Re: UK Government Big Brother Digital Police state is Coming – we now learn your data is not anonymised!

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/may/30/gps-warn-plans-share-patient-data-third-parties-england

We now learn from The Guardian today that the medical records in the new NHS database that can be shared with third parties including US health firms will not be anonymised:

“The data will be anonymised and given ‘codes’ that can be used to reveal the identity of the data’s owners if there is a ‘valid legal reason’.”

Remember this is an opt-out system rather than what it should be opt-in. You have until 23 June to opt-out via your GP.

Do this and contact your MP complaining how this has been forced through giving no time for the general public to object.

Cummings exposes lying Government

So it takes the disgraced Dominic Cummings, former advisor to the Prime Minister, for the media to actually start reporting the lies about Covid the UK Government has made and persisted with over the last 18 months.

The infamous press briefing in the Spring of last year where Matt Hancock announced a ‘Protective Shield’ around care homes will go down as a defining moment in the whole Covid saga. A complete lie that everyone knew was a lie – yes the press reported ‘problems’ with that announcement that implied it wasn’t true but then quickly dropped any further news on the matter. They should have been banging on and on about it and calling the Health Secretary out until the truth came out. We learn from Cummings that Johnson was not aware that there was no protective shield – well everyone else knew so either he did know and perpetuated the lie or he is completely incompetent.

The Government’s continuing assertion to this day that travel restrictions are not the answer despite all the evidence to the contrary and against leading advisors throughout this pandemic is extraordinary. Last Spring it was obvious we needed to close our borders but absolutely nothing was done. Throughout most of last year people were allowed to travel by plane into and out of the country at will. Thousands every day going through our airports, other transport links and even visiting for extended stays without any checks. Some restrictions were finally brought in this year but even then travellers circumvented them – travelling via other countries to avoid coming from red listed countries (hence the latest rise in the so called ‘Indian’ variant). Again the media have been extraordinarily quiet on this most essential pandemic policy matter.

And lastly, the Government’s blatant refusal to accept that their original plan was to allow the virus to rip and achieve herd immunity instead of locking down the country and closing our borders. Going by the previous two examples of Hancock’s and Johnson’s incompetence it actually looks like this plan was the one being used all along. The eventual lockdowns were just for political expediency! Everyone knows that herd immunity was their original plan, Cummings has exposed this even further – the media once again dropped the baton.

As Cummings said – we should have expected more from our Government at this time of crisis. Thousands of lives were lost because of that. We should also have expected more from our media.

Great British Railways and the Flexi season tickets – are they worth it?

The UK Government announced the formation of a new railway body to oversee all aspects of UK railways – replacing Network Rail for infrastructure management, taking over ticketing across the network but retaining the use of private companies to actually run the services.

Although they don’t like people saying it and deny it themselves this is nationalisation in all but name.

For those interested here’s an excellent summary of how we got where we are:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlTq8DbRs4k

Part of the announcement was the long awaited and long demanded reform of ticketing and in particular the provision of ‘part-time’ season tickets. Provision is going to be made in June for season tickets that will allow use for up to 8 days within a 28 day period – use of smart tickets and smart phone apps make this possible.

The department of transport headed by minister Grant Shapps (the name he is using these days) quoted savings for various routes:

https://news.railbusinessdaily.com/thefutureisflexible-new-era-of-rail-travel-arrives-with-new-flexible-season-tickets/

Many people will see this as job done, the Government has sorted out the railways and reduced ticket prices for commuters.

But let’s make it clear that the savings quoted are in comparison to buying the equivalent peak time daily tickets.

If you work this out for the various routes it amounts to, on average, a 9% saving – ranging from 4% to 14%.

This is hardly game changing. Most of the quoted routes are suburban and the annual costs of a flexi season do work out cheaper than an annual season ticket in most cases – Bromsgrove to Birmingham seems to be an anomaly. In some cases (Woking to London) taking it under the annual season ticket price which it wasn’t before. But in this case only by a few hundred pounds – most people, if they can afford it, would choose to buy an annual season ticket and have the flexibility of being able to travel any day seven days a week. Other routes will probably be similarly priced so that the flexi tickets are redundant.

