sure you password it either way) or even a paper copy. Put yourself in a position where you can't actually lose it.

Let's assume you're happy enough with paper records - fair enough. There's still stuff your computer can do to help you.

It should be stressed that the banks' websites are secure. Don't click through to a link you get on an email and enter your details - these mails will often be fake - but do type your bank's site into the address bar on your web browser. If you're in any doubt, phone the bank and ask for the correct web address - they'll be pleased to help.

When you click through to actual accounts there will be a padlock somewhere on your browser depending on whether you use Internet Explorer, Firefox or whatever, and the web address will start https (the "S" stands for "secure").

Many of the banks offer a security program that warns you when you're entering a password and username similar to one you have elsewhere. This is a useful thing to install and the banks offer it for nothing.

Once you've registered to go online you can do a lot. If you're feeling slightly timid then you can just look - check there aren't any unexpected payments, watch for when cheques have cleared - they come up in front of you. If you're more confident you can move money, set up new payees, standing orders - it's all very easy.

Do look out for online-only deals with the banks. Some of them are pretty keen on ensnaring new customers by offering higher interest rates, lower costs and other carrots to lure you in. If the bank is reputable they'll be genuine offers.

Many computers come loaded with some sort of basic personal finance software on them, and these can be useful. It's often better to start off simple. This is where basic spreadsheet software is your personal friend. You can get it inexpensively from computer superstores and there is free software available online.

Treat spreadsheets like graph paper, put expenditure in one column and income into the other and you have a basic set of accounts. Better still, make sure you name all your expenditure sensibly and you can do searches to find out how much goes on clothing, how much is on petrol, how much on non-essential coffee when you're out shopping, and work out how to cut back.

It is of course very close to tax deadline day and if you haven't yet registered to submit your records online then it's too late. For next year, though, go to the HMRC website and register for the paperwork to put your tax records online yourself - it buys you extra time and saves hassle going through a third party. If you're uncertain about your accounts then it's almost certainly better to seek advice online or offline - it's worth it for your peace of mind.

None of this is a substitute for good management of course, and if you haven't kept your records up to date and need to self-assess online then by now you're probably looking for an escapologist rather than a computer. Assuming some basic paperwork, though, you should find the PC is a helpful tool in keeping it in order more easily than you did before.

Oh, and do keep your security software up to date - if you've put your bank details onto anything, even the bank's own site, you don't want to find someone's been able to access your personal details without your permission.

Guy Clapperton is a journalist specialising in writing about technology as well as small business for several major broadsheets. He broadcasts occasionally on BBC Radio stations and reviews the newspapers on the BBC News Channel.

Is social networking shaking Ambridge to the core?

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Helen Purves Helen Purves | 10:42 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011

When I was younger, my parents would force me and my little brother to sit in absolute silence the moment The Archers theme tune came on. Regardless of location, be it in the car or at the dinner table, we’d listen as Kathy and Sid discussed the corn harvest, or Helen bemoaned the rats in her attic.

Fast forward 20 years, and The Archers has been running an astoundingly long 60 years (nearly 10 years longer than Coronation Street, and close to 35 years longer than EastEnders) and, like these other soaps, it has most definitely managed to keep up with the times. With a dedicated base of listeners, the programme has a strong presence on the web.

Fans on sites like Archers Addicts discuss every aspect of the show and its characters on well-populated message boards, even writing lengthy and detailed obituaries for well-loved characters. These sites, like their TV soap contemporaries, feature amongst other things photos and descriptions of the cast and locations. The official Archers website has a very detailed interactive map of Ambridge, with drawings and descriptions of key buildings and areas.

Of course, there are many who don't want to step over this line - my parents have been given a great many books about The Archers, which they won't even open in fear of seeing the face of a cast member and "ruining it". They studiously avoid maps of the made-up village of Ambridge and mock-ups of locations because they already have visions of these places in their heads.

However, this doesn't mean they don't like to talk about The Archers with their friends. This is where social media steps in, as well as blog commentary. As with all soap operas as true to life as The Archers, many fans feel a personal affinity to characters and what happens to them, and plotlines are hotly debated.

