Mac OS X 10.6

The announcement this week that Apple were releasing the latest update for the Mac operating system has been much reported. Apple stated a while ago that this latest release was more about refinements than new features, but sometimes refinements are better. The upgrade price from Leopard is merely £25, which raises the question as to what you get for this. The answer is larger than I’d assumed. For me, the biggest reason to upgrade is that it will be possible for non-iPhone owners (such as myself) to syncronise contacts with their Googlemail account, to quote:

Now everyone, not just iPhone users, can synchronise their contacts through MobileMe, Yahoo! and Google.

In addition,

users of multi-touch trackpads on older macs also get three- and four-finger gestures.

My trackpad accepts two-finger gestures (for scrolling) but nothing else, so I’m hopeful on that front.

There have been some nice-sounding refinements to Exposé (allowing access to multiple windows in an application, including minimized windows) as well as making the (in my view, largely redundant) “Services” menu option more context-sensitive. They’ve also done some work on Preview, which was getting a bit tired.

The ability to connect iCalendar and Address Book up to an Exchange server would be useful at work, but only after they upgrade our server to Exchange 2007!

I’ll be interested to see if the use of 64-bit code makes for a speed improvement on my MacBook Core 2 Duo, but my guess is that these improvements are harder for the individual user to experience for sure, unless they are dramatic. For me, however, syncing up to Google Contacts will be worth the 25 quid upgrade alone.

I’ll report more once I get it – but I’m not going to be one of those queuing outside an Apple Store on Friday.

The Bible in One Hour: Talks 1 – 5 are now available.

Simon Taylor (partner in crime at virtualtheology.net and elsewhere) is drawing his summer series, The Bible in One Hour, to a close next week with a final talk on the Book of Revelation. However, five of the six talks are now available on the website for downloading on virtualtheology.net together with the associated handouts. They include the talks on Amos, Mark’s Gospel and 1 Corinthians. Nice work Simon!

Coming to a Church of England church near you this weekend: communion in one kind

Readers in the Church of England may be surprised to learn that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written to all clergy recommending the withdrawal of the common cup (ie. the chalice) at Holy Communion, commencing this Sunday.  You can get the official word on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website. This is potentially controversial, as one of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the restoration of communion in both kinds (bread and wine) to all participants. In this, the Archbishops seem to be following government advice.

Simon Taylor, that wise (and brilliantly-trained) parish priest, has some very informative and intelligent comment on his blog.

As I’m not a parish priest anymore, with the responsibility of implementing this policy, I feel somewhat free to give my opinion. That opinion is from someone who has no medical training whatsoever, so take it on that basis…

The last significant ‘flu pandemic was in 1968 – so-called Hong Kong ‘Flu. During that time, weekly consultation rates rose to a peak of over 1200 per 100,000 (ie. over 1 in 100 visited the doctor each week with symptoms).  At the moment (25 July 2009), with Swine ‘Flu, weekly consultation rates are at just under 200 per 100,000. Quite how many people currently have swine ‘flu is probably impossible to know.

However, the point is this: in 1968, the common cup was not withdrawn in Holy Communion. So what’s changed? After all, this is a bad ‘flu, not bubonic plague or cholera.

Simon thinks the difference in the response is to do with there being a potential breakdown in confidence in taking Holy Communion in church – which, given our media-saturated age, may be true. A big factor, for me, is that people (and therefore governments) seem to be far more risk-averse than they were in 1968, a year which I somehow managed to survive (along with the vast majority of the Church of England).

Perhaps somewhere there are lawyers breathing the phrase “duty of care” into some ecclesiastical ears. But I can’t help feeling that this is massive overreaction. The people most at risk from this ‘flu are already ill – and they already know that they will need to take extra precautions to avoid infection. But I doubt whether withdrawing the cup from the Church of England communion services is going to make any significant difference to the spread of the disease, and hence the risk to those who are already immuno-suppressed or who have chronic illness.