On this basis for commuters on longer routes the situation will probably not change at all – the maths simply doesn’t add up for the Government unless they slash daily ticket prices and thus flexi seasons or price season tickets on a proportional basis.

For instance if you apply the quoted savings to the Market Harborough to London St Pancras East Midlands Railways route:

The current Anytime Return price is £129 per day = £117.39 with a flexi season ticket discount = £10,800 per annum based on 2 days travel for 46 weeks a year. Way more than the current annual season ticket cost of £8,836. And for 3 days it would work out double!

This is of course the present situation for this route – annual season is significantly cheaper than buying daily. That’s because the daily standard tickets have been allowed to rise over decades by successive Governments at the whim of private train companies. They are not regulated to fixed inflation+ rises by the Government.

What many people were hoping for was a radical shake up of ticketing so that flexible annual season tickets were offered on a proportional basis. For instance, to buy a 2 day a week annual flexi season you would pay a proportion of the annual cost. There are many ways of working this out but let’s take the generous approach and say that it should be 2/5’s of the annual cost (2 days a week over the 5 day working week – in reality annual season allow 7 days travel but that’s not usually how they are used by most commuters).

So in the case of Market Harborough to London St Pancras this would be 2/5’s of £8,836 = £3,534.

There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be seen as fair – commuters are making an annual commitment to travel and are paying for what they use. It would encourage more use of trains on a flexible basis.

The problem for the Government is that this does not tally with daily ticket prices and the overall revenue it brings in – that’s not the commuters fault, it’s the Government’s.

Compare this to Germany where for example an equivalent journey (distance wise Market Harborough to London – remember £129 Anytime return) between Magdeberg and Berlin would cost you 65EUR (£56) for a return on high speed trains. Season ticket wise, in Germany you can buy a BahnCard 100 for 4,027EUR (£3,466) – interestingly similar to our proportional calculation of £3,534 for the Market Harborough to London annual season ticket. The big difference though is that the Bahncard 100 allows you to travel anywhere on the Deutsche Bahn rail network! And there are equivalent Bahncards for 50% and 25% reductions on turn up and buy tickets so your choices are numerous, simple, flexible and a lot cheaper than the UK.

Now I know from my German friends that train travel in Germany is not great particularly on non-inter city routes. And that as a consequence of this and an excellent road system car travel is much more prevalent. But the price differential is just extraordinary.

How do they achieve these kinds of ticket prices. Yes, through general taxation for the common good but also by running train services in the UK and reinvesting the profits they easily achieve from the Government sanctioned high ticket prices in their own state owned networks. Nothing in the latest ‘Great British Railways’ proposals addresses that scandal!

End of the High Speed Train (HST) Class 43 Intercity 125

The use of the British Rail Class 43’s better known to most as Intercity 125’s is coming to an end.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_43_(HST)

St Philip's Marsh - GWR 43002 Sir Kenneth Grange.JPG

By far the best trains I have ever used as a passenger. I remember moving from Essex to the East Midlands in the 2000’s – still commuting to London and dreading the longer journey times. But the first morning was a revelation – a proper train, big windows, comfortable seats, air conditioning, a buffet car etc. In my head the journey time halved!

The trains on my previous commuter line seemed like cattle trucks in comparison. The HST’s ran on diesel as the line was not fully electrified. In those days that was a bonus as electrified lines were constantly having problems with overhead wires coming down. Of course, their carbon footprint is appalling. together with all the accessibility problems of a train designed in the 1970’s. There had to come a time when they needed to be replaced.