A promise by ex-controllor of Radio 4 Mark Damazer in 2010 that an upcoming plot twist would happen that would "shake Ambridge to the core" started a debate which engulfed every social media website I visit: all my friends were posting links to speculative blog posts on Facebook, and my Twitter feed was filled with commentary both before, during and after each programme. When Ambridge finally witnessed the "shocking" event - the extremely controversial death of long-running fan-favourite Nigel Pargetter - there was so loud an outcry that I had mental images of Archers fans across the country spontaneously combusting at their computers.

And this is where the internet comes into its own. When The Archers first drifted onto the airwaves as a regular programme in 1951, listening to the programme was no doubt a very passive and personal experience. My grandparents, listening to the death of Grace Archer in 1960, couldn't have done much more than discuss the shocking event with friends over cups of tea. Nowadays, tens of thousands of distressed Archers fans are able to take to the internet to air their views. What's more, the production teams that make programmes are reaching out to them, and listening. Those upset at the death of Nigel were able to read an explanation about the decision to kill him off by BBC Director of Audio & Music Tim Davie, and to send in their thoughts.

This new and still-developing connection between audiences of programmes and those who make them is interesting to consider. At the very least, it allows audiences an opportunity to voice their concerns: in some cases, it even gives them access to the thought processes behind programme-making, and in return allows programme-makers to listen to audience feedback. It will certainly be interesting to see how discussion about Britain's best-loved radio soap continues to develop across ever-changing social media platforms.

As an aside, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the WebWise animations even feature the voice of Archers super-villain Jonathan Keeble, aka Evil Owen. Here's a link to the video about social networking - rather good, isn't it? I look forward to reading your response to it on Twitter...

At home with home technology

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Maggie Philbin | 10:23 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011

When you think 'sat-nav,' you think 'neat windscreen or mobile device'. When I think 'sat-nav', I see a huge chunk of metal bolted to the dashboard of a boxy eighties Range Rover, which I demonstrated on Tomorrow's World.  Powered by a computer with a bubble memory bouncing in the boot, it took forever to programme. It was all so very 'difficult'. I remember thinking, "Just pass me the map."

But when my car was broken into recently and my voice activated, live mapping device stolen, I realised this has long since become seamlessly integrated into my life.

It's odd to think back to my first computer; grey, slow and unsightly it was the only one in the house, dominating my desk and much of my bedroom floor. I only used it for work and covered it up while I got on with life. Now my laptop rarely leaves my side.

Matt Rawlinson, media producer and technology reviewer for The Open University, agrees we use laptops in a much more casual way. "Before it was a case of making a decision to switch on the computer and sitting down to use it, now I simply flip open my laptop in front of the TV. I look things up on a whim or send a quick email without having to make that tedious round-trip to the office or bedroom."

In our house we rarely simply watch TV; Twitter and Facebook are followed at the same time, giving us 24 hr water-cooler moments. While my daughter's boyfriend was abroad, they both kept Skype open but minimized on their laptops for hours.

We use technology instinctively; it fits more naturally into how we live. Listening to BBC 5Live on the night North Yorkshire experienced a minor earthquake, I was struck by a caller saying she'd turned to Facebook to find out why crockery was rattling on her shelves.

Social technologist Suw Charman-Anderson feels the device that's changed her tech habits most is the tablet computer. "It's really convenient when you're in bed or on the sofa. We used to have a pretty strong 'no tech in the bedroom' rule, but that's being slowly relaxed for the iPad which I often use as an e-book reader."

Tablets are more "put-down-able", not as intrusive as laptops. As Suw says, they're less demanding and much more social. "If you see something you want to share with people in the room, it's easier to pass round. The fact you can flip it over and the screen re-orientates makes it much more natural to show what you're looking at."

Matt Rawlinson also has a tablet in his sights, the Android based Motorola Xoom.

Far less "put-down-able" is my mobile phone. I have it on me all day, every day because, as Matt warns, "even if you choose to opt out of carrying your digital life around in your pocket, the rest of the world doesn't, and you soon find yourself more out of touch than you ever thought you would be."

Too right. Last week, forgetting my mobile was in my other bag, I set out for a meeting, only to discover it had been postponed (by text) when I arrived. With the use of mobiles for payments predicted to take off in 2011, those moments of absent-mindedness will have bigger consequences.

