The Power of Morse

Watching BBC correspondents and analysts poring over footage of the British sailors being ‘interviewed’ by their captors on Iranian television reminds me, as it must others, of the Vietnam war, and how captured American pilots were wheeled out for propaganda purposes.

What has this got to do with technology? Well, if you recall, one Jeremiah Denton, a co-resident of the Hanoi Hilton with John McCain, managed to subvert the propaganda value for his captors and also convey important information to his superiors by blinking the word ‘torture’ in Morse Code. According to his official biography:

Throughout the interview, while responding to questions and feigning sensitivity to harsh lighting, denton blinked his eyes in morse code, repeatedly spelling out a covert message: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”. the interview, which was broadcast on American television on May 17, 1966, was the first confirmation that American POWs in Vietnam were being tortured.

Independence Day made some homage to this when it had survivors of the alien attack communicating around the globe via Morse Code. The point? It wouldn’t make much sense, in this era of sophisticated communications, to teach British soldiers Morse Code. But as a survival tool an old technology like Morse Code might prove invaluable.

Lesson? We shouldn’t ever reject old communications technologies because we never know when we might need them.

Goertzel, Rugby and the Sweet-talking Scam

The South China Morning Post reports (I’ve got the hard copy here; everything there is behind a subscription wall, so no full link I’m afraid) of a clever scam where the bad guys steal just enough stuff — cards + identity — from a victim to be able to social engineer their way into trust, but not enough for the mark to realise there’s anything missing before the sting. This takes some doing.

This is how it works: The fraudsters swipe a wallet or handbag from under chairs and tables at a weekend sporting event in Hong Kong. They remove bank ATM card and a business card of the owner and replace everything else. They then research the individual (presumably online, though they may have access to other information, I guess, from associates on the inside at a bank?).

They then wait a day and then call up the mark, identifying themselves as from the victim’s bank, asking some personal details and then asking if they’ve lost their ATM card. This may be the first time the mark has realised the card is lost. Along with a professional and comforting tone, and any personal details that the fraudster has been able to unearth online, this would further lure the victim into a false sense of security.

It’s then the fraudster would say he will cancel the cards and provide a temporary password once the account holder has typed their PIN into the phone. I like this bit; it would be easier and tempting, as in other scams (like this one in the UK) to try to persuade the victim to just give out their PIN verbally. But asking them to enter it into the keypad of their phone adds to the ‘illusion of formal procedure’ that social engineering relies so heavily on. The fraudster, of course, is easily able to attach a device to their phone to capture the tones of the PIN and decode it. They could even just record the tones and play them back against a set of tones. (Each digit has a different tone, according to something called dual tone multifrequency, or DTMF. Tones can be decoded using the Goertzel algorithm, via software like this.)

Once the PIN is handed over, the account is emptied. In the case cited in the SCMP, some HK$47,000 was removed with 82 minutes of the fraudster obtaining the PIN.

So, the obvious and slightly less obvious go without saying:

  • Never give your PIN to anyone, even a smooth-talking fella calling himself “Peter from HSBC.”
  • Regularly check your purse to see whether all your cards are there. If not, cancel them immediately.
  • Don’t put your name cards, or other revealing personal details, in the same place as your credit cards.
  • Don’t ever accept a call from your bank without taking down the person’s name and number and a telephone number you can verify independently (on statements or online.) Then call the bank back. Banks don’t like to do this, because it might mean you call them up when they don’t want to, but tough.
  • Give your bank hell every time they call you up and start asking you questions like “you have a credit card with us, is that right, sir? Would you like to up the limit on that card?” This is just asking for trouble, since calls like that are one small step away from a social engineering attack “Please just give me the card details and some personal information and we’ll increase that limit rightaway, sir”. If not that, it at least sows the idea in the customer’s mind that their bank phones them, and that somehow that’s OK.
  • Be aware that Google et al can, when combined, a pretty clear picture of who you are, even if you’re not a blogger or other form of online exhibitionist. So don’t be lulled by someone calling who seems to know enough about you to be able to pretend to be someone official. 