Other changes apparently coming in are:

  • Communion wafers will be placed in the hands, not (as in some churches) directly in the mouth or on the tongue
  • In some places, Holy Water stoups are being drained
  • Priests and distributors of the Communion are being urged to avoid touching people’s hands while giving them the bread/wafers
  • Communion by intincting bread/wafers in the wine is being stopped – apparently, it’s more likely to spread disease than drinking directly from the cup, since we have nastier and higher-numbers of bugs on our fingers than in our mouths

Then of course, there’s shaking hands (or in some places, hugging and kissing) at the Peace…  Maybe that’s why the Church of England managed to survive the 1968 ‘flu outbreak. It was before the arrival of Holy Communion – Series 3 and ‘The Peace’. People kept in their pews and didn’t try to snog each other.

Do you want to live in an unpoliced world?

My previous post of today leads, inevitably, to another area of discussion; that is: the ‘policing’ of the internet. I flagged up the possibilities which ‘geolocation’ software and web services offer to governments and big-business. The internet, especially in its early stages, was strongly shaped by (mainly American) libertarianism. Early internet occupants relished the freedom to communicate, without barriers, which it offered. When hard-line communists attempted, in August 1991 to stage a coup d’Etat by kidnapping Gorbachev and holing Boris Yeltsin up in the Moscow White House, it was the primitive internet links to the White House which allowed Yeltsin and his allies access to the wider world. The plotters weren’t up to speed with the new technology. That would now not be possible.

But these days, especially given the very unsavoury use sometimes made of the internet, we should ask the question, ‘do we want the internet to be entirely un-policed?’ In the most recent discussion, is it right that civil authorities should have a way of tracing the immediate whereabouts of all users of the net? And if the net is an extension of the wider world (which I believe it truly to be) then do we want to live in an un-policed world? Or even part of the world? And what is the implication of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to that question?

This is one of those posts which is an attempt to provoke some kind of discussion (and, in the process, try to work out who, if anyone, reads this blog!)

Firefox 3.5 and the brave new world

I downloaded Firefox 3.5 for my Mac this morning – after carefully checking that it would work with my plugins, especially the beloved Zotero. The new features list is a variable set, but one of the more remarkable is its ability to send information about your whereabouts to Google, who then can plot your position on Google Maps. I had a go – it was rather scarey: I was located exactly at the right spot of my road. So how do they do it? The Mozilla (ie. Firefox) website is a bit circumspect:

When you visit a location-aware website, Firefox will ask you if you want to share your location.

If you consent, Firefox gathers information about nearby wireless access points and your computer’s IP address. Then Firefox sends this information to the default geolocation service provider, Google Location Services, to get an estimate of your location. That location estimate is then shared with the requesting website.

If you say that you do not consent, Firefox will not do anything.

Now I guess it’s no surprise to the more geeky readers of this site that it is possible to work out the country you live in from the IP range of your computer – which is how many company sites automatically relocate you to the local/national version of their website. What was more intriguing, to me anyway, was how Google could locate me by nearby wireless access points. What’s going on here? My guess is that Google, in using those photographing vans, has squirrelled away in its database somewhere the names of all local wireless access points it has picked up during its various stops to take photographs, and hence knows where your local wireless access-point/router is (or was) located. The Firefox privacy page gives some more details:

If you choose to allow it, the Firefox Location-Aware Feature first collects one or more of the following relevant location markers: (i) location provided by a GPS device built into or attached to your computer or device and/or geolocation services provided by the operating system; (ii) the wifi routers closest to you; (iii) cell ids of the cell towers closest to you; (iv) the signal strength of nearby wireless access points and/or cellular phone towers; and/or (v) your computer or device’s IP address. Next, it attempts to determine your location using these location markers. Any information Firefox uses, receives or sends as part of this Location-aware Feature is not received by any Mozilla servers or by Mozilla. Firefox does not track or remember your location. Firefox does remember a random client identifier, the temporary ID assigned by our third party provider to process your request, for two weeks.

