Best Anti-Virus Software? And McAfee Spam…

Here’s a question I wanted to put out to all of you. I currently use AVG Anti-Virus. This is despite having had one years of free McAfee Anti-Virus over the last year (with my broadband subscription) and at the moment I’ve got a free 3 month subscription to Norton Anti-Virus (I haven’t even installed it).

I only managed to use McAfee for about 2 days before deciding it was a resource hog. Recently, I recieved no fewer than eight e-mails from McAfee in short succession asking me to renew my subscription. Subject in bold and quote from email below. In chronological order:

  • SecurityCenter Early Renewal Special, Save Up To 20%
    “Don’t get left behind. Hurry, these special offers expire 29 February 2008.”
  • Renew your McAfee Internet Security by 31st March and get 50% off!
    “We are offering you an early renewal price of just £24.99, so once your initial 1 year trial ends you will benefit from an additional 12 months protection for half the normal price.”
  • OFFERS END SOON – SAVE up to 37% on SecurityCenter Renewal
    “Deals like these don’t come your way very often, so jump on this chance to save a bundle on powerful new 8-in-1 SecurityCenter. Don’t wait, because these offers expire 2 April 2008.”
  • Save 30% on 3 Years of New SecurityCenter
    “See, it really does pay to buy in bulk. Do it soon, because this three-year special offer expires 24 April 2008.”
  • This is your last chance before curtains come down
    “To take advantage of these substantial savings click below, the special renewal offers will expire 30 April 2008.”
  • Your PC Protection Expires in 7 Days.
    “Your subscription expires on: 19/04/2008.”
  • Your PC Protection Expires Today.
    “Don’t risk any interruption in your safety, renew your McAfee Internet Security Suite 3 user license subscription now for just £33.49, save 33% off the regular price.”
  • RENEW NOW, Save 30% on 2 years of SecurityCenter
    “Don’t wait, because this two-year offer expires 9 May 2008.”

As you can see, McAfee are pretty desperate to get me to renew. The deadline for a renewal was extended seven times and the amount of saving fluctuated everywhere. And interestingly, renewing 7 days before the end of the subscription would have meant paying the full price whilst renewing on the day it ended, you would have saved 33%.

What I’d be really interested in is this: which anti-virus solution do you use? Is it worth paying for anti-virus? Should Mac and Linux users install anti-virus?

Facebook Relationship Statuses

I found this picture from CollegeHumor really funny. But beyond that, it’s a great commentary on how Facebook and the Social Web is changing people’s relationships and how they communicate with each another.


It’s time for Facebook to introduce a new relationship status: It’s an effing disaster.
(from CollegeHumor)

In fact, a disturbing trend is how some youngsters have switched from splitting up with partners via text to splitting up by changing their Facebook relationship status.

Shutdown Day: 3rd May

Next Saturday, you are challenged to live without your computer for 24 hours!

It is obvious that without computers we would find our life extremely difficult, maybe even impossible. If they disappeared for just one day, would we be able to cope?

Be part of one of the biggest global experiments ever to take place on the Internet. The idea behind Shutdown Day is to find out how many people can go without a computer for one whole day, and what will happen if we all participate!

If you can participate, enter your pledge on the Shutdown Day website and it’ll calculate how much energy is being saved. At the moment, the UK is saving 3000MJ – the equivalent of boiling 4500 kettles full of water. Worldwide the figure stands at 1.2million MJ which is about 200,000 kettles.

A fantastic chance to catch up on lost sleep or revision anyway.

The idea of Shutdown Day project is simple – just shutdown your computer for one whole day of the year and involve yourself in some other activities: outdoors, nature, sports, fun stuff with friends and family – whatever, just to remind yourself that there still exists a world outside your monitor screen.

Visualising carbon dioxide emissions

It’s often very hard to visualise carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 is invisible, not only that, the CO2 is released around power stations rather than in our own homes. I was doing a little bit of research for a presentation I’m giving next week and came across the following video from the Victorian Government in Australia. I think it’s a fantastic way to visualise CO2 emissions in an advert.

