Saving Skype Voicemail

This is not particularly new, but I thought it worth making a note of, since there still seems to be some confusion about whether it’s possible to save Skype voicemail messages as audio files onto your computer. There are other ways, but this one, posted at SkypeJournal last year by a guy called Carlos, does the trick most simply, in my view, and doesn’t require any extra software. (This will probably only work on duplex soundcards, but most are nowadays, methinks.) I’ve edited it a bit for clarity.

  • Open the Windows Volume Control (under Accessories/Multimedia in your Start Menu, or via the little speaker in the System Tray)
  • Click on Options and then Properties
  • Select Recording, then make sure Wave Out Mix is selected. Click OK
  • In the Recording Control window, Select Wave out Mix
  • Open the Windows Sound Recorder program (under Accessories/Multimedia) or whatever audio recording program you use
  • Start recording
  • Play the VoiceMail on Skype
  • You should now be recording. Adjust the levels on your audio recording program (I found I had to set it very, very low) as necessary
  • Save the file.

Conflicts of Interest, And The Search for Truth

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has an interesting post about conflicts of interest, bounced off a comment by Jason Calacanis who quoted a rumor he had heard that it was possible to “buy a review at TechCrunch”. (In other words, pay money to get a positive review on the website).

There are some good points in here, and in the comments, so let’s go through them. I’m sorry if this is overlong. The issue is close to my heart.

First off, I think Michael misunderstands when he assumes Jason’s quote “just the appearance of impropriety is impropriety” means “when it comes to your reputation, an accusation is all it takes to ruin it, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.” That’s not my understanding of the term, and I think this where the root of blogging/journalism problems currently lie. (I don’t know either of these two gents personally, so I’m just basing my comments on Michael’s account.) The appearance of impropriety, in my view, means when the person in question may be seen to be doing something improper, whether or not they are. Example: taking a ride on a corporate jet to Barbados of a company you cover for your paper. Maybe it’s a freebie with a holiday tagged on the end. Maybe it’s the only way you can interview the CEO because he’s too busy and you’re stuck in Barbados in your suit waiting for a flight back. But it may appear improper to readers, who wonder whether you’re going to be unduly influenced by the high life, so you probably don’t want to do it. Or you insist you pay for the ticket yourself. Or you take your own flight to Barbados and stay in a separate hotel. The appearance of impropriety is important. You as a reader want to be sure your journalist/blogger understands this important concept.

Actually, Michael does get it, as he writes “I want to state quite clearly that I have never taken a payment for a review and never will. Sure I’ve been offered money for a review a couple of times. But it would be completely unethical for me to take it. I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that. Companies that have offered to pay me have never been written about on TechCrunch.” In fact, Michael might consider actually naming these companies if they don’t back off quickly, to warn readers that they may be trying the same stunt with less ethical bloggers.

Then Michael explores the idea, put forward in the chat by Steve Gillmor, that “we all have conflicts, there is no such thing as objectivity.” Michael agrees. I don’t, and this is where I get worried. He uses examples from NYT, allegedly running a puff piece about a company because its CEO is allegedly influential within the NYT, and an AOL blogger who writes glowingly about an AOL which I won’t repeat here, because I don’t know about them, but he concludes that neither case is unethical: “I personally don’t think either of these cases are unethical. Because I know that human interaction drives all of this stuff, I know to factor that in when I read stuff.”

Ouch. This cannot stand uncontested. If true, the first case is highly unethical. The second, if true and if the writer pretends to be an objective commentator and doesn’t declare his connections to the company he’s writing about, is definitely so. Wherever there is a conflict of interest, ethics rears its ugly head. If the conflict of interest is not resolved — the writers not recusing themselves from writing about the subject, or not declaring their interest and consequent lack of objectivity, it’s unethical.

Then there’s the larger issue about whether there is no such thing as objectivity; this is more nuanced than Michael allows. Objectivity may not exist in the eyes of any commentator, but it should remain an aspiration, a guiding path. We all try to be objective as journalists/bloggers, or should be trying to be, or else we are letting down our readers. To declare that there is no such thing is to me a cop-out, a way of throwing up our hands and saying, “it’s too hard! Why should we even try?”

Then Michael talks about what he calls more subtle conflicts, for example, how he’s not being favored by Google PR because he’s harsh in writing about them. Meanwhile Yahoo et al include him in news embargoes because, he wonders, he often writes positively about them. Or when a company takes him to lunch? “Or writes something positive in their blog about TechCrunch before I write about them? Or here’s the read mind bender – what if I don’t write about a competitor to a company that I like? Doesn’t inaction count as much as action when we’re talking about conflicts?”

