645 – mobile ad blocking

It's always DNS

The internet just wouldn’t work without the magic that is the Domain Name System, or DNS. If you are not a networking guru, this service is effectively the index of internet hosts (not just websites but also anything else that offers a service on the net), and is used to find the actual address that your computer will connect to, using a name as the reference.

If you put www.bbc.co.uk into your browser, that means you want to connect to a machine called www which belongs to the domain bbc.co.uk, and a beautiful yet simply elaborate system is used to figure out how to find that domain, get the address(es) of the actual host, and provide the info back to your device so you can connect to it and request information.

Being the one service to bind it all also means DNS is often the thing that brings everything to a halt, eg. if your home router can’t connect to your ISP’s DNS server, then you’re basically unable to communicate with the rest of the world as you’d be unable to find anything (unless you hard-code your machine to use a different DNS, like CloudFlare’s 1.1.1.1 or Google’s 8.8.8.8).

Futzing about with DNS can sometimes bring benefits, though. One such is that for the many webpages which contain embedded adverts or clickbait links, if your browser is unable to connect to the source of the advert, then it might just not show the content at all. On desktop computers, you could use ad blocker browser extensions of all kinds, but on mobile devices your choices are a bit more limited.

Stupid Ad from Microsoft Start appIf you rely on mobile apps like Google News or Microsoft Start, which show content within the app and have no ability to install 3rd party browser extensions, you may have to take more action to block out all the insidious and stupid adverts.

A true geek’s solution at home could be to set up a Pi-hole; a DNS server (traditionally targeted to run on a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, hence the name) which will filter out the garbage by deliberately blocking the URL-to-address resolution of thousands of known advertisers or clickbait providers. Great when you’re on the home network, but what about if on the move and connected to another network?

One possible solution here is to use a provider like NextDNS, which has been described as effectively running a Pi-hole in the cloud for you to use.

Enable NextDNS on AndroidFree for up to 300,000 name resolutions (which sounds like a lot, but in reality, isn’t), it’s a snap to try out and if you sign up, you’ll be given simple instructions on how to plug it into your phone, tablet, desktop or even home router, so as to extend protection to every device connecting through that network.

Insidious ad has been silently blockedDNS queries would be routed to the NextDNS service and if the requested host is from one of a plethora of blocked sites – not just ads, but known trackers, phishing links etc too – then it will simply return a dud response as if the site doesn’t exist.

Your app or browser will either show you an empty box, maybe an inline error frame, or it may silently move on and display nothing at all. Just one small victory!

Using a service like this – others are available – can be switched on or off quickly (in Android, it takes the form of a single switch to configure a Private DNS with a URL unique to your account), and works regardless of whether you’re on Wi-Fi or mobile connectivity.

638 – Tracking and Mapping

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Looking back over the smartphone era of the last 15 or so years, one of the most transformative technologies is the confluence of mapping and geo-location, providing route guidance, finding things and even people. How did we manage to make our way around cities before maps in the palm of our hands? Just exit a tube or subway station anywhere in the world, and observe the herds of people spinning around looking at their phone trying to get a GPS fix.

Although Microsoft ceded the mobile phone space around 5 years ago, effectively leaving Android and iOS as the only options, the Bing Maps service still survives, even if fewer websites and mobile apps make use of it today. clip_image003[4]Windows 11 comes with a built-in Maps app which offers some decent functionality (and offline use), but lacks some of the features of Bing Maps in a browser, like the Ordnance Survey view showing public footpaths and other attractions in the UK (if you have the country setting to United Kingdom, that is).

Given the lack of “Bing Maps mobile” – and the commensurate lack of usage – the data that sits alongside may be less accurate, too; look at the reviews on the Windows Maps app in the store, and the main complaints are from people who don’t want it at all or comments about the map and PoI data being stale.

clip_image005[4]Some neat features in Bing Maps make it stand out from others – the Bird’s Eye view is cool, though not always as fresh or widely available as it used to be.

The team still updates imagery for the web view, provides data to the awesome 3D Cities feature in Windows Maps and contributes to the amazing scenery in Flight Simulator (even if some modders are switching Flight Sim to using Google Maps instead).

