Podcast: Escape Your Gadgets

Here’s

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I recorded for the BBC on how to escape from your gadgets by climbing a volcano. Not an option for everyone, but it worked for me. If you want to subscribe to an RSS feed of this podcast you can do so here, or it can be found on iTunes. My Loose Wire column for The Wall Street Journal Asia and WSJ.com, on which this piece is based, can be found

here (subscription only; sorry.)

Thanks for listening, and comments, as ever, welcome.

Podcast: Backing Up I

Here’s

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on backing up (a topic I revisit in later columns and broadcasts.)

If you want to subscribe to an RSS feed of this podcast you can do so here, or it can be found on iTunes. My Loose Wire column for The Wall Street Journal Asia and WSJ.com, on which this piece is based, can be found here (subscription only; sorry.)

Thanks for listening, and comments, as ever, welcome.

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Drive Safely

This is probably the way to go with USB drives — security features that the user has to follow, or else the device won’t work.  Verbatim’s new Store ‘n’ Go Corporate Secure USB Drives’

mandatory security features safeguard all device contents with a complex password. Hack resistant feature locks down device after 10 failed logon attempts, protecting your data from dictionary or brute force hack attempts.

Of course, Verbatim are aiming this at corporate and government types, but I’d be interested to see this kind of thing used by ordinary folk too, perhaps as part of a handshake between host computer and USB drive. Internet cafes, public terminals at airports etc could encourage users to plug in their drives (as opposed to either blocking the ports or hiding them) so long as they have certain security features in place to prevent transmission of viruses, sending of spam or botnet controlling, or whatever bad people do at public computers.

Journalists’ Responsibility Is To The Truth, Not The Cops

I have a lot of admiration for BuzzMachine who expresses better than most the changes underway in blogging and journalism, but sometimes I get depressed about how the blogosphere views journalists, and, frankly, how little they understand their profession. This would be fine, but the success of blogs (a good thing) sometimes engenders what feels like a moral superiority over journalists. That lack of humility is out of place in such a new, and fast-changing medium.

Take this post, for example, that calls on journalists to behave more like citizens and report criminal activities to the police, like NYT reporter Kurt Eichenwald turned in child porn web sites because it is the law. Jeff’s take:

I think the reporter who does not follow Eichenwald’s lead is in a riskier position: of allowing and thus even abetting crimes to be committed. And what does that tell the public about our role in our communities? What kind of citizens are we then?

As I understand it, Jeff is suggesting a journalist should report to the police if he or she believes a crime has been committed. He says that the only counterargument to this is that “sources – especially if those sources are the ones performing the criminal act – will not trust reporters and reveal information that should be revealed if they believe those reporters will not protect them and will hand them over to the authorities.”

This call gets the usual smattering of anti-MSM comments in agreement. But at least one commenter, Charles Arthur, editor of the technology supplement of The Guardian, sees the obvious hole in this one: “Sometimes journalists have to do things that involve talking to people who break the law in order to show society what it’s like. That doesn’t mean standing idly by while someone breaks into a store. But if the only way you can get to talk to someone about something is by promising that you won’t betray their trust, that can be the price of freeing up the information that person holds.”

But that’s not all. Journalists are not designed to operate as citizens, and it’s unreasonable to suggest that being a reporter means being a bad citizen. The problem with the suggestion is that it concerns itself with clearcut cases: It may seem irresponsible not to report a paedophile ring, but should I then report every case of apparent corruption I come across? Every spammer I interview? Every indication of corporate fraud I come across on my stock reporting beat?

The bigger point is that journalists are in a place to report, and occupy a place somewhere alongside the Red Cross in terms of neutrality. This may sound pompous if you’re not in a war zone, but if you are, that’s exactly where you’d like others to consider you. This is why press and their vehicles are clearly marked. You want both sides to consider you as an impartial observer; your life may depend on it. This is a core tenet of journalism, and is something bloggers should be embracing, not trying to dismantle. (In many countries if a journalist was seen to be cooperating so closely with law enforcement, their lives would be in danger.)

Furthermore, what law? If a journalist is considered by government and law enforcement agencies as a model citizen who shops every law breaker she/he comes across in his/her line of work, does that mean even controversial laws that the journalist is writing about? So interview a bunch of human rights illegally blocking a military runway, and you’ll have to turn them after the interview is over?

