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Amazon Fire for Kids or iPad for little kids?

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Having two kids who are now two and five, I’ve kept a keen interest in tablets that will help them learn and understand the world a bit more.

Originally, that meant my ‘old’ iPad Air 2. But now, the kids are a bit bigger, and we have two of them, so that means a device each.

Now, an iPad Mini would be about right, but they’re still around £400… each! And then you have to add the price of the apps – and a decent case – to that. And then they stand on it, or throw it across the room, and that’s another few hundred pounds on top!

So… rather than spend a total of £900 on iPads, we spent £260 on two Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8″ Kids Unlimited Edition, that come with cases, a two year no questions replacement policy for any breakages, and thousands of apps free under their Freetime package. No brainer!

However, there is a cost. Not financial, but in quality and practicality. There are really a few key areas:

 

App Quality

If you have a tablet with 3,000 free apps, there’s going to be a lot of crap. If you give a kid free rein on such a tablet, they’re going to choose the most base, brainless, sickly, colourful, cutesy app that they can find, and keep using that. They’ll learn nothing. Except everything about My Little Pony.

And there is a lot of crap there. Not just the brainless stuff, but also a lot of badly designed stuff.. for example, apps that teach basic words and letters, but you need to be able to read and navigate four pages of menus to get to the game. If you are relying on the tablet keeping the kids off your back for half an hour, this isn’t the way to do it.

Some apps also have ads. Amazon are supposed to ban these and also prevent them working, and you do sometimes see the tablet fighting off an ad by seeing it pop up and then get shut down – but again, occasionally I have my kids come to me complaining they can’t see the game any more, and they’re locked into a video ad.

In contrast, for iOS, of course, you have to download and/or buy the apps. But then, because you’ve paid for them, and because Apple tend to attract some strong app developers, you can find some great, creative, beautifully designed creative apps, like Shadowmatic. And also Peppa Pig’s Holiday.

 

Parental App Control

OK, so there’s a lot of crap. How do you stop your kid spending all their time on it?

Well, with Amazon Fire for Kids, you have limited control.

Their intentions are there – you can set a maximum hours a day, and you can also set a time threshold per type of content – such as that they must have a book open for half an hour, before being allowed half an hour of videos. But, again, you might expect them to read the Dr Seuss interactive book for half an hour (actually an app), followed by half an hour of Thomas the Tank Engine, whereas in fact they’re playing Shopkins for half an hour (also classified as an app), followed by videos of Lego Wars.

You can also block certain apps… but that’s the problem: rather than permitting the ones you approve of, you have to block all of the 3,000+ except the ones you approve of. There are tricks to doing this, but it’s still a huge pain – to the point that there are howto discussions on various forums, and that the entire parents’ panel on your Fire starts crashing with the strain of having to filter out all these apps!

There is an online Parent Dashboard for Freetime, where you can actually see what apps they’re using remotely, see when they use them, and lock the device from use. That’s nothing more than great for seeing that they’re not getting the educational experience you bought the device for, and then being able to trigger a screaming tantrum remotely by locking it down from the safety of your bedroom.

In contrast, on iOS, you can be notified of, and approve of, any apps that your kids download. For young kids, you can then lock them to the specific app using the assistive touch settings. That includes preventing them dropping out of the app to start another one, locking the volume so that it’s not distractingly loud for you, locking the orientation so it doesn’t keep flipping around when they’re moving and squirming, and locking areas of the screen like “shop”, “exit” or “go back” buttons.

For young kids, I love the iOS approach. It means I can leave them with an educational app – basically providing them with no choice – and any complaint will quickly disperse as they start playing with it. In contrast, with the Fire, they’ll wait until you turn away, or they get bored, and then hit ‘Home’ and look for a game or video they want instead. By the time you notice and attempt to switch them back, it’s too late – great reason for a tantrum. Locking them into the app in the first place is much easier.

 

App Selection

In general, I find that iOS has the more compelling, creative, ingenious apps. For example, we use Reading Eggs a heck of a lot. While Reading Eggs is web-browser based and so should work on any platform, it doesn’t run on the Fire 7″ or 8″ – the screen is too small! However, it works on iOS on both the web browser and also a native app.

On the other hand, as part of the Freetime content bundle, you get full access to a large swatch of the Toca Boca and Dr Seuss interative book range. These are both fantastic – well, Dr Seuss is brilliant, and Toca Boca is again a lot of mind candy, but good quality at least. There is a lot of good content hiding in the crap, enough to make the devices worth their price for that reason alone.

On iOS, there are loads of fantastic apps, but you do have pay for many of them – this can add up.

 

Videos

There are hundreds of videos included in the Freetime bundle – that includes, for example, the entire Bing series, Peppa Pig, and many more besides. There are some good shows in there, and as of November 2017, you can download some of them for offline viewing in the car or plane.