These are not, in my view, mind benders. There are clear rules for these things among credible journalists. First off, companies that don’t include people in their PR mailings because they don’t like what they say are childish, and need to be exposed. But it doesn’t matter; a good reporter/blogger shouldn’t be relying on a steady feed of early press releases anyway. To do so becomes unhealthy, the writer becomes lazy and dependent, and will (or should) quickly realise the chalice is poisoned: The goodies will keep coming if you write nice things. We laid into the White House press corps for accepting this a few years back: Why aren’t we decrying the same thing in technoland?

Yes, it is all about relationships, but not ones that depend on you always writing nice stuff. Free lunches: Don’t take them if you think it is in exchange for something. (In fact, if you can, don’t accept them at all. They’re not really free, as the saying goes.) As a writer you have to do whatever you need to do to maintain your freedom to write whatever you think is right. If that means keeping folk at arms’ length, do it. If it means having shouting matches every so often with industry sources who feel personally let down, do it. But keep your freedom to write what you think is right.

Michael’s conclusion: “Our lives are full of conflicts and thinking that envelopes full of cash are the only way people get paid off means you are watching too many made-for-tv dramas. Put everything you read through a filter and form your own opinions on things. Don’t look for the golden fountain of objectivity. It doesn’t exist.”  Once again, I’d say no. Find the voices you believe are objective and listen to them. Of course there’s a filter; I’m a white middle-aged Western male who lived too long in the wilds of Asia. I’m bound to see things differently. But you’ll quickly tell what I believe in, and if you share the same beliefs, you’ll probably trust me to do the right thing. 

Finally, Michael does clearly state his position on consulting, advisory roles etc. and he’s dead on. In fact, I think his post raises important points and does a good job of looking for a path through them. But we shouldn’t forget (and here’s my bias creeping through) that journalism has been battling, to lesser or greater success, with these issues for centuries. There are clear rules laid down when a journalist works for a reputable institution, and, contrary to popular opinion, most journalists extract some pride in trying to follow them, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. (I was, as were all attending journalists, thrust an envelope with $100 in cash when I attended a relaunch of Indonesia’s intelligence agency a year or so back, before I realised what was in the package. it took me weeks to not only return the money to the right place but to ensure there was a record that I had returned the money.)

Bottom line: There are ethics, they are well-established and we should seek them out, declare that we will abide by them and then abide by them. It is a struggle and none of us is perfect (definitely not me), but we should try to be. It is not an excuse to say that in this Web 2.0 world the ethics are different. We should not be so foolish as to think we have invented a new world. If we ignore this, I’ll wager, the idea that blogs might become an impartial and important source of information will quietly and quickly die because no one will believe anything we write.

Blogs and Diaries from the War

I’ve been writing in my WSJ.com column recently about the loss of tangible history, where our move to digital artefacts — letters replaced by emails, snapshots by digital pictures, SMS messages by postcards — is depriving of us of things we can touch to reconnect us to the past. A wonderful piece by the NYT’s Seth Mydans in Vietnam touches on the theme, although that’s not his intention when writing about the massive popularity of a recently discovered wartime diary by female doctor Dang Thuy Tram, who was killed in 1970 at the age of 27 in an American assault after serving in a war zone clinic on the Ho Chi Minh trail for more than three years.

It made me realise a couple of things, as I consider the unmeasured, and perhaps immeasurable, impact of digitization on our lives: My columns were fired by a conversation with a friend who had recently discovered the long lost letters of her mother, who had died when my friend was very young. It was a great way to connect to a woman she didn’t really ever know. But I didn’t really consider diaries. Diaries are hot zones. They plug straight into the heart. Here’s Tram’s tale, as Seth interviews the American soldier who saved her diary, Fred Whitehurst, whose visits to Hanoi have drawn wide attention:

Speaking by telephone from North Carolina, Whitehurst, now a lawyer, said he had been a military interrogator whose job also included the sifting of captured documents and the destruction of those that were of no tactical value. He said he had come to feel that his discovery of the diary linked him and Tram in a shared destiny and he now calls her “my sister and my teacher.” “We were out there at the 55-gallon drum and burning documents,” he said, describing that moment, “when over my left shoulder Nguyen Trung Hieu said, ‘Don’t burn this one, Fred, it already has fire in it.'”

In the evenings that followed, Hieu, his translator, read passages to him from the small book with its brown cardboard covers and, Whitehurst said, “Human to human, I fell in love with her.” According to Tram’s account, two earlier volumes were lost in a raid by U.S. troops, which means the published diary begins as abruptly as it ends, in mid-conversation.