Unfortunately, the replacements have been terrible. Uncomfortable, formulaic, plastic monstrosities although I have not yet tried the new Hitachi Class 810 Aurora trainsets on my line (more on that in future perhaps – if I ever travel on trains regularly again after Covid!). But things do not look good. The life of the HST’s has been extended time and time again because they are so well designed. It looks like their life may be extended for a little bit longer as the replacement Hitachi Class 800 trains have been found to have cracks causing huge disruption on the lines using them: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-57042384

It has been rumoured that some of the last HST’s available have been pulled out of storage and are being used on the Great Western Line to alleviate the problems:

Two trains next to each other at a mainline station:
HST: You know what Cracks Me Up?
Class 800: Just Don't.

Some would say the last ‘hurrah’ of British engineering at it’s best is being lost. There’s no denying they were well engineered to have lasted this long. Now it seems we have engineering that only last 10 years before something breaks.

This reminded me of a recent conversation with my water company who wanted to replace my water meter. When I enquired as to why they needed to replace it they quoted that the life expectancy of a water meter is 10 years and mine was 22 years’ old. Why on earth are we building things that only last 10 years that have to be replaced by digging up peoples drive-ways!

At best this is just bad engineering at worst it’s built in obsolescence that makes lots of money for a few people.

So it looks like the HSTs may be around for a little bit longer but many have now been mothballed, cut up for scrap or have made their way to a museum or heritage line. The future of rail travel will never be the same and certainly not as good.

EMR tribute to the HST: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRWtvMFSYX4

UK Government Big Brother Digital Police state is Coming

On the back of their recent election wins the tory UK Governement is pushing full steam ahead with various data handling proposals and actually implementing them without any concerns for data privacy.

Firstly, we have the National Fraud Initiative Data Matching Powers and new Code of Data Matching Practice which allows the sharing of data across public bodies and also allows sharing with private entities with little or no oversight: https://www.openrightsgroup.org/publications/briefing-on-the-national-fraud-initiative-data-matching-powers-consultation-proposals/.

Secondly, we get the proposal in the opening of Parliament’s Queen’s speech to make photo id mandatory when going to vote – potentially disenfranchising thousands of voters: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/may/10/queens-speech-photo-id-future-elections-social-care.

Thirdly, we now learn that the NHS is creating a new centralised database of patient data, again with little oversight and the possibility, or rather certainty given this Government’s track record, that the data will be shared with US health care companies: https://www.theregister.com/2021/05/13/nhs_data_grab/.

I took up the opportunity to contribute to the NFI consultation:

“Dear Cabinet Office consultation team,

Privacy in a digital age can only be achieved by data on subjects being difficult to obtain, store and distribute.

Private data must also be available to data subjects in a transparent way so that erroneous data can be legally challenged or deleted.

Consent to data storage by data subjects is also vitally important.

If all three of these criteria are met then confidence in and support of any personal data storage and query system by the public whether run by Government or private entities can be met.

It is clear that the current proposals in the National Fraud Initiative Data Matching Powers and new Code of Data Matching Practice do not meet these criteria.

Specifically, the proposal to allow police entities to interrogate personal data via the National Fraud Initiative without any or little oversight gives these entities a free for all in obtaining personal data – making it easy for these entities should not be the starting aim of the proposals. Checks and balances are required in a democracy to make sure that such powers are not being abused. The additional proposals to include personal data held by private entities and allow private entities to also interrogate data via the NFI is even more worrying. This will and should be called a ‘big brother’ proposal – “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, 1984.

There appears to be no mention of an individual’s right to interrogate and request amendments to the data being held on them. Why make it easy for police and private entities to search for information on an individual but not make it easy for the individual themselves. There should be a presumption that data held on an individual is not just owned by the state or a private entity but is also owned by the individual. Transparency and the right to challenge should be the fundamental basis for any proposals on the storage of personal data.

Consent has become a hot topic in the social media age. Many individuals are shunning online services once they realise that there personal data is being sold and used for profit by faceless private organisations that, in legal terms, own the personal data they have collected. There is widespread debate as to whether this situation should be allowed to continue with all the implications for a healthy democracy that such privately held massive silos of data bring. Our elected government should not be going down the same road but should be creating new systems of data storage with accountability and the rights of individuals built in.”