In my case, the computer was not connected to a GPS device or a cellphone, so all it had to go on was the IP address and the SSIDs of the local wireless network and relative signal strength. Yet it got me to the correct end of the street and the correct side of the road. I cannot believe it could have done that by IP alone.

Now Firefox are falling over themselves to say that your browser will only send this information to Google if you give it permission (and in my case, that permission is asked every time it wishes to do so) and then the info is sent across an encrypted link to Google. And, since its Firefox, I’m inclined to believe them, since the Firefox browser is open source and therefore open to the scrutiny of anyone who wishes to (and who can understand the code). However, were Microsoft or Apple to supply me with a browser which could send this kind of information to heaven-knows-who, I would have to take their word for it that they were going to use this information for the purposes they say their were.

A few conclusions from this little foray into computer-enabled-geolocation:

  1. Firefox may have opened a pandora’s box here (and I guess users of iPhones must be long used to this sort of thing). We are moving from a time when surfing the internet was a relatively hidden activity to one where, now, the technology allows just about anyone with sufficient wherewithall to  find out where you are, almost to within a house or two. A good or bad thing?
  2. Firefox have just provided me with the final (as if I wasn’t pursuaded already) reason why I will, henceforth, only use an open-source browser,  and also a good reason only to use open-source software generally. Any operating system could build in this facility of its own without recourse to using a particular browser, sending the information as to your whereabouts to any company, government agency or commercial marketing firm that it sees fit.
  3. Firefox, or more fairly, this technology, permits large-scale surveillance of the population by any government who wishes to do so. They would need the capacity of a Google to aggregate the local information indicators such as WiFi SSIDs, mobile phone masts, GPS locator and IP range, but, once they’ve got it, the police can immediately find out where you (or, at least, your computer) is at any particular time. Given the propensity for governments such as those in China and Iran to censor the internet, how long before they will insist on access technology which harvests and reports on users’ locations as a matter of course? In other words, it’s the ultimate snoop tool if used in a certain way.

That said, I can’t help saying that, used voluntarily and under due supervision (of the software firms, rather than the users) it is a potentially useful tool. I just don’t think these big software concerns will simply continue to offer it just for free. The future trajectory of Google in the use it makes of this kind of information should be watched closely.

The Bible in an Hour

After two year’s break, the virtualtheology/bluffer’s guide enterprise is grinding its rusty wheels into life again with a series of talks. This time they will be by Simon Taylor alone (I’m still trying to move house this summer, less said the better at the moment).

You can get the details (and eventually, the podcasts) at http://virtualtheology.net – we hope to podcast them soon after the talk has been given.

Banksy turns Bristol gallery into an orgy of parody

There’s been a serious coup here in Bristol: guerilla-artist Banksy has ‘sprung’ an exhibition on his old home town, in the city museum and art gallery. Partly because he’s wanted by police in at least six counties for decades of graffiti stunts (and by some angry museum curators who lack a sense of humour), Mr Banksy is understandably reticent to reveal his true identity. Yet he has managed to fill the whole museum and art gallery of his home town with his own take on the universe. Banksy was quoted as saying, “This is the first show I’ve ever done where taxpayers’ money is being used to hang my pictures up rather than scrape them off.” Whatever. All I know is that I live around the corner from the said Mueseum and Art Gallery and I’ve never seen queues and queues of people going down the road for any other exhibition in over ten years of living here. It’s a sell out, but nobody knew it was going to happen until a few days ago – true to Banksy’s way of doing things. As he comments: “This show is my vision of the future, to which many people will say: ‘You should have gone to Specsavers'” Even museum officials were kept out of the loop to protect the artist’s anonymity.  So if you want to come and see it, then you can come over to my place for a cuppa (or a bed for the night) after you’ve laughed yourself stupid at the exhibo. (For overseas viewers who haven’t seen any of Banksy’s works, check out his website here.)