Bing Maps in a browser does sometimes offer a City Flyover option, which is akin to the Flight Sim view.

clip_image007[4]clip_image009[4]Bing’s Streetside can be sparse compared to Google’s Street View, even though the Google Maps car is sometimes thwarted with a “None Shall Pass” situation. Search the web and there are many – some NSFW – weird attractions found on Street View.

Some odd things can be found on Streetside too.

Apple used Google Maps data for its own maps app on the iPhone at first, but replaced with its own service which was at first poorly received. 10 years later, Apple Maps – available, of course, only to fruity device users – does a much better job and purports to be less cavalier with the user’s data than the advertising company. Despite a much larger number of users flocking to the universally available Google Maps, Apple Maps provides a good service for iOS users, and is there by default.

clip_image011[4]If you choose to surrender the use of your personal data to the advertising industry, Google Maps does offer some very useful capabilities in recording where you’ve been; it will remind you where you parked your car and let you see if you’ve visited a particular place before, and when.

clip_image013[4]If your family and friends consent, you can also share your whereabouts in real time, showing a pin in the map where they are, and when the location was last recorded.

This could be handy for checking if your kids are where they’re supposed to be, for friends arranging to meet or just knowing when to expect someone to come home. You can enable sharing of your location to each specified contact for a limited time or until it’s turned off, and it will also let you see their name, picture and other info including (!) battery level of their phone.

clip_image015[4]Sign into Google Maps on your computer, and you’ll be able to keep track of people a little more easily, too (as well as manage your own location sharing), and review your own timeline of where you’ve been. It’s usually somewhat fascinating and sometimes a little creepy.

Fortunately, you can choose to edit or remove certain items of data, export it to other formats or disable the collection of it altogether.

You give up some control of personal data, and you get some benefit from it.

As some say, them’s the breaks.

590 – OneNote Tagging

clip_image002Even fans of  OneNote – either the full-fat Windows x86 version or the versions targeted at other platforms, mobiles and the Microsoft Store, both of which have been covered extensively in ToW passim – will likely use only a fraction of its total functionality. Did you know, for example, that pressing SHIFT+CTRL+> or SHIFT+CTRL+< increases or decreases the font size of the selected text? Or holding CTRL while pressing DEL or BACKSPACE in a block of text deletes the word either side of the cursor, and not just a single character? (Actually, these are true of other Office apps as well, though not Excel, presumably because using Excel for text formatting is considered deviant and weird).

clip_image004There are many useful features hidden in plain sight, like the tagging functionality which sits on the Home tab. In OneNote for Windows, if you have the ribbon expanded, you’ll see a series of icons to mark selected text with a Tag, and for the top 9 you can tag the text by pressing CTRL+n, where n is the number in the list.

clip_image006The idea with tags is that you can quickly reference back to the specific text that you’ve highlighted and tagged, via a hyperlink. As well as the variety of in-the-box tags, it’s easy to add custom ones: click on the down arrow at the bottom of the list and choose Customize Tags… then you can supply your own description and choose the icon and colours.

clip_image008The new tag is added at the very top of the list, so is immediately accessible by pressing CTRL+1 if you like; otherwise, it’s simple enough to shift the order around.

clip_image010Finding previously-tagged text uses the seriously powerful but sometimes obtuse search function in the sidebar; if you use OneNote to take notes from Outlook meetings, by default you might see hundreds of links that appear to be tagged.

Try using the Search filters at the bottom to restrict the results set, so you only show tags within a given notebook location or across all your notebooks, but for a specific time.

clip_image012The “OneNote for Windows 10”, Mac and mobile versions of OneNote handle tags slightly differently; while more-or-less compatible the degree of functionality does vary between the clients. Generally speaking, you can find tags across them all, though you may be restricted in editing or creating them. The OneNote mobile app supports a “To Do” tag, for example. The web clients don’t offer custom tags at all, and don’t allow tag-specific search (other than just text indexing).

In the OneNote for Windows 10 store app, you can search for Tags but custom ones created in the desktop app don’t appear in the Tags list when editing a page. Only a handful of tags are initially offered in the store version, and if you add a custom one it’s still possible to press CTRL+n to use it, but you need to count where your tag is in the list as it doesn’t show you the shortcut.

Custom tags added in the store version don’t appear in the tags list of any other client though do sync across other devices, to some degree.