We’ll see what happens with the photo ID proposals which I assume will be debated in Parliament at some point.

As for the NHS database intiative this seems to have just been nodded through without any debate. I have written to my MP, Neil O’Brien:

“Neil,

What is the Government playing at!

First we get NFI proposals to widen the sharing of information across public bodies with little scrutiny (see my previous email), then proposals to require electors to present photo ID when voting and now we get the imposing of a new NHS central database.

There appears to be no oversight, no debate in parliament and just a rush to push through privacy breaking systems all over the place. They shouldn’t even be seeing the light of day.

Please ask them to get a grip – there are much more important things to be worrying about!”

I think that sums it up – now get off yer backsides and do something about it before the thought police start coming for you.

UK General Election 2017

I think this election boils down to one question:

Do you believe that nothing can be done and vote for a government that does as little as possible and allows the worst excesses of capitalism to continue to enslave us?

or

Do you believe something can be done and vote for an interventionist government that attempts to curb the excesses of capitalism and tries to make the country a happier place to live?

Decide what you believe in and vote accordingly.

BreakthePaywall New Releases

It’s been a busy week at BreakthePaywall the browser app from IslandEarth that enables you to easily circumvent paywalls such as wsj.com and ft.com that implement search indexing and social media workarounds.

The wsj.com site recently announced that they are stopping the use of Google One Click Free – this allows their site to be indexed for searching purposes and in return allows people who search for their articles on Googles search engine to view the articles without having to pay. However, they are still allowing social media links such as Facebook.com to have free access. This is interesting – a possible turning point in the history of the internet, Google is now not all powerful, perhaps Facebook is now the dominant force?

So this prompted us to update the BreakthePaywall utility for Internet Explorer – 2.1.0 is now available for use in IE on Windows XP and above including Windows 10. If you are using the new Microsoft Edge browser under Windows 10 then we have submitted an extension for certification so hopefully available soon.

In addition we also updated the Opera browser version to 1.0.0.3. This is available for download from the BreakthePaywall website. This is the same add-on that we had for the Google Chrome browser which was taken down by Google last year – we have re-submitted the Chrome version under the name ‘BTPW’ and it has been accepted and is available from the Chrome store – just search for BTPW.

Firefox also now uses the same browser engine as Chrome and Opera (MS Edge also uses the same engine but with the usual MS oddities) so we also ported the add-on to a Firefox version which is available from the Firefox add-on store. Again just search for BTPW.

So we now have a version of BreakthePaywall for all major browsers with MS Edge coming soon.

SQL Native Client and ODBC

We still use OLE DB throughout our Microsoft products – Data connections from website applications, SQL SSIS etc. And it seems Microsoft still encourages its use – default choices in many cases. There are other data connection choices – ODBC, ADO.NET. But we have always found OLE DB to be the recommended technology by developers for compatibility with all functionality, speed and ease of use.

The OLE DB drivers were always included in the SQL Native Client package which also contained ODBC drivers and you needed to install it on the SQL server and match up your connection strings with the correct version you were using.

I was starting to evaluate SQL 2016 and was looking for the latest SQL Native client update for that version. It became a big surprise when I learnt that the native client driver has not been updated since the release of SQL 2012 and that Microsoft announced in 2011 (just before the release of SQL 2012) that they were deprecating OLE DB in 2018, that no new versions would be released and were recommending the use of ODBC instead:

https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/sqlnativeclient/2011/08/29/microsoft-is-aligning-with-odbc-for-native-relational-data-access/

https://social.msdn.microsoft.com/Forums/sqlserver/en-US/e696d0ac-f8e2-4b19-8a08-7a357d3d780f/microsoft-is-aligning-with-odbc-for-native-relational-data-access-faq?forum=sqldataaccess

So, you may find that in future OS and IIS versions the OLE DB connection is broken. I decided a comprehensive review of all the drivers available needed to be performed, the results of which you will find listed below. You will notice that there has been 3 new releases of the ODBC drivers now named ‘Microsoft ODBC Driver for SQL Server’.