Last year, after keeping it for decades at home, Whitehurst donated the diary to the Vietnam Archives at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Within weeks, Tram’s family was located in Hanoi and last October her mother and sisters were brought to Texas to receive the diary.

“It seemed that my own daughter was in front of me,” her mother said in an interview at her home. “For me the information in the diary is not the important thing. What is important is that when I have the diary in my hands I feel I am holding the soul of my daughter.”

She said she was able to read the diary only in small sections because of the power of the account. “She wrote us letters, but we never imagined that she was suffering those dangers,” Tram’s mother said.

Powerful stuff. I’m a sucker for a story like this, and of course the beleaguered Vietnamese Communist Party is milking this: A beautiful woman who is in love with the party as much as her missing boyfriend, sacrificing herself on the Ho Chi Minh trail? Never mind the self-doubt. Compared to today’s soft youth this woman was a rock.

What I find so powerful about this story is the pure chance that led to the diary’s rescue from the fire, and the long journey it took to get home. I love too the idea of the mother holding the diary in her hands, something tangible she can grasp instead of her daughter’s hands. I love the idea, too, that Tram wrote this for herself, to grapple with the demons and self-doubt within her. She had no audience in mind, no Comments page. She might be somewhere above us horribly embarrassed by the attention, of course, but our diary, and our letters, our writings, are our immortality. They are what will outlive us.

Blogs do this too. And they do a lot more: They connect us with the world, so we won’t be lonely, even if we’re in Dili in the middle of a firefight between rogue soldiers. But perhaps we need that loneliness sometimes, that feeling of writing for ourselves: writing as a form of exorcism and self-discovery. We don’t always need to be validated by others. Our existence is validated because we exist. I think I might be getting too existential here. I guess my point is that we shouldn’t kid ourselves that writing a diary and writing a blog are the same thing. By moving our lives online, in the tiny glare of the few folk who read our musings, are we losing the intensity and unselfconscious honesty for when we write only for ourselves?

 

A Patch in Time?

Further to my earlier post about what I felt was Symantec’s somewhat tardy and insubstantial public response to the discovery of a serious vulnerability in its own Antivirus software, I don’t feel much more at ease after an email exchange with their PR folk. First off, Symantec has, by midday in the Asian day, come up with a fix which can be downloaded here.  “Symantec product and security teams,” the media statement says, “have worked around the clock since being notified of this issue to ensure its customers have the best protection available.”

That’s good. And quick. But not, I fear, good enough in PR terms. Why has Symantec worked around the clock to find a solution but not made the same effort to let interested people know of the problem in the first place? There’s been no press release on the web site, for example, only a media statement emailed to those journalists who enquire. When I asked Symantec’s PR about this. and requesting a comment to my original post, all I got was a copy of the media statement and a link to the original security advisory. So I where I could find the “media statement” online, where customers, readers, users and the media could find it? Their response: “Symantec posts security advisories [here]. Please contact Symantec Public Relations for any information you need.”

Sorry, but I don’t think this is sufficient. Security advisories are for specialists. This is not a specialist problem. It’s a vulnerability that affects everyone who uses the software, and people need to know about it. (A Google search throws up more than 130 stories on the topic.) Symantec, I feel, needs to be upfront about the problem and blanket everyone with information, not bury it. Symantec occupies a hallowed position in the Internet world, since journalists, users and others turn to it for supposedly objective views on the state of Internet security. Symantec makes the most of this position, straddling telling us about the problem and selling us the solution for it.

Perhaps I’m overstating things here, but I feel Symantec has let us down. I need to know that if I’m entrusting Symantec with defending my valuable data and office network, it’s going to tell me if there’s a problem with that defence. It’s no good hiding, as Symantec PR does in its response to my email that “There are no exploits of this vulnerability. Symantec strongly recommends customers to follow best practices and apply the patches as soon as they become available from Symantec.” First off, there are no known exploits. I don’t see how Symantec can be 100% sure of this. One has to assume that if there’s a hole in your defensive wall, someone is going to see it. Especially if it’s been publicised. Now the world has known there is a problem with Symantec’s software since Thursday. It’s now Monday. I’m assuming the bad guys too read these websites and news agencies.

So while the argument that you should throw all your effort into plugging the hole and then telling your customers you’ve built a plug might work if the vulnerability wasn’t publicised, this wasn’t the case. It was splashed all over the shop. Symantec’s position on this process is “that we are responsible for disclosing product vulnerabilities to our customers, but in general, no vulnerability should be announced until we have developed and thoroughly tested a patch and made it available to licensed customers.” (For a list of all Symantec product vulnerabilities, look here.) This clearly wasn’t going to happen here, because the vulnerability was already made public, for better or worse. And the process of “disclosing product vulnerabilities to our customers” seems to be somewhat weak here; if the vulnerability is an obscure one, perhaps an advisory might work. But more people than just a sysadmin needed to know what was happening and yet no one, unless they really looked on Symantec’s site, was any the wiser. Still aren’t, actually, since no press release is available.

