Wikipedia Takes On News

The guys at Wikipedia, the collaborative encylcopedia, have taken on news, Wired reports. Wikinews is still in beta, but fully functioning.

For those familiar with South Korean news site OhmyNews (an English version is here), the idea is similar: Authors are able to add their content irrrespective of who they are. Unlike OhmyNews, however, other people are able to alter what you write. This is how Wikipedia works, and far from being messy, anarchic or unreliable, it has proven an excellent form of peer review. But will it work for news?

Urine, Corrosion, And The Decay Of Bridges

You have to feel sorry for designers, particularly bridge designers. How can you factor in all the variables that will determine whether your bridge survives?

Take for example, a bridge in Palembang, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Built between 1962 and 1965, the 1,177-meter long and 22-meter wide bridge was named after the then president, Sukarno. When he fell from grace it was renamed Ampera (short for Amanat Penderitaan Rakyat or the Mandate of People’s Pain, according to The Jakarta Post, In Memory Of The Suffering of the People, according to others. They were difficult times and bridge namers were not given to levity). It is a distinctive-looking bridge, with two tall towers standing like guillotines above the Musi river. It is, in short, the pride of the region.

photo by Audy Mirza Alwi

It has been repaired a few times. The Post says it was renovated in 1981 after fears that flaws in the original construction might cause it to collapse. More recently the Japanese have funded (PDF) efforts to rehabilitate the bridge, especially after some serious underwater damage (mindful, no doubt, that the bridge was originally funded by war reparations from the Pacific War.) Despite some problems (like ships bumping into the bridge), the Japanese were able to report in late 2002 that “The project has contributed positively, based on the master plan, to urban development”.

Well, up to a point. Last Friday, The Jakarta Post carried a story headlined “Bridge in Palembang may collapse due to excessive urination”. Not really much more needs to be said, but let’s spell it out. The bridge is sloping. This ‘irregular slant’ had been confirmed by Professor Annas Ali, a highway and bridge expert at the public works office who conducted research on the bridge recently (presumably by standing on it and noticing that he was not standing, as we engineers call it, ‘straight’).

Upon further inspection officials noted that, in the words of the Post, “one of the reasons for the apparent structural deterioration was due to the frequency of people urinating on one of the steel pillars of the bridge, causing it weaken due to the corrosive forces of human urine.” This deterioration can be measured since you can actually feel the bridge ‘resonating’. This was proven by the head of the city’s transportation office, Syaidina Ali, who advised the Post reporter to ”try standing on the Ampera bridge. If the traffic passing on the bridge is heavy, you can feel it moving quite a bit.” Presumably he did not advise standing under the bridge in case a colleague was corrosion testing.

If someone had been, it wasn’t anyone from the highway and bridge department at the Palembang Public Works Office, whose head, Azmi Lakoni, was quoted by the Post as saying that his office had not yet done research on the condition of the bridge. But Mr Lakoni did agree on the urine theory. “The office has not yet done thorough tests on the slant of the bridge,” he said, ”but we are concerned that one of its main support piers has been weakened by urine, as it is a popular spot for locals to relieve themselves.”

This is not the only problem facing the bridge, and it’s another bitter lesson for bridge designers. “Another problem that was pointed out,” the Post report continues, “was that people had stolen pieces of the bridge.” This is always a hazard for bridges, but not uncommon in Indonesia (or Australia, thanks to Taka. As the Post explains: “In 1998, when the country was simultaneously in a state of euphoria and confusion sparked by the reformasi movement, thieves were known to have dismantled some parts of the bridge” by climbing the two towers and removing bits of them. It’s not clear from the report whether they were euphoric or confused when they did this, but one can only hope they were not relieving themselves.

My advice to tourists thinking of visiting the area: Avoid the bridge until this whole problem is sorted. But if you do find yourself in the area you now know of a good rest stop.

Smart Phones Have To Be Dumb

I’ve been giving a Treo 600 a run for its money in the past couple of months and I’m impressed. Yes, I know that there’s a new one out and I’m way behind the curve, but my theory is that these products need to be not just good, but super reliable if they are going to fulfill their main purpose: Be a phone.

The thing is this. It’s great being able to do all this stuff on a gadget not much bigger than a cellphone, from checking email, to downloading RSS feeds, to taking photos, to playing Boggle, to instant messaging, to having SMS dialogs appear as IM chat threads. Great, wonderful. But what happens if you need to make or take a call and the whole thing freezes up?

That’s what happened to me again this morning when I was trying to take a call from my friend Colin. For sure, it was just another one of those ‘whatcha doin’?’ type calls, but what if it had been an ailing relative desperately trying to get through? Or I needed to call 911 or its local equivalent?

For me, smart phones have to be, first and foremost, dumb phones. They have to work as a phone, all the time, before they do anything else. If they don’t do that with reliability, then folk are going to start thinking twice about having everything else packed into it. Indeed, there’s still a lot to be said to having a small cellphone that just does cellphone stuff, and then another gadget that does all this other stuff.