The main problem that I have found is with nText and Nvarchar(max) fields – you should be using Nvarchar(max) as Ntext was deprecated in SQL 2005. But even then none of the ODBC drivers (except the vintage SQL 2000 driver using Driver={SQL Server}) will read large blob type data in nText/Nvarchar(max) type fields – you just get blank. So the only way around this is to use OLEDB driver (SQLNCLI) or limit the field to nvarchar(4000) which is the max length you can set (nvarchar(max) is blob type storage which can store up to 2GB). This was one incompatibility that we found – there may well be more!

So, let me re-iterate, Microsoft have dropped OLE DB in their latest driver releases, they recommend you use ODBC instead but ODBC does not work with all SQL functionality! I did pose a stack overflow question which didn’t come up with any viable solutions:

http://stackoverflow.com/questions/38608879/oledb-odbc-ntext-and-nvarcharmax

But we have also noticed that the default in SQL 2016 SSIS is to use OLE DB! In fact it took us a while to work out that ODBC has been included – you have to choose other options. Also, if you go to any conference where SSIS is being discussed they will all be using OLE DB, or ADO.NET when using multiple parameters as it is more manageable, certainly not
ODBC.

We also asked Microsoft execs about the situation at the same conferences and their typical response was, and i’m paraphrasing, ‘well we announced it is deprecated but there is such a huge base of customers using it that we don’t see it dissapearing anytime soon’. Indeed the main thrust of their deprecation announcement seems to be to do with SQL Azure – I have no experience with Azure but it sounds like you can only use ODBC with Azure and therefore, they are getting on premises people to change over to ODBC because that will make migrating to Azure much easier – of course in Microsoft’s eyes everyone will migrate to Azure so the issue over OLE DB becomes academic to them.

Anyway, we decided to stick with OLE DB in Native client rather than having to test everything with the latest ODBC driver as it looks like there will be no problem when we upgrade to SQL 2016 with continuing to use OLE DB.

SQL Native Client:

The SQL Native Client installs both 32bit and 64bit OLE DB and ODBC drivers.

The versions that are currently available are:

SQL Native Client V9 (SQL 2005):

OLEDB Provider code: SQLNCLI
OLEDB User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=SQLNCLI;Data Source=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Initial Catalog=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

OLEDB Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=SQLNCLI;Data Source=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Initial Catalog=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

ODBC Driver code: {SQL Native Client}

ODBC User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "Driver={SQL Native Client};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Passwor"

ODBC Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "Driver={SQL Native Client};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

 

SQL Native Client V10 (SQL 2008):

OLEDB Provider code: SQLNCLI10
OLEDB User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=SQLNCLI10;Data Source=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Initial Catalog=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

OLEDB Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=SQLNCLI10;Data Source=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Initial Catalog=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

ODBC Driver code: {SQL Server Native Client 10.0}

ODBC User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "{SQL Server Native Client 10.0};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

ODBC Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "{SQL Server Native Client 10.0};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

 

SQL Native Client V11 (SQL 2012):

Download Location: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/kb/2726013
OLEDB Provider code: SQLNCLI11
OLEDB User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=SQLNCLI11;Data Source=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Initial Catalog=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

OLEDB Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=SQLNCLI11;Data Source=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Initial Catalog=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

ODBC Driver code: {SQL Server Native Client 11.0}

ODBC User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "{SQL Server Native Client 11.0};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

ODBC Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "{SQL Server Native Client 11.0};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

 

Microsoft ODBC Drivers:

Microsoft ODBC Driver 11 for SQL Server:

Download path: https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/download/details.aspx?id=36434
OLEDB Provider code: n/a
With this version Microsoft dropped OLEDB support
This version appears to be a driver wrapper to enable new functionality (like connecting to Azure DBs) you can then supply the underlying driver or use the ODBC driver that comes with it (Unfortunately you can’t use the old OLE DB driver).
So, in order to use Microsoft ODBC Driver 11 with SQL Native Client V11 you would need to install both Microsoft ODBC Driver 11 for SQL Server AND SQL Native Client V11 and use the following connection strings:

Provider code: MSDASQL
ODBC Driver code: {SQL Server Native Client 11.0}

ODBC User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=MSDASQL;Driver={SQL Server Native Client 11.0};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

ODBC Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=MSDASQL;Driver={SQL Server Native Client 11.0};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

But you would be better off using the driver that comes with it (I hesitate to use the word native driver – that would confuse things even further!). These are the connection strings to use if you just want to use Microsoft ODBC Driver 11 for SQL Server:

Provider code: MSDASQL
ODBC Driver code: {ODBC Driver 11 for SQL Server}

ODBC User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=MSDASQL;Driver={ODBC Driver 11 for SQL Server};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

ODBC Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=MSDASQL;Driver={ODBC Driver 11 for SQL Server};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

 

Microsoft ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server:

Released 25th July 2016

Download path: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=50420

This added support for SQL 2016.

Provider code: MSDASQL
ODBC Driver code: {ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server}

ODBC User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=MSDASQL;Driver={ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

ODBC Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=MSDASQL;Driver={ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

 

Microsoft ODBC Driver 13.1 for SQL Server:

Released 1st August 2016

Download path: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=50420

This added functionality for always encrypted connections.
See: https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/jj730314(v=sql.1).aspx

Provider code: MSDASQL
ODBC Driver code: {ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server}

ODBC User/Password connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=MSDASQL;Driver={ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;User ID=Username;Password=Password;"

ODBC Trusted Connection connection string:

objname.Open "Provider=MSDASQL;Driver={ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server};Server=ServerIP;Failover Partner=MirrorServerIP;Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=yes;"

 

In all cases we are connecting to an SQL 2012 server with database mirroring. Strings may be different for other scenarios. A good website for connection strings is:
https://www.connectionstrings.com/sql-server/
Although they are not up to date with MSDASQL connections at time of writing.

Note: Certain keywords seem interchangeable between drivers e.g. ‘Failover Partner’ and ‘Failover_Partner’; ‘Trusted_Connection’ and ‘Integrated_Security’

Download videos from You Tube for offline viewing

Another useful add-on for Firefox is a utility for downloading videos from you tube.

Like many, my commute to work doesn’t always include a good wi-fi connection or a decent mobile signal and I just hate that buffering that goes on when streaming videos. So downloading for offline access is essential.

YouTube does not supply a download facility but luckily it doesn’t seem too difficult to add that functionality going by the plethora of add-ons that are available to do just that!

I had to trawl through quite a few – some rubbish, some ok – before finding the perfect one:

https://addons.mozilla.org/en-gb/firefox/addon/download-youtube/

And it’s Github page:

https://github.com/gantt/downloadyoutube

It’s really simple to use. Once installed it adds a Download button to any YouTube page:

youtube_download.png

Click on the button and you will get a choice of videos to download in terms of quality e.g. 1080P, 720P, 360P etc, in MP4 format. You can then choose where to download the file with a standard Save As dialog.

Be warned that YouTube are testing and rolling out a new interface in which this add-on does not work. I’m sure the developers will update to the new interface at some point but in the meantime switch to the YouTube classic interface instead.

Firefox ad-blocking with uBlock Origin

Another thing I like to have setup in my browsers is ad-blocking.

I don’t really mind advertisements on web pages as my brain is now pretty much programmed to ignore them after 20 years of web browsing (that’s the entire time web adverts have been about I think!). But obtrusive popups and the like I detest.

I also find many sites so clogged full of utter rubbish adverts that the page does not load – the contents not usually worth waiting for anyway but it does take a while for your browser to sort it all out sometimes.

I don’t mind websites making money from adverts but it is now the case that end users/potential customers need some kind of control over them.