Some lessons in here. Sometimes just keeping readers, journalists, bloggers, customers in the loop helps, even when it’s bad news.

The Presence Problem

Steve Smith of Lavalife makes a good point about the surge of new products which extend the use of Skype beyond the desktop. Great for mobility and wider access, bad for one of the key benefits that IM-related programs like Skype bring us: presence. (Presence merely means being able to signal whether you’re online, whether you’re free to talk, or what kind of mood you’re in, letting you determine when you’re reachable and for other to be able to organise themselves accordingly. Something the ordinary old fashioned telephone, or even raw email, can deliver. ) As Steve points out, the move to such gadgets and services like free calling in North America is pointing towards “Skype being a free cellphone, not a Presence/IM/Voice platform”:

I fear that you can’t be both. Both directions are interesting, both are worthwhile. But by trying to be both you degrade the value of the IM/presence network, and thus rob one group of users from the productivity gain they currently enjoy. It’s a bit of a conundrum, and I certainly don’t have the answer, but just watch if the value of your Skype presence indications doesn’t start to drop over the next year.

I’m a huge fan of presence, and I wish folk like Skype, and now Google with GoogleChat, would stress to users how useful it is to be able to signal where you are, whether you’re online and happy to chat, or even, as one Skype buddy has done, to make it clear in the “presence note” when you want people to call you. If more people used these tags then more people would understand how useful they are, and we could all benefit. Then, given the broad usage, such companies would be inspired to find ways to include and expand such features in these second tier products.

A Fatwa Against SMS Scams

Indonesia’s Islamic council of ulemas, MUI, has concluded their session with the issuance of the nineteen fatwas, or legal opinion concerning Islamic Law. Contrary to what the non-Muslim world thinks, a fatwa is not a sort of death sentence, although in certain circumstances and for some people they can be. Most are mere clarifications on where Islam, or that country, or sect, stands on a particular issue. The 19 fatwas in this case were about some controversial issues — a much debated anti-pornography law (a good thing, MUI says) — and the less controverial — such as “It is forbidden to recieve prizes via SMS.”

Now, on first blush this may seem somewhat odd. Why is such an august body troubling itself with pronouncing whether it’s OK to receive prizes via your cellphone? And as far as I know no further explanation is given for the reason, or why they’re discussing it. But actually, it’s a good thing, and here’s why. Indonesia is rife with scams — I think that’s why I love monitoring scams so much — and SMS is no exception. The most common one is a message that claims to be from a cellular operator saying that you’ve won a prize. All you need to do is to call a given number and register for your prize.

Of course, the number given to call doesn’t look anything like the cellular operator’s number — it’s often located in a remote suburb, where businesses rarely venture — and the source number doesn’t look very kosher either. Still, I’ve tried ringing a couple of these and they’re usually along the lines of either requesting your full bank details and PIN number plus faxing your ID card (presumably to empty your account instead of filling it) or else telling you, Nigerian scam-like, that you have to pay a registration fee before collecting your winnings. Similar scams have been discovered in China and Malaysia.

I somehow doubt that MUI had this in mind when they declared SMS prizes haram. But if it stops a few gullible folk falling for the scam, it’s probably a good thing.

Indonesia’s Quake

For anyone interested in helping the victims of the Yogyakarta earthquake, in which thousands of people have been killed inside their heavy stone and slate homes, here’s Indonesia Help – Earthquake and Tsunami Victims.

Sadly, this website was originally set up for the tsunami, now 17 months ago, but has been quickly resurrected to provide news and information on how to help. Even the website of the administration of the town of Bantul has updated its site with some news and photos of the quake. More information can be found at the airputih media center. The tsunami has clearly made local organisations and individuals aware of the need for rapid disbursement of information, especially on missing persons and where to give your aid. I noticed Saturday night folk walking around traffic in Jakarta with donation boxes, but we also know from experience the prevalence of scams during such times. Better to give your money to an organisation recommended by one of these sites.