Thanks to Wi-Fi and decent broadband , I completely take for granted my freedom to watch any programme, at any time, on any sized device. It's the app-based, gestural interfaces that have helped many find their way round portable devices. Suw Charman-Anderson says "Simplicity doesn't mean stupidity, and there are many apps that are much easier to use than their older Mac or PC counterparts."

But my home isn't overflowing with gadgets. I'm with Matt Rawlinson in thinking convergence - using one device for everything - is the Holy Grail.

While Suw uses a "Livescribe Echo" pen to record everything she says and writes, my 85 yr old Dad confidently sets up a nest box with a webcam. Technology is slowly becoming more comfortable, and more relevant to how we really live.

Maggie Philbin has worked in radio and television for 30 years on a wide range of science, medical and technology programmes. She is currently a regular technology reporter on BBC 1's Inside Out.

Setting standards for an accessible internet

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Julie Howell Julie Howell | 14:59 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

I have a vested interest in web accessibility. At just 19, I received the news that I probably had multiple sclerosis, that oft-misunderstood condition of the central nervous system that has no known cause or cure.

I know what it's like to experience sight problems, difficulty concentrating, extreme fatigue and the many other gifts multiple sclerosis (MS) has bestowed upon me in the 20 years since my diagnosis.

However, I'm not so different to everyone else. Not only do a great number of medical conditions result in loss of sight, reduced manual dexterity, etc. it's a simple reality that the ageing process will gift to us all some reduction in our sensory capabilities eventually.

I intend to keep enjoying music, shopping and socialising with my friends and family until I breathe my final breath. However, we'll only be able to do that if the web is able to bend and flex to meet the requirements of our ageing bodies.

A decade ago, I was involved in a campaign run by the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB) to make web designers, British businesses and government agencies aware of the needs of disabled web users. The campaign publicised the fact that with more than 10 million disabled people in the UK, the 'disabled pound' is estimated to be worth in excess of £80bn each year.

I wish I could report that our extensive campaigning effort, the huge carrot of £80bn and the enormous stick of litigation has had the desired effect. However, in 2010 access to the web for disabled people is still patchy.

On 7 December 2010, BSI Standards published a new British Standard (BS 7888) that clearly describes precisely what the owners of British businesses must do to ensure they meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act when it comes to the design of their websites.

A British Standard isn't a law in itself, but it can provide guidance to a judge in a court of law should a disabled person wish to take a company to court under the Equality Act 2010 for failure to provide an accessible service. In the UK, BS 8878 is the best guide available to businesses wishing to ensure their websites are fully accessible to disabled people. It doesn't replace any guidance already published by software manufacturers or the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It simply pulls together all the relevant guidance into one publication, so that anyone wishing to make their website accessible to disabled people can discover all they need to know in a single document.

Meanwhile, Citizens Online has launched a new initiative, 'Fix the Web', which encourages ordinary people like you and I to report to them any website we find difficult to use. They promise one of their volunteers will contact the people behind the offending website and get them to sort it out.

There are estimated to be in excess of 80 million websites online today. That's a lot of websites to fix and a lot of website owners to contact. It's a laudable aim and an interesting approach, and I take my hat off to Citizens Online for giving this initiative a go. If nothing else, it will once again raise awareness of the critical importance of web accessibility.

However, if my decade of experience of lobbying the government, businesses and the web design industry has taught me anything: it's this. If you really want to make a lasting difference to the way technologies are designed then you need to exert your influence at the standards level.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

The majority of people I talk to agree that disabled people should be able to use the web. However, many websites continue to be inaccessible. Is this a deliberate action on the part of businesses and web developers to lock disabled people out of the web?

I don't think so. 

I think the greatest enemy of web accessibility is the same old adversary that disabled people have been trying to conquer for centuries: ignorance.

It strikes me that people build inaccessible websites because it is possible to do so. So the solution must surely be to make it impossible to do so by ensuring that all of the web design tools that web designers use to build websites create accessible websites by default.

It is truly my belief that this is the only way to make the situation better. Legislation hasn't worked. Education hasn't worked. Even the business imperative hasn't worked.

I believe anything that makes more people aware of how disabled people experience life is a good thing. However, real change in disabled people's virtual lives will only come about by attacking the root cause of the discrimination through the application of standards.

Julie Howell established the world's first online community for people with MS. Since then, Julie has written the first British Standard on web accessibility and has led national campaigns to make the web more accessible to disabled people.

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