Archive for the ‘On the web’ Category

The Martian – the most gripping book I’ve read in a long time (and it cost 77p)

The Martian – the most gripping book I’ve read in a long time (and it cost 77p)

The Martian – the most gripping book I’ve read in a long time (and it cost 77p)

I went to bed far too late last night.  The fault rests with a book on my Kindle called The Martian. I had 20% left to read (70 pages in old money) and found myself unable to leave the story.  I curled on the sofa in the dark so engrossed with the castaway astronaut on Mars that when Mrs MSE turned the light on, I jumped.

Reading it gave me so much pleasure I felt the least I could do was to write a quick book review.  As always, I’m far more into the story than the literature.   

The best way to sum up Andy Weir’s The Martian e-book is with this quote (forgive the language). Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler.

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last 31 days. If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

This book is syfy in its purest sense, but while it may be science, it didn’t feel like fiction.  It’s based in what feels like our world, just a wee bit in the future. 

This morning, I’m finding it hard to remember that the whole thing wasn’t real.  It’s the diary of a stranded Robinson Crusoe, a botanist-cum-engineer fighting for survival having been left thought dead on the red planet after an exploratory trip by NASA.

The planet’s atmosphere seems malevolently hostile, the inability to create food actively thwarts Mark Watney as he strives for survival.   Yet Watney is not without weapons. The most potent are an engineering degree and a knowledge of science.

This is a book Dr Sheldon Cooper would be proud of – a novelised puzzle, at each turn you question how he’ll manage to bypass the latest setback.  Yet it’s couched within a gripping page-turner, with a strong character you quickly learn to care about.

If you’re short of something to read, I recommend it.   And if you’re not sure, download the sample. The book has a fast start, so you’ll know pretty quickly whether it’s worth the 77p!

Let me know what you think if you do.

Related past blogs:


MSE to advertise ‘free PPI reclaiming’ on Google

MSE to advertise 'free PPI reclaiming' on Google

MSE to advertise 'free PPI reclaiming' on Google

There’s no need to pay to reclaim payment protection insurance (PPI). However due to spam texts, cold calling, saturation TV ads and huge per-click fees to advertise on Google, many people give no-win no-fee claims management companies 30% of their repayment without knowing that.

We’ve teamed up with Which? for nearly a year now to get the "you can do it for free" message out.

This included a massive PPI summit where we called the banks, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Financial Services Authority (FSA) together for a series of meetings to discuss how to get the message out and the banks needed to change to make it easier.

Why paid ads are so important

While the TV ads create awareness – often it’s of reclaiming itself, rather than the specific brands. I still get questioned regularly by people asking which company to use, as they think they NEED to do it via a claims firm.  

Many people, however, do what we all do these days when we need info – they Google. Currently, if you Google "PPI reclaiming", while the MSE Reclaim PPI for Free guide often comes top of its natural search, it’s swamped with claims company adverts all around it. 

Search experts say to really be effective, you need a presence in both natural and paid searches.

How the ads will be paid for?

As PPI is so lucrative for claims firms, and the cost of getting high up on Google is extortionate, sometimes it’s a few pounds per click. They can afford to pay it, as the PPI claims industry is likely to make well over a billion pounds.

Neither us, nor Which?, nor other consumer groups can justify shelling out the huge amounts to compete at any volume with claims firms, as we all provide PPI info for free and it doesn’t generate revenue.

During the PPI summit we asked the banks to put their money where their mouths are – and to back up their call that they want people to reclaim for free.

Sadly, they didn’t reply as loudly as we hoped, but fair play to Lloyds Banking Group. It proposed to me it’d offer an experiment to test putting paid ads up for MSE.

I suggested this should also be done for Which? and Citizens Advice, and it agreed.

Of course, we’re not conceding control, even for a micro-second:

  • The ad text is directly controlled by the individual consumer group.
  • There is no mention of Lloyds, and it gets no special treatment.
  • The links go through to each group’s PPI reclaiming guide.
  • The guides won’t be altered in any way and remain entirely editorially independent.

This is a really interesting experiment for the short term. The free PPI campaigners have risked being crowded out of the market by the paid-for companies, and simply don’t have the financial clout to compete – but this may help level the playing field.

Of course some may still choose to use claims companies for convenience, and provided they understand they’re making a choice to pay, that’s fine (see my 10 things you need to know if using a PPI claims firm blog).

Turning the MSE forum into a true social network…

Turning the MSE forum into a true social network…

Turning the MSE forum into a true social network…

The launch of the Citizens Advice Bureau board in the MSE forum is a more radical change than it may appear. Our forum has more active UK users than Twitter (source: YouGov), yet when social networks are discussed, it’s overlooked.

After Facebook, the dominant UK social media platform are forums – MSE, Mumsnet, The Student Room, Digital Spy, AVForums, PistonHeads and more. They’re a focal point for millions to share facts, opinions and store a wealth of crowd-sourced information.