Reporting Timor

Further to my post about the dearth, despite millions of dollars of aid, of any local Timorese media outlet reporting the chaos/civil war going on Timor Lorasae, here are some bloggers who stepped into the breach. Of course, they probably have satellite connections, but they convey authentic and powerful accounts of what they’ve seen:

  • Diligence, “Random observations from an English speaking foreigner in Dili, Timor-Leste”. Still in Dili, it seems. “I can’t see things improving greatly for a number of days except if you are journalist. For them, this is what they get up in the morning for.” Er, true.
  • Lookingglass View, Sue. Nicely written. Still there it seems: “What kind of world do we live in when a 3-year old knows that a Blackhawk means you are safe?”
  • Dili-Dallying, “Two years in Timor-Leste”. “As I sit here, typing this post, I can hear the sound of gun and mortar fire. It’s been going on for four hours already.”
  • tumbleweed in timor lorasae, Singaporean Bridgette, who writes trenchantly and well. She left at the weekend, but is still in contact with folk in Dili. “The police man died. NO ONE should die this way.”

Some good writing in here. Thank God for blogs.

Symantec’s Hole

I am starting to be a bit concerned about the future of blogs, but there’s no question a blog is the best way to get information out to people quickly, especially if it’s about the Internet, technology or tech-related stuff. It needn’t be a blog, but it needs to share the blog’s most powerful features – speed, easy to use and easy to find, and deliverable by the best mechanism we’ve come across so far: RSS.

Case in point: Symantec, one of the world’s biggest makers of antivirus software, are red-faced after EEye Digital Security revealed on Thursday that it had found a software vulnerability inside Symantec’s Anti-Virus Corporate Edition 10.0. As darkreading says, the vulnerability  requires no user intervention and could be used to create a worm. This is an important event, and Symantec need to let their customers, and people in general, know about this as soon as possible. So why is the company’s website making no reference to the exploit, except for a “Symantec Client Security and Symantec AntiVirus Elevation of Privilege”, which cannot mean anything to anybody except the smallest circles (an Elevation of Privilege, is, according to Microsoft, “the process by which a user obtains a higher level of privilege than that for which he has been authorized. A malicious user may use elevation of privilege as a means to compromise or destroy a system, or to access unauthorized information.”)

No mention in the heading of a vulnerability, or a problem with the very software that is used by a lot of people. Unless you really know what you’re looking for, the advisory doesn’t really shed much light on the issue. Nor does Symantec’s main website: While the main page includes a link to the advisory under its Recent News tab on the left of the page, with the less than informative “AntiVirus Notice: Norton Customers Not Affected; Advisory for Corporate Customers”, I could find no press release two days after the vulnerability had been found and been acknowledged by Symantec. The latest Symantec news release is from Wednesday, the day before the vulnerability was found, and there’s nothing there I can find that relates in any way to the issue at hand. This despite there definitely being a statement out there, because eWeek quote a statement from a Symantec spokesman sent to the magazine.

I’m requesting a comment from Symantec to see what they say about this. Apologies if I’ve missed something here, but my feeling is that Symantec need to be very upfront about this kind of thing — a vulnerability in a piece of software its customers rely on to keep out the bad stuff — and to inform readers, journalists, users and investors in a faster, more open and more informative way than they did so far. A blog would be the perfect place to start.

Internet Darkness Over Timor

Timor-Leste is, sadly, again exploding into violence as disgruntled former soldiers have turned on their former bosses. Australian and New Zealand troops have been deployed in the country in a sad echo of what happened in 1999. This after billions of dollars of aid from the West to rebuild a nation that survived a quarter century of Indonesian occupation and a brutish withdrawal that left most of the Indonesian-built infrastructure in ruins or flames.

But there’s another sad aspect to this story: Millions of dollars from governments and multilateral organisations have been invested in the East Timorese media but nowhere can you find an active East Timor-based web site shedding light on the situation. All 1,500+ news reports that one can find on Google are all from foreign news sources. The web site of Suara Timor Lorasae, formerly Suara Timor Timor and one of three newspapers in Dili, is down with its bandwidth exceeded, presumably due to excessive reader interest. Timor Post, another newspaper, has not been updated since June 2005 [sic]. The third, Diario, does not seem to have a web site. The website of RTTL – Radio-Televisão Timor Leste, the government body responsible for Radio Timor Leste, the state radio station, and its TV counterpart TVTL — is still under construction (the website was registered in 2003.) Another, East Timor Press, hasn’t been updated since, er, 2004. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Timor, which was updated yesterday to include the deployment of Australian, New Zealand, Malaysian and Portuguese troops.)

I can find no East Timor site working out of East Timor that has any information about this uprising, the most important development in the country’s recent history. OK, so not many Timorese have access to the Internet but this is a vital link with the outside world, a chance for Timorese to convey what is going on to governments, exiled Timorese, interested readers and others. Now, in the midst of terrible violence and the humiliation of seeking outside military intervention, there is again no domestic media getting the story to the world’s most important medium.