The bottom line is that we expect our journalists to go out there and talk to all the people we can’t talk to, because we’re here, we don’t have the access, we don’t have the background, we don’t have the time, and then distill their knowledge and, where applicable moral judgements, in a way that makes sense to us. Their eyes and ears are ours not because we want to hear what laws have been broken, but because we want to understand the essential truth of the situation. A family living on benefits in a tenement: We don’t want the journalist to report potential abuses of the benefit system to the police, we want to know why the family is having problems, and, hopefully what may be done to solve the problem.

Journalism is rarely to do with the law. It’s about much more than that. If we suddenly expect our journalists to be model citizens, whatever they are, we can only blame ourselves if they come back with a much smaller part of the story.

Sneaky Software: AOL’s Bad

It seems that even the big players still don’t get it. StopBadware, a “neighborhood watch” for sneaky software, says that the latest (9.0) version of AOL software

installs additional software without telling the user, it forces the user to take certain actions, it adds various components to Internet Explorer and the taskbar without disclosure, it may automatically update without the user’s consent, and it fails to uninstall completely.

Pretty damning stuff. We know this kind of thing happens but this seems to be somewhat excessive. Most damning are the bundled programs installed without permission, or even informing the user: RealPlayer (surprise, surprise), QuickTime, AOL You’ve Got Pictures Screensaver, Pure Networks Port Magic, and Viewpoint Media Player. “During the installation process,” StopBadware says, “the user is never clearly notified that AOL will be installing these programs.”

StopBadware quotes AOL as saying that they are reviewing the report.

Companies have got to stop this kind of thing. This report is damning in that it’s clearly not just one oversight: The software has been designed to be as invasive as possible, to basically take over the user’s computer and steer them to all things AOL. That Apple and Real Networks allow themselves to be involved does not reflect on either well. And after some difficulty uninstalling it I’m beginning to have my suspicions about Network Magic (Pure Networks Port Magic is an AOL version of the software) too.

An End to the Anonymity of Trash?

Britain is quietly introducing RFID (Radio Frequency Identity) tags to rubbish bins (trash cans) in a bid to measure the individual waste of each household and charge them accordingly. Some Britons are up in arms about this, saying that households have not been informed and calling it an abuse of privacy. Is it?

The UK’s Daily Mail reports that some bins, provided by local councils for households to dispose of their trash, contain coin-sized devices that monitor how much non-recyclable waste the owner throws out:

With the bugging technology, the electronic chips are carefully hidden under the moulded front ’lip’ of wheelie bins used by householders for non-recyclable waste. As the bin is raised by the mechanical hoister at the back of the truck, the chip passes across an antenna fitted to the lifting mechanism. That enables the antenna to ’read’ a serial number assigned to each property in the street.

A computer inside the truck weighs the bin as it is raised, subtracts the weight of the bin itself and records the weight of the contents on an electronic data card.

When the truck returns to the depot, all the information collected on the round is transmitted to a hand-held device and downloaded on to the council’s centralised computer. Each household can be billed for the amount of waste collected – even though they have already paid for the services through their council tax.

According to The Mail two German companies manufacture the bins and sensors, Sulo and RFID specialist Deister Electronic.

As with all such things, the story reflects local fears, obsessions and behaviour. First off, drinking: The Mail quotes a local council chairman saying he believed the chips “were simply to ensure bins could be returned to the right addresses if they got mixed up or drunks rolled them off”. Second, avoiding paying: The opposition Conservative party warns that “people will simply start dumping bags in their neighbours’ gardens or at the end of the street to avoid paying”. And then there’s the whole castle thing: a council spokesman in Wiltshire says the chips were “to sort out disputes between householders about whose wheelie bin is whose. If there are any arguments we can just send out an officer to scan the chip and settle the argument.” Oh, and then there’s the whole WWII hang-up: The headline at The Evening Standard’s This is London website is “Germans plant bugs in our wheelie bins”.

Is this something to be worried about? Well, the government, and local councils, haven’t been very smart about installing these tags before explaining their use to the public. But that’s not unusual: A council in Australia did the same thing a few weeks back. What I think is most interesting about this is that coverage of the subject in both countries lacks depth, pandering to the fears of its readers (The Mail may not know better, but The Press Association and The Independent should.) Even basic research would show that this sort of thing is not new, is widely used elsewhere, and has a name: Pay-by-weight.

It seems the same technology is already in use in Ireland and has, according to the company involved, reduced the amount of trash put out for collection by 40%. (There may have been some privacy uproar, but I can’t find any obvious evidence of any.) In Canada the program has been in place since 1994, and as of 1999 more than 1.5 million transponders have been deployed throughout the world, including the U.S., although there have been problems with the technology (this being RFID an’ all.)