Each balloon represents 50g of greenhouse gas. You can work out your household CO2 emissions but a typical household might emit about 6 tonnes of CO2. Thats 1.2million of those black balloons.

Semantic Video Analysis

There’s an interesting article over at the Economist.com about semantic video analysis – using computers to try to recognise what a picture or video is about.

To a microprocessor, a photograph of James Bond might as well depict a cat in a tree. That can make tracking down a video on the web or searching through a film archive a painstaking task, unless someone has written a full and accurate description of each item being examined. Anyone who has tried to find a clip on YouTube will know how rare that is.

Well, researchers from Queen Mary (University of London) have made some progress. They say their computer programme can now tell the difference between water and a human being and can sometimes identify more complex images such as a person lying on a beach. It works by a similarity algorithm: the programme has to be input with many tagged images of water and human skin. It then looks for similarities in colour and shape.

What I think is really interesting is how they used an evolutionary algorithm. I blogged about these a week ago and they seem to be popping up everywhere.

Once the computer has identified the colours, textures, colour-distributions and horizontal lines in the groups with the most blocks, those blocks are subjected to a mathematical algorithm called the Pareto Archived Evolution Strategy. This uses the principles of evolutionary biology (generating a lot of slightly different variations, selecting the best among them, and then using that to generate another set of variations, and so on) to reach what is, if all has gone well, the right answer.

In other words, the computer tries to determine the rules which would allow you to most accurately detect whatever you want (and presumably with as few false positives as possible). This is useful – for example with water, the colour and texture could allow you to determine it was water. The shape wouldn’t help at all. Similarly, the size and shape would allow you to detect a mobile phone but the colour would be no use.

The programme also tries to look at the context of the image – objects which routinely appear together. It’s an interesting piece of work. I really wish there was a way of automatically tagging photos of everybody on Facebook through face detection.

PETA offering $1m for in-vitro chicken

CNN reports that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA are offering a prize of $1million to the first team of scientists who develop lab-grown chicken meat which is commercially viable and indistinguishable in taste from the real thing.

The group said the scientist had to be able to produce the meat in large enough quantity so it could be sold in 10 U.S. states — at a price competitive to the prevailing chicken price.

Further, the meat had to have “taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat eaters and meat eaters alike.”

This potentially can provide people with all the meat they want, and all the vital nutrition that comes from consuming it, at a lower price. Rather than having to care for chickens, lab-grown meat involves growing tissue from stem cells and stretching the meat periodically to simulate the effects of exercise.

I remember reading about lab-grown meat in an article several months ago. The article wrote using quite emotive language – about how lab-grown meat would lead to a situation where we’ll all consume corn-fed beef in rich countries whilst those from lower income backgrounds would be eating Frankenstein meat.

But come to think of it, I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all. I would hesitate before eating meat which was grown inside a laboratory. But to be honest, I think if it was proven to be safe and I’d eaten it before, I would definitely eat it again. For some of my vegetarian friends, it would allow them to consume meat without what they see as the ethical implications of doing so.

Lab-grown meat certainly sounds unattractive when you describe it using words such as “frankenstein”, “test tube chicken” or as the IHT describes:

commercially viable “in vitro chicken” — taking stem cells and growing them into poultry flesh, presumably without the feathers and bones

But once we’ve seen it and tried it, I can’t see why it won’t take off.

Improving Energy Efficiency: Can it really save the world?

It’s Earth Day today. This is a day to raise awareness about the environment and issues such as climate change and resource depletion. But I’d like to raise something which is often overlooked though, to do with the economics of climate change. But can we really cut our energy usage by switching to more efficient appliances?

Let’s take energy-saving light bulbs as an example. An standard 100W incandescent light bulb is exceptionally inefficient – it produces about 95% heat, only 5% of that energy is turned into visible and useful light. However, new energy-saving fluorescent light sources can produce the same amount of light for just 20W.