Given the slight rough edges between the versions if you routinely open the same notebook in mobile, web and store/desktop apps, then Tags may not prove so useful – but if you tend to stick to a single UI – especially if it’s the older desktop one – then it’s worth exploring how custom tags could help you organize your stuff.

550 – That’s not my name

clip_image002[550That’s not my name]

If you have the kind of name that people habitually get wrong, there are things you can do to mitigate, like adopting a shorter and easier-to-pronounce and/or spell version. This tactic is often seen where people from cultures with long and complex names choose a “western” handle as well, just to make their own lives a bit easier. Or you could just put up with people getting your name wrong and don’t worry about it.

An alternative trick is to provide people with your own pronunciation – that way, even if they forget, they can go back and check how you say your name. In the days of Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging, you could choose to record your own name, as well as calling in to set your voicemail greeting, manage your calendar and so on. Exchange UM made a great demo back in the day, but presumably didn’t get used enough as it has now gone away.

clip_image004If your organization used UM and you’d bothered to record your name, then you may still see a greyed-looking loudspeaker icon next to yours or others’ names in the Outlook address book. Click on that to play – if it’s not there, too bad (probably).

clip_image006A possibly more useful way of spreading your preferred pronunciation is to use LinkedIn – if you record your own name, it’ll show up on your profile and you can make it so public that anyone in the clip_image008world can play it. To make the recording, you’ll need to use the LinkedIn mobile app.

Tap on your own photo in the top left of the LinkedIn app, then choose View Profile – and the rest is fairly self-explanatory. You record your name, and after you’ve confirmed that you’re happy with the playback, save it and from now on, anyone who looks you up will see the speaker icon next to your profile name.

Alternatively, YouTube has a variety of pronunciation tutorials.

536 – Spreading to friends and family

clip_image002There have been plenty of ToW missives over the last few months on the subject of remote working, video conferencing and the like. Businesses who have Microsoft 365 – the new umbrella name that includes Office 365 – already have access to Teams, though personal users and non-subscribers could still set up a free version.

Other chat, video and collaboration tools have clearly been finding many new users during the COVID-19 lockdown…

Slack, which established itself as a texty business collaboration tool (especially in the technology industry), has been overtaken somewhat by the rush to video calling and meeting. Slack’s partner AWS, who also have a video/audio/chat service called Chime, announced plans to integrate under the covers. Meanwhile, Slack thinks it’s finally time to ditch email and their CEO also has an interesting take on how remote working will evolve – will this be the end of the real estate bubble in the Bay Area, for example?

Salesforce has launched a new offering called Anywhere, which aims to take back collaboration and comms tasks from Slack or Teams. And in the “you can tell any story you like by using the right set of numbers” file, Teams has been reported as outgrowing the media’s darling, Zoom, as the feature battles between the two have intensified. Skype and Google’s Hangouts Meet have also added multi-party video among other new capabilities.

Teams will soon have the ability to show up to 49 people at once (having rolled out a 3×3 grid of video windows recently)…

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… and has also released an updated free offer, aimed at friends and family communications.

Initially available in the mobile apps, the focus is on providing free collaborative functionality for groups you can set up, as well as being able to schedule video calls and meetings.

If you don’t already have the Teams mobileclip_image004 app on your phone, then go to iOS App Store or Google Play to install it. If you’re already using Teams through your work account, you can add a personal account by going to the settings icon in the top left, and at the very bottom of the list is “Add Account”.

This will guide you through the process of associating with an existing Microsoft Account, including signing up for free Teams service if you haven’t already.

At the moment, the service is in Preview, and it does involve switching between profiles when you need to, but offers a load more than just WhatsApp-style text chat and the odd call.

As well as file sharing, there’s even a “Safe” feature on its way, which will let you share WiFi Passwords or other more sensitive information that requires 2-factor authentication.

So, for once in the last 3+ months, now’s a good time to spread something to the rest of your family and your wider circle of friends…

Tip o’ the Week 490 – Bluejacking LinkedIn

clip_image002[4]There was a time when nefarious sorts could fire up their mobile in a busy place and send unsolicited messages to any hapless punter not smart enough to switch their own phone to not receive unsolicited Bluetooth connections – a process known as Bluejacking.

Mostly harmless, it was a way of making people take their own phones out of their pocket and look around in a puzzled fashion over what was happening – useful entertainment in a boring theatre or a packed train carriage. Mobile platforms stopped leaving these things on by default – booo – but it’s probably for the best.