That said, just because it’s being used elsewhere doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. Trash is as much a privacy issue as anything linked to personal property, and the angry response to the news is related to an individual’s desire to keep what they throw out a secret (however illogical this is, given you’re putting it in an unlocked plastic bin in the street for hours, if not days, before it’s picked up.) Further research into what these RFID chips are capable of isn’t particularly reassuring: The SULO device for example (PDF file), can measure exact weight, when the bin is emptied, can report any damage to the bin, and, if linked to other equipment, could also locate where the bin was emptied. Nothing too sinister about this, but it increases the possibility, at least in theory, that an individual’s trash is no longer as anonymous as it was.

Bottom line? I don’t think this is likely, and given the technology has been in active service for more than a decade. But who knows where the technology may go? This is more a story about how RFID — although it’s not really identified in the story as such — scares people when they hear about it because instinctively they recognise its power. No one would disagree with the goal — reducing the amount of non-recyclable waste — but, as with all technologies, Pay by weight has to be handled carefully, its usage and goals explained, and clear and transparent limits to its usage imposed.

The Skype Recording Thing

Still looking for the perfect tool to record Skype conversations, I looked and Google and found one of my own posts, done 20 months ago, so I’ve updated it into a list of those programs I can find for both Windows an Macs: the LOOSE wire blog: Recording Skype conversations. This is my current state of mind on the issue:

Quite a few folk have since added their suggestions, out of which I’ve cobbled together the following. I haven’t tried some of these, and to be honest, I’ve still not come across one that completely satisfies me. Problems I’ve encountered are recording latency (where two people’s words overlap with each other on the recording where they didn’t in real life), lack of tweakability of sound levels so the two voices are the same and easy ways to give the resulting files filenames.

Perhaps Tom Raftery, who still has my underpants, can shed some light.

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The Wrong Guy Goes to Hollywood

The ‘Wrong Guy’ story just keeps going. The Congo-Brazzaville man who was interviewed on the BBC mistakenly as a computer pundit back in May could have his own movie, according to the BBC:

The incident involving Guy Goma is the basis for a film being planned by Alison Rosenzweig, who produced the 2002 Nicolas Cage film Windtalkers. “If they want to do a movie, I don’t mind talking with them,” Mr Goma, 38, told the Associated Press news agency. .. “He’s a fun, kind of internationally famous person that I think is an interesting source for movie material,” Ms Rosenzweig said. “We’re developing the project, and hopefully we’ll be able to set it up on a major studio.” She added that the amount of money Mr Goma could make would depend on the financing of the project.

Lovely stuff, although I’m not sure the one incident may suffice for a movie. Anyway, he’s big enough to have his own Wikipedia entry, his own web-page, and lots of half-baked news stories that turn out not to be true. No one loves a celeb more than the Brits.
 

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What Goes Around…

I’m belatedly playing with Microsoft’s new Windows Live Writer. I like it, but then I’ve always been a fan of blog writing tools. Here’s a list of them I started keeping, although I’m pretty sure it’s out of date by now.

But does it not strike you as somewhat strange that we’ve gotten to this point? I mean, those blog writing tools were available nearly three years ago, doing pretty much what Windows Live Writer does now — WYSIWYG authoring, HTML source code editing, Web preview mode, adding photos, compatibility with different blog services, some weird formatting and error messages, etc etc. In fact the only thing it’s got the others don’t have, map publishing, doesn’t yet work. Oh, it’s free. But otherwise Dmitry Chestnykh of BlogJet seems to have a point when he claims Microsoft has ripped off his software.

So is this where Web 2.0 has taken us? All the way back to a small software tool that lets us write our blog postings offline so we can upload them later?

What Goes Around…

I’m belatedly playing with Microsoft’s new Windows Live Writer. I like it, but then I’ve always been a fan of blog writing tools. Here’s a list of them I started keeping, although I’m pretty sure it’s out of date by now.

But does it not strike you as somewhat strange that we’ve gotten to this point? I mean, those blog writing tools were available nearly three years ago, doing pretty much what Windows Live Writer does now — WYSIWYG authoring, HTML source code editing, Web preview mode, adding photos, compatibility with different blog services, some weird formatting and error messages, etc etc. In fact the only thing it’s got the others don’t have, map publishing, doesn’t yet work. Oh, it’s free. But otherwise Dmitry Chestnykh of BlogJet seems to have a point when he says Microsoft has ripped off his software.

So is this where Web 2.0 has taken us? All the way back to a small software tool that lets us write our blog postings offline so we can upload them later?