Lycos And One Way Not To Deal With Spam

Lycos Europe, according to The Register, is distributing “a special screensaver in a controversial bid to battle spam”. Make Love Not Spam “sends a request to view a spam source site. When a large number of screensavers send their requests at the same time the spam web page becomes overloaded and slow”.

The idea, of course, is to slow down servers allegedly delivering spam by overloading it with requests in what is called a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Lycos’ argument: The spam sites will get charged for the higher traffic, and eventually go out of business. As Aunty Spam, a website dedicated to spam issues, points out, Lycos may be skating on thin ice: denial of service attacks are illegal, at least in the U.S. “The problem is, just because you are part of DDOSing spammers rather than legitimate companies doesn’t make it any less illegal.”

I’d tend to agree. Tempting as it is to do this kind of thing, it’s not the way to go, and I’m surprised that Lycos is doing it. My bet is that Lycos Europe finds itself on the end of its own DDoS attack from vengeful spammers.

SMS Crannies?

I reckon we need to redesign public spaces to take into account all the folk who mill around tapping out SMS messages. People seem to be have gotten the idea that you can walk and talk on a cellphone at the same time, thereby causing minimal disruption to others, but texting still seems to be something that has to be done stationary, usually by stopping in the middle of a  busy street, shopping aisle or fire escape during a real live emergency.

Short of shooting these people, what can we do? I propose little texting bays, where they can get out of the way of others to do their vital SMS work. At night these little nooks could be used by homeless people or drunks to recharge their batteries, or mobile bloggers like me to write posts like this.

[Posted with hblogger 2.0]

Fixing Friends’ PCs

I don’t have a huge number of friends but those that do like me and trust me enough to ask me for computer help. That, or they are just too cheap to call a professional.

Part of the problem is, it’s horrible to try to fix someone’s computer over the phone. I get a headache just trying to talk someone through the menus, the options, the dialog boxes. It’s painful, and rarely successful. So they tend to think less of me at the end of it, which I wouldn’t mind so much but that their opinion of me was pretty low already (“You’re a technology columnist? What kind of job is that?”) . Even if they bring their computer around it’s usually something I can’t fix, or even figure out most of the time. If I do figure it out, they give me a hug and then promptly forget about it (or else tell all our other friends how hopelessly geeky I am because I fixed a computer.)

Another part of the problem of being a tech repair guy is you’ve got to know what questions to ask. It’s like being a doctor. It’s no good assuming your friend was doing something normal with the computer when it broke. I’ve learned that much. They were probably using it as a doorstop, trying to make bread with it, licking the screen, or trying to fold it where it shouldn’t be folded.

But of course they won’t tell you outright. Much too embarrassed that a) they were doing something that might have at best voided the warranty, at worst broken the law and b) their ignorance would be exposed by venturing any explanation. So you, as the doctor, have to ask the right questions, such as “What exactly did you touch when it went, as you describe it, ‘pflitz’?” One friend could only get certain keys on her brand new laptop to function, so I went through lots of complicated tests to establish which keys actually worked. (A diagonal line to the right from the E,R and T keys, if you must know.)

I played around with everything until it eventually occurred to me to ask whether she had spilt anything on the keyboard. “Yes, some water,” she said, innocently, as if it happened all the time (which it possibly did). “But I wiped it all off.” Aha. She needed a new keyboard. That took about an hour out of my life, and my entreaties to her to drink over the sink and not the laptop in future fell on deaf ears. Tip: If you’re fixing someone’s computer, ask them first, not just “what were you doing with your computer when it went ‘pflitz’?” but “what did you do and where did you go today?” Chances are you might get some clues about what really happened to the computer (including visits to the toilet, bathhouse, pub, Disney World, Mud Wrestling World Championships, whatever.)

And to my friends: Please feel free to call me with computer problems, but be honest. If you used it as a frisbee or as a curry plate, let me know. It really helps.

Blogs, Links and Posts

I’m writing this from my Treo which is a great example of portable blogging, I guess, but it’s not good for adding links. Does a blog posting have to have links to be good? I know one school of thought has it that blogs must be alive with links to offer value, while others suggest that postings should be short, concise and point somewhere else.

But while this post kind of proves other people’s points (in that the above sentence is useless without the links to illustrate it), I believe that blog posts should contain a thought, and that thought should be clearly expressed within the posting. Links to me are like endnotes: you can read them if you want, but the central thesis or assertion must be self-contained within the blog posting. Folk may be reading the post on a device that is not hooked up to the Net, or doesn’t support links, and  if no explanation is offered without going to the link itself, then the posting is useless to them.

[Posted with hblogger 2.0]

Whatever Happened To Downloadable Calendars?