Anyone at the Rugby Sevens this weekend, take note.

Phones Aren’t About Telephony

Skype is a powerful tool because it’s found its way into the hands of people who need it most — ordinary folk. Now it and the companies that make devices to use Skype on need to understand that it’s not about telephony anymore, if it ever was. It’s about two or more people sharing each others’ presence. Now we need the products to make that happen.

I was chatting with someone last night, a gent in his early 60s from LA, who should have retired but decided to take on one more project, in Hong Kong. He was in two minds about it because it would mean a year away from his wife, but he was persuaded because he knew Skype would keep him in touch. Of course it could be any VoIP tool, but the point here is that Skype was the first to cross the threshold into this market because it was easier (and worked better) than all the others at the time. Now the guy can chat with his wife every night and being apart is bearable and not making him too poor.

But he was still using it as a phone: Call the other person up, chat and then hang up. Had he ever thought about just leaving the line open, I asked him? Why would I do that? he replied. Because it won’t cost you anything, and then you’ll hear the sounds of home, which in a way is what you’re really missing. Your wife banging around in the kitchen, the kids arguing, a dog barking, the sound of the wood pigeon in the garden (OK, that’s more my memory of home than his. Not sure they have wood pigeons in LA.)

I then realised that actually there would be a great line of products here. Wireless devices that you could place around the house, outside, some that are just microphones picking up sound, and others that also serve as speakerphones, so his wife can just wander around and, when she wants to, chat as well. Of course, a Bluetooth headset might do the trick, and maybe there are some wireless handsets that might work. I’ve done a quick search and not found any obvious candidates. Most seem to assume you want to use Skype as a phone. But Skype is not really about phones anymore. It’s about presence — on one side, showing other people whether you’re available, etc, and on the other, allowing you to teleport yourself to the person you’re with without the old restrictions of the phone: cost, the structured nature of phone conversation, having to press a device to your ear.

Manufacturers, it’s true, are beginning to wake up to the idea that we don’t use our devices in the way, or the place, they’re designed for. Take the percushion pillow phone, for example, which finally solves that problem of trying to have a conversation with someone while you’re trying to get to sleep. That’s a good start. Now lets see devices that use sound and vision to make anyone, including my new homesick friend, to really feel they’re home.

Sudoku’s Secret: Open Source Collaboration

Great piece in the NYT/IHT on the company behind Sudoku and similar games. Their approach — no trademarking, harnessing users to help develop and perfect games — all sounds very Open Source:

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Nikoli’s secret, Kaji said, lay in a kind of democratization of puzzle invention. The company itself does not actually create many new puzzles — an American invented an earlier version of Sudoku, for example. Instead, Nikoli provides a forum for testing and perfecting them. About 50,000 readers of its main magazine submit ideas; the most promising are then printed by Nikoli to seek approval and feedback from other readers.

How to Convert Word 2007 Docs for Macs

A few readers have asked how to convert Word documents created in the new Microsoft Open Office XML Format with the docx extension so they can read them on a Mac. The answer: awkwardly.

Windows users have a converter they can download.

The Microsoft Mac team promised something similar back in December and yet haven’t, as far as I can see, delivered.

Into the gap have stepped some third party developers:

  • Docx Converter will convert a Microsoft Office .docx file into a simple html file. (It strips out some of the formatting, but now supports bold, italic, and underlined text. Left, right, center, and justified alignment etc.) A Mac widget is also available.
  • docx2doc allows you to upload a docx document It was free, but apparently seems to be in such high demand it now costs either $1 or $2 per document converted. Payment is via PayPal; upon payment you’ll receive a download link via email.  
  • Panergy’s docXconverter sounds more straightforward, but will cost you: $20 or $30 for two years of maintenance and upgrades. We should hope Microsoft won’t be that long to come out with their own converter.