If you’re an Amazon prime customer, you can also use Prime Video on the Kindle, although it’s not within the kid’s FreeTime portal. What we did was simply log them out, log in as ourselves, and open Prime Video that way. From there, you can find and download videos for offline viewing.

However – note that you’re limited to how many Prime videos you can keep offline at any one time, across ALL your devices – so for the two kids’ devices, we had around 4 movies and 3 TV shows each, which can run out during a long journey, or if they don’t like your selection.

 

Conclusion

It’s a pretty simple split:

  • Amazon Fire has the best price point, case and form factor, but is very deficit in how you can control the app experience for young kids.
  • Apple iPad is expensive for something that a child may break, but the educational apps are great, and you can precisely control what a kid can do with the device

In short, the Kindle is not suitable for educational use with young kids, but rather for fun or as a treat. In practice, we let the kids use the iPad for educational use with minimal supervision, and then we let them use the Kindles in the car for video watching or a few select apps.

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Categories: Uncategorized

How to tip the bin men?

December 26, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s Boxing Day, and our normal bin collection service comes round tomorrow. I vaguely recall the tradition of tipping the binmen and postman who serve the community all year round, but how to actually give them the cash?

Well – I have no idea what time they come around, and of course there are three collections, so which one do you tip? I just want to leave something on the bin, but how do you juxtapose something of high value (cash) with something of low value (your rubbish) in London, so that no-one else takes it, and the bin men get it?

In the end, I decided to:
– Take a fiver
– Put it in an envelope, folded with a message on the outside
– Put THAT in a clear plastic jiffy bag
– Tuck it into the corner of the black bin lid nearest the handle, such that they should notice it’s a bit strange when they grab the bin
– Put the hinge away from the road against our wall, so that no-one passing should think to investigate

I guess we’ll see one way or another if it works tomorrow.

Categories: Uncategorized

ERR_SOCKET_NOT_CONNECTED on my Macbook Pro? But why?

September 20, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been getting frustrating errors on my Macbook Pro running Mac OS X Sierra for the last month or two.

In Chrome, the error is ERR_SOCKET_NOT_CONNECTED – but I also get the same outcome in Firefox and Safari, where they variously report that the connection was reset or failed.

My next step is to try to capture it in TCPDUMP; I did a quick test with defaults, but then somehow it managed to entirely reset my machine, and the problem seems to have been temporarily fixed for now – but it does come back each time.

Googling this error typically comes up with Flushing sockets in Chrome, or fixing a DNS issue. However, neither of these work in this case, and the problem is much more wide ranging. I’ve found that:

– The problem affects all browsers on the computer (Chrome, Firefox, Safari)
– The problem affects only HTTP websites. ie:
– Sites that are HTTP (http://www.bbc.co.uk, http://www.sainsburys.co.uk) always DO NOT work
– Sites that are HTTPS (https://www.facebook.com, google.com, etc) DO always work
– Sites that are HTTP that immediately redirect to HTTPS (eg. facebook.com) DO work
– Sites that are HTTP but can also be forced to HTTPS (eg. https://www.sainsburys.co.uk) DO work

Hence the problem appears to definitely be around HTTP – as if something on my Mac is blocking inbound HTTP responses, or sending back a reset.

As to what could be doing that:
– I have the Mac OS X firewall enabled, blocking all inbound ports that are not attached to whitelisted apps, as well as stealth mode enabled. However, I have whitelisted Chrome and it makes no difference. Also, turning off the firewall made no difference.
– Trend Micro’s AV engine, which I can’t disable, but which reports no blocked web traffic
– CarbonBlack’s agent installed, which I have no visibility over
– Palo Alto Networks SSL VPN client, which makes no difference if connected or disconnected
– Private Internet Access’s client, with impact unknown at present.
– I have various browser blockers  – uBlock Origin, Do Not Track, Vanilla Cookie manager – but these don’t seem to change the outcome either

I’ll keep an eye on this. It does seem to stand apart from all the google search hits I’ve found so far – various Google Chromium discussions, and some ‘fixit’ sites – and I’ll likely have to get into verbose TCPDUMPs to figure it out when it reoccurs.

Categories: Computing

My new best iOS video editor

July 24, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been on the lookout for a video editor to replace the excellent Clips since Flylabs was bought by Google and their software disappeared.

I only do videos for social use – mainly photo and video montages from events with friends. I rarely use anything over than split/splice/trim, set to a music track. However, I try to build a narrative against the track, which requires:

  • cutting on the beats of the track
  • Switching  scene/location as the verse changes
  • trying to keep the mood of the media fitting with the mood of that part of the track
  • and with the media roughly in chronological order

Hence the app needs to support me editing in that way.