Why are forums ignored as social media?

The subject-specific focus means they tend to be ignored as the community platform that they are. Yet we too have our own share of births, dating, marriages, meet-ups, friendships, fights and more.

While a Facebook group of 1,000 or so can be reported in newspapers as a protest group, gatherings of 10,000s in forums are unnoticed.

Part of the problem is that with only a few exceptions, they’re seen as closed communities. While Twitter and Facebook enable charities, the media and businesses to set up their own content, there’s been little of this on forums.

So while the prime reason for the new pilot CAB board is to give it a cost-free platform to reach more people online, I’m delighted to be losing our ‘external content’ virginity with them too.

The new board is a toe dipped in the water to see if partnering with relevant, non-commercial organisations to provide them (for free) a big space of their own, with a ready-built audience, where they can answer questions (thanks so much to their reps) and help more people, can work.

Will the BBC ever support forums like it does Facebook?

I don’t know where we can take this in future. Perhaps it’s a step towards stopping the duopoly plugging of Facebook and Twitter (both advertising-funded, commercial sites). The BBC often asks its staff to have Facebook and Twitter pages, and individual programmes have them too.

But one day, perhaps there will be an official Top Gear board on PistonHeads? Or a BBC parenting board on Mumsnet? You never know.

Should a bank admit technical problems are because of hackers?

Should a bank admit technical problems are because of hackers?

Should a bank admit technical problems are because of hackers?

My various inboxes have received a number of odd conspiracy theories that RBS/NatWest’s crash is actually due to hackers trying to attack its computer systems. I’ve no knowledge one way or the other, and seriously doubt there’s even an iota of truth in it. Yet it does raise an interesting hypothetical question – should a bank admit to the public if hackers are causing it problems?

Of course the easy, knee-jerk instinct is to say that customers ALWAYS have a right to know. Well, I certainly err on this side in principle, however I suspect these issues would be more complex. It must, of course, inform the regulator and the police first, and any decisions should be in conjunction with them – and done in the public, rather than purely commercial, interest.

If there is a risk an individual’s personal data has been compromised and they are at risk of fraud and loss elsewhere – then that comes first and they should be told immediately.

Yet an attack and a data breach are not necessarily the same thing. In 2007 MSE suffered a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) – effectively a deliberate simulation of billions of users to crash the servers. 

It lasted days and we were down during that time. No ransom note came, though they are common.

It could’ve been a hacker doing it just for fun, or even a deliberate attack, as it started when we launched the PPI reclaiming campaign.

So imagine a bank is under attack and has had a ransom demand – does it aid the public by knowing what happened? Or does it put the bank and the system more at risk, increase the criminal’s ransom, and act as an open invitation for others to do the same?

Equally, if a bank had an unsuccessful hacking attempt to crack into its data vaults – and needed to make emergency changes to prevent it, does going public risk aiding the cybercriminals, revealing too much about internal security procedure, and making other attacks more likely?

Plus the panic caused from people knowing it was being attacked, and thinking their money was at risk, could cause a run on it. (Even though it’s likely the reason things weren’t working is because they had been shut down to stop this happening.)

So, imagine a bank were under a criminal, or even state-sponsored, terrorism attack and it caused a massive customer failure, but not a direct risk of fraud. Should the regulator prioritise ensuring the issue is transparent, or should it protect customers and the system’s financial stability?

Answers on a postcard please… (via the comments below)

PS. This isn’t a coded message that I think NatWest has been subjected to an attempted hack. I genuinely believe it has just screwed up (which is worse?). Yet the conspiracy theories do present an interesting hypothetical.

Backed up your mobile/PC data? It’s useless unless…

Backed up your mobile/PC data? It's useless unless…

Backed up your mobile/PC data? It's useless unless…

Backed up your mobile/PC data? It’s useless unless…

After the worst computer problems in banking history, causing a punitive shockwave for customers of NatWest, RBS, Ulster Bank and Think Banking, it’s worth considering your own personal data backup.

Running a big website, I’ve a constant paranoia about catastrophic failure and losing both the backup of the site content and the email list.

In the early days, I’d regularly nag my webmaster with “we do have everything backed up?” questions. Yet it was only when we first had a problem I discovered backing up is only half the issue.

Having the data stored means nothing if you can’t swiftly use it to return to how it should be. I remember once being down for a couple of days due to exactly that fault. It was all backed up, but we couldn’t populate the site easily again.

Therefore, the question I ask now is: “Do we have backup and restore plans in place?” Of course, the restore part is easier said than done for non-techies for their own PCs or mobiles. Testing whether you can restore data could be the very thing that predicates disaster.

So ask yourself now, if you’ve got important data backed up – be it financial spreadsheets, contact information, or a key work portfolio – if you couldn’t restore your tech to the state it should be in, can you at least access the data in a useable way? If not, you need to sort it out.

Thoughts and experiences welcome…