Still, the more modern way of dishing out business cards – LinkedIn – has another way to harness the same basic technology for good. ToW #461 discussed the QR-code method of sharing a LinkedIn profile with someone, and it’s a great way of doing it 1:1, by pointing a camera at someone else’s phone to make the connection with them.

clip_image004[4]But there is another way that is perhaps more useful when dealing with several people at once – a networking meeting with people you don’t know, or a business gathering where you might be communing with several new people at one time. Or a party. If you’re at a pretty sad party.

clip_image006[4]clip_image008[4]If you start the LinkedIn app on your phone and tap the My Network icon on the bottom toolbar, you’ll see the Find nearby option, which allows you to see anyone else in the vicinity who has similarly switched on the same feature. On enabling, you may need to turn on Bluetooth and then separately allow the sharing of data, and of the LinkedIn app to use it.

clip_image010[4]You’ll see a list of who’s in the vicinity and with a single tap, can connect with them on LinkedIn. Make sure you remember to turn it off again, in case you inadvertently show up on some unknown ne’er-do-well’s phone, as the Nearby functionality can continue even when you leave that page.

But it you’re careful, it’s a great way to mutually share contacts with a group of people.  See more here.

Tip o’ the Week 483 – mobile OCR and Office

clip_image002Optical Character Recognition is one of those technologies which has gone from being just-about-possible at great expense and hassle, to so mainstream that people just assume it will work flawlessly, all in a relatively few years. Numerous companies offer OCR services or addins to line-of-business systems which help to prepare printed data for easier consumption – scanning invoices for example.

clip_image004Consumers tend to use OCR in other ways; combined with language translation, you can point your phone at a foreign menu or sign and it may be able to help you understand. clip_image006In OneNote, if you have captured an image (maybe through the clipper addin from your browser), then it can extract the text from that picture – not always perfectly, and not necessarily well-formatted, but it’s probably quicker than re-typing everything.

Near OCR functionality is also pervading the slew of freely available Office apps for Android tablets, phones and even Chromebooks, and similar versions for iPad and iPhone.

A recent addition to the iOS version of Excel is the ability to scan a table of printed data and use OCR plus a bit of tweaking, to import the data into the spreadsheet. See more here. The same functionality was first made available on Android a couple of months earlier

clip_image001Start with the grid capture icon on the toolbar of a new spreadsheet, and then use the camera to highlight the area of a document that you’re interested in – the UI will be familiar to anyone who uses Office Lens, as the same anti-skewing technology is used to prepare the “document” for importing.

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Then the OCR goes to work and tries to lay out the data as closely as possible to its source – obviously, your accuracy will be improved by having a well-lit and clear original document, and you’ll get to tweak the contents in context of seeing the OCR’d data and the scan at the same time, before committing to insert it.

Tip o’ the Week 467 – Gardyloo, It’s the News!

clip_image002Edinburghers will know of the term, “Gardyloo” – perhaps a corruption of a French warning that “water” was about to need avoiding, like dodging the gutters in Blackadder. As well as regarding the loos, it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure your source of news is clean and fresh. Not fake.

clip_image004clip_image006A startup called NewsGuard hit the, er, news recently, after launching a service that uses real journalists to assesses sources of news, and scores them on various criteria on how they source, handle and attribute the stories they report.

The Mobile version of Edge browser was updated in January 2019, to include the NewsGuard plugin (though it wasn’t enabled by default), and at the time it was widely reported that their vetting had decided the UK’s Daily Mail, a popular newspaper and at one time the largest newspaper website in the world, was not to be trusted. (Screenshots above & right were taken on 24 Jan 2019).

More people probably read about the warning that was gleefully propagated by the Mail’s competitors, than there are actual users of the Edge mobile browser itself (if you use Edge on your PC, give it a try on your phone – it’s really rather good).

clip_image008clip_image010If you’d like to add the NewsGuard addin to the Edge browser on your PC, go to the Settings menu (…) on the top right of the Edge toolbar, and look under Extensions – then find NewsGuard in the Store to add it to the browser from there.

NewsGuard has since worked with the Daily Mail and decided that it’s not quite as bad as all that, so has backtracked and removed the klaxon warning.