OK, so there are considerations such as the amount of energy which used in manufacturing new fluorescent light bulbs for us to use or the costs of installing additional insulation to reduce heat loss because less heat is now produced by light bulbs. Although they are very valid points, they’re not the issues I wish to explore.

On the face of it, if we all switched from 100W incandescents to 20W fluorescents, there would be a 80% drop in the energy consumption! Hey, presto! But that isn’t the whole story. Because economics tells us that when the price of something falls, consumption increases. In other words, because our lighting systems now consume less energy and cost less to run, people will demand more lighting systems.

Take a look at this graph from the presentation “Energy Services and Energy History: Lighting and Transport in the UK” (slide 11).

Price of Lighting

The cost of lighting (and efficiency) has been falling steadily since 1300, yet it is obvious that we are using much more lighting now as costs have been falling. Since 1900, the efficiency of lighting improved 50 times. Meanwhile, the amount of lighting used has increased by 155 times. So despite all the huge efficiency improvements over the last 100 years, we’re still using 3x as much as energy as we were before.

What I hope this has demonstrated is that improving energy efficiency won’t necessarily decrease energy usage. But would switching to more energy-efficient bulbs cut energy usage in our developed world today? Perhaps. For me, the cost of leaving the light bulb on is so small that I barely even think about it. So a light bulb which costs less to leave on probably won’t cause me to leave the light on for any longer then I currently do. But in some countries, if the price of leaving the light bulb on is now a fifth, I could envisage households which might decide that rather than just having one light bulb in the lounge on, they could now install a light bulb in every room in the house. This increased usage of lighting would negate any of the benefits of improved energy efficiency.

It might all seem a bit pointless talking about light bulbs, but I chose it as an example because it’s easy to explain and there’s a lot of good data. But this same theory can apply to all kinds of other things.

Let’s say that a new generation of cars has twice the fuel efficiency. This means the cost of running the car is half what it was before. More people will therefore decide to use cars, and perhaps to use cars on those short journeys they wouldn’t have before. Also in the less economically developed countries, this could make running a car a viable proposition for many people.

My conclusion is that we can’t rely on improvements in efficiency to reduce our energy usage. It simply won’t work. In fact, it could even lead to increased energy usage and make things worse. That’s not to say we shouldn’t create efficient light bulbs and cars but they’re not going to save the environment. We need more proactive ways of dealing with our use of fossil fuels.

A rap about search engine optimization

This video made me smile!

My favourite part:

don’t use bold, please use strong
if you use bold that’s old and wrong

It looks like this guy (the SEO rapper) is totally serious and looking through his other YouTube videos, hes also got raps about social networking, link building and web advertising.

This reminds me of some really lame HTML jokes:

Why did the XHTML actress turn down an Oscar?
Because she refused to be involved in the presentation.

Why was the XHTML bird an invalid?
Because it wasn’t nested properly.

Boom boom.

Pure Javascript/Ajax Video Player

The javascript video player is pretty cool and fun, even if it is as the author describes it, “semi-useless”! See demo.

So how does it work? A script exports every single frame from an MPEG movie into individual JPEG files. These are then collected together, base64 encoded and exported into a JSON file. The script then creates image objects for each frame and shows them all in succession. There is no support for sound.

First strategy was to create an Image object for each frame and render it on a canvas element using drawImage(). That worked fine and performance was nice (although Opera used a lot of CPU), but I figured I’d try just using a regular image tag and just change the src property to another data:uri each frame. The change was barely noticeably in Firefox and Safari and it ran a bit better in Opera, so I lost the canvas and stuck with plain old images.

Now, it seems that Firefox will eat up all the memory in the world if you keep throwing new data:uris at the same image tag, which led to another change, so for each frame a new Image object was created and saved for later and as the video played, the previous frame Image was replaced by the new Image object. That seemed to work, but introduced an annoying delay as all these Image objects were created before playing, so I ended up moving the Image creation to actual render cycle where it simply checks if the frame Image has already been created, and if not, creates it.

So this is totally impractical but who cares: it’s cool and a fun experiment. I wish I still had time for experiments like these!