Why I miss Clips


Now – Clips was amazing. Downright amazing. Because it allowed me to view the clips in a scrubber view, allowing me to position the ends of each clip to match the track, yet also allowed me to reorder, trim, and edit the clips in-situ. 


What that mean, is that I could start at the beginning of the song, and work the clips into shape as the song progressed… I’d play a short section, then trim, edit, speed up, re-focus those clips, then replay. It was so fluid and easy to use – Flylabs are geniuses. They must be, as no-one else has replicated that.

However – there is a reasonable second choice. It’s GoPro’s Quik.

Quik is in itself stunning… it will take a bunch of media, a track, and then automatically identify the beats and timing of the track, and automatically cut the clips to fit it. So all the manual work I mention above is done for me (or is it….)

Not only that, but it’ll also apply a theme to the video – not just fonts, but types of filters, transitions, and loads of other good stuff which looks thoroughly professional. If you didn’t have a clear idea of what you wanted to put in your video, you could just take what it churns out, share it, and people would be wowed.
Lack of control

The trouble is, it doesn’t necessarily do some of the things I describe above. It can’t detect the mood of the track… say, take a slowdown, and switch to showing calm evening shots from the collection, and then cut back to action shots when the tempo picks up.

Also, it rarely guesses which parts of a video to clip correctly. For example, for a video of our friends jumping into the pool in slow motion, I would want 2s of the jump starting, 4-5s of us in mid-air in slow motion, and then 3-4s of us splashing down. Quik showed a clip before we started jumping, then a clip of us all vanished under water… not quite right.

So – I need manual control. And, with recent developments in Quik, I’ve found you can get just that.
So, how does Quik capture all those little details that makes it so productive

Ordering photos


So, first, ordering photos. Quik is great here, in that while you can select all of a range, it will also allow you to add photos one at a time, in the order that you add them. This means that you can swipe and down your camera roll, picking out photos in the order that you want to produce them in (which may not necessarily be exactly the same as the true timeline), and Quik will keep that order. Awesome!

Beat cuts

Did I say that Quik automatically times cuts to fit into the beat of the music you selected? Yes? Well, it does that just fine – you won’t need to touch most of those timings. Boo yah!

Video re-trims

That pool-splash video that was all wrong? With Quik, it’s easy to make it right. There are three reasons why.

  • Quick-to-edit: Once you’ve realised that clip is all wrong, you can simply tap it in-situ, and the edit icon pops up. One tap gets you editing the clip, and the re-trim is right there. It also supports all the expected iOS gestures like hold to zoom for a fine edit. You also need to toggle the radio button to force Quik to accept your trimming, rather than its own.
  • Quick-to-duplicate: But wait – I wanted three parts of that clip. I’ve trimmed the first, but how do I get the other two? Well, with Quik, it’s another quick tap to duplicate the clip, with the duplicate appearing right after. You can then tap-to-edit that, and adjust the trimmer to select the second sub-clip you want. Then do it again for the third.
  • Play-from-here: By tapping the clip you’re on, and pressing play on the main video, you can see where that clip now appears in relation to the soundtrack as well as all the other clips. This, you could expect, but it’s the little detail of tapping the clip you just edited, rather than having to move a scrubber to find the relevant position manually, that makes it so quick to use.
  • Drag-to-reorder: Again, to be expected, but works so well. You drag the clips around, hit play, and see what effect it had.

Putting it all together

What the GoPro design team have done here, is sneak in all these little workflow optimisations that just allow you to edit the video to the soundtrack, working from beginning to end, without getting interrupted by niggles along the way. It’s a very hard act to pull off, but they’ve done it.

RIP Clips

But still, it’s not clips. Clips was the best. If you’re a developer and you want an idea for a product, write Clips again. I’ll buy it again. Maybe Google will too.

Categories: Uncategorized

Blocking Foscams from phoning home using DD-WRT

June 28, 2017 Leave a comment

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I just bought myself a couple of Foscam FP9821P’s, and found that they phone home to a cloud server. That was kinda of expected – if you offer an easy app that scans a QR code and automatically connects you to the camera, then there must be a cloud service in-between.

What was more surprising, is that there’s absolutely no way to turn this off. Even if you toggle everything off, it will still phone out via UDP. I had expected that maybe I could disable UPNP for it and that would help, but it’s irrelevant – the cameras ‘phone’ out to several domains using UDP outbound, and there’s no configuration option to stop it. Foscam support confirm this.

So – it looks like I’ll have to block it at the firewall instead. One reason for using DD-WRT was that I would have this kind of granular control on specific devices. I would also VLAN them too, but am taking my DD-WRT config a step at a time.

 

So, this was the traffic reported by DD-WRT beforehand (from the Foscam’s wired ethernet)

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 11.25.58

Locking down the IP range

First, I set up static DHCP addresses for the WiFi MAC addresses printed on the back of the cameras, so that their IP addresses sit within a tight range altogether. On my router, this is at http://192.168.0.1/Services.asp.