It’s still not giving a completely clean bill of health – see the “nutrition label” –  but the feedback NewsGuard has shared with some other news websites may well help to improve the quality of their output.

The same extension is available on other browsers too.

Tip o’ the Week 466 – Mobile Teams Tips

clip_image002Teams is more than just a replacement for Skype for Business on your PC, it’s also a consummate mobile app that functionally eclipses its predecessor in many ways, and even its desktop sibling in some. If you haven’t installed the Teams mobile app on your phone, go and get it (and other Office apps) for Googly Devices or Fruity Phones. The remaining Windows Phone users can follow the setup link here, though be prepared for disappointment.

clip_image004The “Calls” tab on the mobile version on the app is more usable in some senses than Calls on the PC version of Teams is, since it exposes phone numbers more easily. On the desktop Teams app, if you want to use the service to call an existing contact via the POTS, the actual phone number you use can at times be somewhat obscured.

clip_image006On the PC app, for example, if you look at History, you’ll often seen a list of people but it’s not clear which number they called from (or you called them on), and you’ll need to use the Contacts list within Calls to be able to direct a new call to a specific number.

In the Teams mobile app, if you look at the Calls tab, under History, tap on a line and then the card to the right side of the list of icons, you’ll get a contact card and the ability to respond back – using Teams – to any one of the listed phone numbers.

clip_image008Under Settings, you also get a bit more direct control over do not disturb functionality with quiet hours and days.

Finally, one of the great new functions in Teams mobile is the building-in of clip_image010Org Chart functions, so you can browse the global address list hierarchy while on the move (assuming such info is populated in the directory).

Just search for a contact’s name, and their organisational tree is only a tap away.

For more tips on using Teams Mobile, see here.

Tip o’ the Week 444 – Computer! Computer!? Hello Computer?!?

clip_image002Remember the time when talking to a computer seemed like science fiction?

If you’re an Amazon Echo or Sonos One* user, you’ll already be familiar with barking orders at an inanimate object. If you’re tired of shouting ALEXA… ALEXA!!!, then you can even change the “Wake Word” on the Amazon devices – but not yet others – so you can say other things instead. Handy if your daughter or your dog is called Alexa.

clip_image004In the Alexa app on your phone, go to Settings, look under the list of devices and if you select an Echo device of some sort, then you’ll find a Wake Word option fairly far down the list. This lets you choose something else, though not yet at the level when you could make up your own wake word

Anyway, who can pass up the opportunity to pretend to be Mr Scott?
(Isn’t it amazing what you could do with one-fingered, random typing on a keyboard in 1986…?)

Anyway, recent announcements saw the preview of Cortana joining hands with Alexa and allowing access both from Windows 10 PCs to (some) Alexa functionality, and US-based Amazon users can access Cortana stuff through Alexa-enabled devices.

On your PC, clip_image006you may need to check your Cortana settings (just press WindowsKey and start typing Cortana to see the settings) to either enable the Hey Cortana key phrase, or press WindowsKey+C as a shortcut, then speak.

Voice-searching on the PC using Cortana can be a pretty handy thing to do, as there are plenty of phrases that will give you a direct response rather than take you to a website. It’s quicker to press the WindowsKey+C option than to say “Hey Cortana”, and you could ask stuff like M-S-F-T, what’s the time in New York, what’s the news, what’s the weather, convert pound to dollar and so on.

clip_image008To start using Alexa on your PC, just go to Cortana and say “Open Alexa” – at which point, on the first run, you’ll be prompted to sign in clip_image010using your Amazon account.

You’ll also need to grant permission to share info between the two services, and now be able to do things like add items to your Amazon shopping list from within the Cortana UI, or in the reverse, query your Office 365 calendar from your Echo smart speaker.

YMMV at the moment, but it’ll surely get more integrated in time. Right now, you can’t stream music through Alexa to the PC (or, it seems, control smart home devices that work through Alexa, though that could be a regional thing for the moment) – and if you’ve a UK-based Amazon account, you can’t add the Cortana Skill to your Alexa account, so there’s no option of querying Cortana from the Echo, yet. US users can, though.

Still, Normal People don’t have electronics listening to everything they say… so what if a few nerds need to put up with some temporary friction from having two competing assistants try to work together? Click-Over-bzzzt.