None of these is perfect; we shouldn’t have to hand over money just to read a document. Of course the best solution is to save documents in the old doc format if you’re going to share them with other people.

Thanks to these sites, and the comments on them, for pointers: CreativeIQ, APC Mag an Lifehacker.

Journalists: No Longer King of the Castle

Well chosen words from The State of the News Media via Richard Sambrook’s Sam Brook’s (apologies, Richard) sacredfacts. We journalists, in short, don’t recognise that we’re no longer the bee’s knees:

Journalism is becoming a smaller part of people’s information mix. The press is no longer gatekeeper over what the public knows. Journalists have reacted relatively slowly. They are only now beginning to re-imagine their role.

Skype Is Making Me Look Fat

I’ve always held up Skype as a revolutionary tool, not for the voice over Internet thingy, although they definitely were the first to make me sound less like a frog when I talked to folk online. No, the revolutionary bit for me was that their software was simple enough for even the most technology averse of my friends, readers and relatives to install without too many pleas for help. Good stuff. And no small feat. But now they seem to be almost deliberately blowing it by making those who do request help jump through so many hoops I wouldn’t blame them for throwing out the program in disgust.

Skype-support2Try it: the Skype help system does everything wrong. First off, there’s no useful list of the likely problems users may encounter, bar a list of five “popular knowledgebase topics” like “what is relayed transfer”. There is no way to reach a live person — which there should be, at least for paying customers — and searching the knowledgebase is an exercise in frustration. My particular problem — trying to find out why I can no longer drag and drop text from an application into Skype — threw up weird answers that did not appear to be even tangentially related although there were about 20 of them. There’s no link on the bottom of the list along the lines of “can’t find what you’re looking for? Submit a ticket”; instead you need to look down the side, to the penultimate entry, for a link to doing that.

You then are taken to a page where you have to fill out a form, though first you’re steered away again:

Did you try searching our Knowledgebase browsing our user guides? If you didn’t find an answer then try pinpointing your problem below and send it to our Customer Support.

If you remain determined, you’re required to select from a list of topics, and then subtopics, before entering a subject for your query. You can’t skip this: the fields below will be grayed out until you do. I must confess I didn’t get this for a while and was getting a tad more frustrated than I should have been. The fields below are pretty straightforward, though I suspect a few people will be stumped by the field ‘Skype version’ without any help as to what that means or where to find the information. (It’s not a mandatory field, but I’m guessing the first supportresponse customers receive who don’t fill it out will be “What version of Skype are you using?”)

That’s not the end of the process. You’ll probably then get a page saying:

Your support request was not submitted as there are some possible answers in our knowledgebase, they are listed below. If your answer is not listed then please click the button at the bottom of this page.

Skype-support1How weird is that? I think most people are just going to assume their request has been sent and not read this bit. In which case they’re going to be waiting a long, long time. (Almost as long as someone successfully submitting a request, it turns out.)

What annoys me here is that the listed answers aren’t any more related to my request than the ones I tried to find earlier are. They included questions like “What types of links are available for the Skype Affiliate Program” and “What is a publisher?” I suspect these answers have very little to do with what you actually enter in your request. To confirm this I submitted another query:

I’m increasingly concerned that Skype is making me fat. Could that be the case, or have I got the settings wrong? Should I use a smaller headset?

To which I got another “not submitted” message, along with some irrelevant responses (mind you, I would have been deeply impressed if I had received something, particularly if it had been along the lines of “Sennheiser do a very a good line in svelte headsets helping even the heaviest set user appear streamlined”), none of which even mentioned headsets (Can I see list of persons whom I have authorized? etc).

To get past all this dross you need to scroll to the bottom and click on a button. Finally the support request has gone. How many steps was that? Too many. Way too many.