And that’s where uBlock origin, a Firefox add-on, is very useful, if not essential.

This add-on could be described as a ‘browser firewall’ but in many users eyes that implies it is complicated to use, gets in the way and/or slows things down – none of those assumptions is true. uBlock Origin is very easy to use, is fast and does not slow web pages down – in fact it speeds them up – and is so unobtrusive you forget it’s there.

uBlock Origin can be added from the Firefox store. Here’s the direct link: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-GB/firefox/addon/ublock-origin/?src=search

Don’t get confused with Ublock which was a previous version which has since been forked by the original developer into uBlock Origin. The add-on is open source and here is the github page: https://github.com/gorhill/uBlock. You may notice that it also works with the Chromium engine – So there is an add-on for Opera as well: https://addons.opera.com/en-gb/extensions/details/ublock/?display=en#main. Or you could add it to Google Chrome if you really want to use that browser (you probably know my feelings on that by now!).

And here’s the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UBlock_Origin

uBlock Origin is simple to install and you can just leave it to do what it does without getting into the detailed settings but those settings and information on what it is doing are all there if you wish to delve in. It adds an icon to the top right of the Firefox browser with the uBlock Origin logo: ublock_origin_icon

Simply put, once installed, if you load a web page you will start seeing numbers appearing over this icon – that’s showing how much crap uBlock origin is blocking. For example simply visiting the wordpress.com web site produces this: ublock_origin_icon_nos. Yep, 66 requests blocked.

You can click on the icon and it will show this by default:

ublock_origin_initial

In fact the number of requests went up to 72 while I was getting that image.

Clicking on the + next to the requests blocked or the domain connected produces an expanded dialog:

ublock_origin_expanded

Up to 79 blocks now!

This interface looks a bit daunting but is really simple to understand and use.

You will see listed the third party domains that the page has requested things from. Green next to the domain indicates items were not blocked, red means all requests were blocked and yellow indicates some requests were blocked.

uBlock origin uses a range of thrid party ad blocking lists to decide what to block and what not to by default.

Notice that you also get the 1st party domain information – in this case wordpress.com which it is not blocking.

In most cases you can continue with the defaults but you can set things to how you want in great detail by using this interface. If you hover your mouse over the columns next to the domains you will notice some green and red boxes appear. So you can choose red to block that domain or green to unblock – the first column denotes settings for this site only, the second column denotes settings globally for all sites you visit.

ublock_origin_expanded_colours

In the above image I am hovering over the facebook.net entry which I can block by selecting red for the wordpress.com site that I am visiting. All these choices are remembered by the add-on.

The plusses and minuses in the second column denote how much is being blocked or not – one plus means between 1 and 9 requests were allowed, 2 pluses between 10 and 100 and three pluses over 100. Minuses denote what is blocked in the the same way.

You can quickly see how you can finely tune your browsing experience but be wary if you are not sure what you are doing. For example blocking fonts.googleapis.com may render the website unusable as it will be using a completely different font to what you expect or blocking facebook.net may mean a widget that the site is using for extra functionality cannot be used.

By far the most useful option is the blue on/off button:

ublock_origin_blue_button

Clicking this will unblock everything for a site. So if you visit a site that you like and support and you want to allow them to track your usage and serve up adverts so that they get revenue just visit the site and hit the blue button. This is whitelisting and you can view a list of the sites you have whitelisted within the uBlock origin settings which can be located at the gear icon in the top left of the dialog: ublock_origin_settings_button

Goto the whitelist tab:

ublock_origin_settings_whitelist

It’s quite fun to test this all out in realtime. You can logon to facebook and see that uBlock origin is now blcoking all the ads in amongst your normal postings, click on the blue icon and refresh and those adverts all come flooding back. (remember to switch blocking back on unless you want facebook to get even more money of course!).

As mentioned because uBlock origin is blocking all this stuff, web pages will load much quicker – this is certainly my experience. I now find that if I am on a machine without uBlock origin installed I really notice how slow some websites are.