Untitled

Blocking those IPs

Then, I create a policy under http://192.168.0.1/Filters.asp (again, my router address) to block any outbound internet traffic from the Foscam IP’s. Rather than try to reverse-engineer the domains those IPs are resolving from and block those domains, which might end up as a wild goose chase if there are fallback domains or even additional hardcoded IPs, I’m just blocking all internet-bound traffic – which is really a more accurate representation of what I’m trying to achieve.

This is the main page at the top, and the sub-page/window at the bottom which pops up when you click Edit List of clients.

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 11.29.29

I’ve changed the fields boxed in red – I’m setting a 24/7 Access Restriction to the internet from the Foscam WiFi IP addresses.

Now this is in place, I unplugged the ethernet cable, and watched how the outbound IP addresses went.

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 11.35.31

All outbound attempts via the router are dropped. And nothing else.

And can I access it within my LAN still?

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 11.37.19

Yes! Sorted!

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Read-testing a drive with 7-Zip hash check

June 11, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently needed to test that all files on a backup drive were readable. The question was, what was the fastest way that I could do an ad-hoc check on those files?

It turns out, that 7-Zip (which I had installed already) comes with a context menu option in Explorer for generating a hash check on a file. Although it’s intended for comparing file integrity, this involves reading the entire file in order to generate the hash, so it does the job.

To use, simply Shift-Select all files on the drive, and generate a hash. I wasn’t sure about CRC, so I selected SHA-1.

As it turned out, it was pretty quick. It took a while to warm up, but eventually both Windows Task Manager and the WinZip dialogue said they were reading at 100MB/s. Since my Western Digital 4TB USB3 drive shows public benchmarks at 114MB/s sustained for sequential read, and the file-based hash has no guarantee on file size or sequentiality, I was very happy with that speed.

 

Of course, generating the hash is CPU-intensive, and my Mac Pro was using 30% CPU in the Win10 VM, but since it seemed to be ripping through the drive as fast as possible anyway, I didn’t mind.

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive test – it only tests files, not the whole disk, and if the sectors are dodgy but the drive manages to read the file anyway, then you’ll be unaware of that problem. But this was only intended to check that I should be able to read that backup drive in the offchance my VM migration fails, and I also had a cloud backup (albeit much more work to retrieve) so it was low risk.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

An excellent bluetooth speakerphone – the Bose Mini Soundlink 2

April 24, 2017 Leave a comment

So a few weeks ago, I was on the train into London heading to a critical workshop with a big customer. We had hired a hotel meeting room, we had the SVP in the room with his team, and other stakeholders from around the world dialling in to the webex. I’d spent the week preparing, when I got a text:

“Have you got a speakerphone? The meeting room doesn’t have one.”

Ouch.

So – turn to Dr Google. A few checks of “the best bluetooth speakerphone”, and by the time it was my stop, I had a shortlist. I walked to the meeting via a department store, where I picked up a Bose Mini Soundlink 2.

image.png

So – we road-tested it in the critical meeting, in front of the customer, and it did fantastically! We’ve since used it for an internal zoom call in our own office, and again, it’s brilliant. The sound quality and presence is excellent, as you’d expect, but more importantly, the microphone appears excellent. It had no problem picking up a heavily accented analyst from 8m/24ft away in that hotel boardroom and everyone on the call heard them without an issue, where even most dedicated speakerphones would have struggled to pick up the voice.

Of course – if you were looking for a mobile bluetooth speakerphone, you’d probably look for something from Plantronics, Logitech, Belkin, or similar – either a business electronics manufacturer, or maybe some cheaper PC or eBay vendor. But this is an un-obvious, yet logical choice; this device has a mic in it, this is one of its functions, and, as you’d expect from Bose, it’s excellent. So why not?

In summary:

  • It’s available on Amazon, in any department store or airport, and reasonably priced at GBP140 (discounted now that the model III has been released)
  • The sound quality and mic pickup “just work”, are of immaculate quality, and are hassle-free, even in a decent-size room
  • It’s small and portable, although weighty
  • It has an excellent battery life
  • Charges off standard microUSB (it sits on a light, thin charging dock you might take with you)
  • Worked fine over bluetooth with my Macbook Pro 15″ and Zoom
  • Turning up with a Bose product in a customer meeting isn’t going to hurt at all
  • Also pretty good for music in the hotel room (smile)

If you’re often hitting issues with crowding around a laptop on a concall, your iPhone on speaker, or even worse, a customer’s poor-quality speakerphone that mystifies anyone as to why it wasn’t thrown out long ago, then I would recommend adding one of these to your road warrior’s toolkit!

Categories: Uncategorized