But that’s not the end of it. An email arrives notifying you of your request, and informing you that “Skype Paid Service and Billing-related queries will be sent usually within the next 72 hours”, whatever that means. Bug reports, comments and suggestions won’t be answered. And be warned; you may not receive an answer at all:

Not all Technical Problems will be answered if it is a known problem or if an answer is available in our Knowledgebase or you can also check our Troubleshooters for answers to common problems:>


Aside from the overlong sentence with the unparsable final clause, it sounds a tad Catch 22; if we know it’s a problem, we may not tell you. If it’s in the Knowledgebase we may not either. So good luck with that.

Sure, they’ve made VoIP easy. But as their client gets more complex, and they add more features, and they try to lure more paid users beyond the early adopters, they need to prepare for people who want assistance. Skype, for some reason, really doesn’t want to know.

The Wandering Mind

Piece from AP about how the mind wanders. Towards the end it gets interesting: to what extent is a mind wandering at its best? I’m sure I’m not alone in consciously seeking out places and situations in which my mind can wander unfettered — a hike, a jog, a swim, a lie by the pool, even going to sleep.

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Schooler is exploring the idea that mind-wandering promotes creativity. “It’s unconstrained, it can go anywhere, which is sort of the perfect situation for creative thought,” he said.

Mason points out that just because the human brain wanders doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a good reason for it. Maybe, she said, the mind wanders simply because it can.

But even she sees an upside.

“I can be stuck in my car in traffic and not go absolutely crazy because I’m not stuck in the here and now,” she said. “I can think about what happened last night. And that’s great.”

Something So Simple, Something So Elusive

From Lifehacker, a way to select text vertically. Two comments on this:
1) Can’t believe I’ve not come across something so basic before, and
2) What happened to us and our computers that something so simple and so ordinary should, when revealed, get us all excited? One day we’ll be able to move pictures and words around our document any way and any place we want…

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Blogger Diana Huggins highlights a handy tip in Microsoft Word for selecting text vertically rather than the traditional horizontal select we’re all used to.


The key: just hold down the Alt key (or Option key on your Mac) while you drag your selection.

Ten Minutes, Or You’re Toast

I’ve just launched a new website I hope will address what I think is a growing gap in our technological world: those who adopt early and those who don’t.

In my experience there are two different kinds of people: those who are quick to embrace change and those who aren’t. It’s not as if the latter group hates change; in fact, they are often the ones who more completely embrace that change into their life. It’s not, too, as if those who are quick to embrace change adopt that change into their lives. Indeed, most of those people who embrace the new tend, by definition, to as quickly discard it when something else comes along. Early adopts adopt and then drop. Late adopters adopt and stick.

Skype is my favorite example. Most people who use Skype are not early adopters, and many of them took a long time to get there. My BBC editor, for example, knows more about technology than I, but has only just gotten aboard Skype. It’s not as if he’s a Luddite; he just doesn’t embrace technological change as readily as others.

So, back to the ten minutes thing. Skype’s success was down to its ease of use. Sure, it had other things going for it, but it was by no means the first, nor necessarily the best service on offer. But it was easy. Easy to grasp, easy to install, easy to run (all that sneaky stuff to get around firewalls? Sneaky, but great!). Skype revealed itself in under 10 minutes and ushered in a revolution.

Other examples? SMS. Easy to figure out. T9 predictive text. Easy to figure out. Google. Easy to figure out. I’m sure there are more, but they’re not as many as you might think.

So, the rule of thumb for is a simple one: reveal your worth within ten minutes or I’m gone. I don’t mean let me figure you out in your entirety, all you potential and all your value, but at least give me an idea of whether you’re worth your time. Of course, if during those ten minutes I also discover your weaknesses, they’ll be in the review too.

First under the microscope have been networking site Zorpia, which earned a stinker of a review, calendar synchronizer Calgoo which fared slightly better, big file sender and online virus checker nanoscan. No one pays to get a review, and I’m just writing about what catches my attention, not in any particular order or preference. If you’d like the treatment, however, or you want right of reply on anything I’ve written, feel free to email me.