Whatever happened to those downloadable diary items for Palm and other handhelds? I’m pretty sure I recall a time when you could visit a site, see a schedule you wanted in your Palm and download it with one click.

I guess it might have been vCalendar but that seems to be dead as a dodo. I notice some people still offer this kind of service, but using CSV files, which can’t be that graceful. I notice that Palm offer DualDate, which allows you to share and compare your calendar with someone else. Some worthy folks would offer this kind of thing a few years back as freeware, but I can’t see anything updated in the past couple of years.

But it seems to be me a trick has been missed by Palm and others over this kind of thing. I would like to be able to visit a website, say, of my favourite soccer team and download their whole fixture list into my Treo. Is there no easy way to do this? It should be like RSS: a recognisable button on every site that allows downloading in Palm content straight into a calendar, or address book, or whatever. Looking back, this kind of thing might have saved Palm.

Or am I missing something?

Email Newsletters And Reputation Maintenance

It always surprises me how companies which try to present an image of good email practices (i.e., don’t spam) let their standards slip so easily, and their reputations with it.

In June 2003 I signed up for Click2Asia, an online dating service for ethnic Asians (no I’m not Asian, but I figured living there for the past 17 years made me as eligible as anyone else, and besides, it was for a column. Well that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.) Anyway, for a while everything was fine — they would send out newsletters every so often, but the email address I gave them didn’t find its way onto spam lists. Until this week.

This week I’ve received two dodgy emails from Click2Asia with the subject line ‘A friend has referred you to Click2Asia!’ and suggesting ‘a friend of yours thinks that you might find true love on our site! Try a search, and see what comes up!’. These emails were sent to the very unique email address I gave when I signed up, so this can only be classified as spam: No one else has that address, I have already signed up as a member with that address — ergo it must come from within Click2Asia. Pretty poor state of affairs, if you ask me. I let one go as a possible error, but now getting another within three days convinces me these guys are not to be trusted.

Why a company would imperil its reputation by sending out spam beggars belief. It would appear to me to reflect how poorly these websites understand the public mood about spam, or how little they care.

Another gripe, while I’m on the subject: Email newsletters must be easier to unsubscribe from. Now that everyone has more than one email address (or uses disposable email addresses), no longer is it acceptable to throw up error messages which suggest that because the email came from a different email address than the original message, the unsubscription has failed. Failed unsubscribe messages must be handled manually if necessary or the user pointed to a website where they can remove themselves manually. The burden should not be on the user. A case in point: I tried to remove myself from their list this morning but despite following their instructions found my emails either prompting another error message or simply bouncing. Black mark for Audible and a good argument for a) not subscribing in future and b) using RSS feeds.

Russia Gets Serious About Its Virus Writers?

Is Russia finally getting serious about its virus writers?

Kaspersky Labs and F-Secure, two anti-virus manufacturers, report that Evgenii Suchkov (or Eugene Suchkov, sometimes known as Whale or Cityhawk) has been found guilty of writing two viruses, Stepar and Gastropod. Suchkov was sentenced in the Russian republic of Udmurtia, and while he was only fined 3,000 rubles ($100) — a sentence which has attracted some derision — Kaspersky’s analyst reckons now “Russian virus writers know that they are not always going to be able to hide from the law. And the world knows that Russia is doing something about virus writing”.

Suchkov, it appears, is no small fish. He’s believed to be a member of 29A, a notorious virus writing group, according to Kaspersky, which also believes he’s a member of the HangUp Team, a group I’ve tried to look more carefully at for their alleged role in phishing. Interestingly, a Czech member of 29A was recently recruited by a Czech software company, a move which has ignited some controversy, not least because it would appear to make virus writing a good way to prepare a CV for more legitimate work.

I tend to agree that hiring these guys might not be the best idea. Beyond the moral hazard issue — why should virus writers care about getting caught if they know it will lead to a job anyway? — there’s the issue of where this guy’s loyalties may lie. Is he going to try to stop his old buddies from doing their thing? Or tracking them down? And even if he did want to do good work for his new employer, he’s going to be a marked man for his former buddies who it’s believed, have active links to the Russian mafia.

The point to remember is that virus writing is now an industry, or sub-industry, of the criminal underworld. So no longer could one argue that these guys are just lonely geeks trying to get some attention. They do what they do for money, which means a virus, worm or trojan is a piece of code designed to do something specific. It’s probably done to order. If one of these virus writers is now working for the other side, I would hope his new employers take a good hard look at his motives: If he’s a good virus writer he could probably command significant amounts of money. Is he going to say goodbye to all that?

Finally, Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure suggests that there may also be traffic the other way. “F-Secure also has evidence which suggest that spammers have succesfully recruited anti-spam software developers to their side,” Hypponen says in a recent email. He points out that “spammers make money from their efforts; that’s why they can actually afford to invest in making their attacks better.” Anti-spammers going to the dark side? There must still be good money in it somewhere. I’ll try to find out more.