A Tip off the Old Block

Chris “Long Tail” Anderson fires off at PR with both barrels, blocking unsolicited press releases and naming-and-shaming those who sent them:

Everything else gets banned on first abuse. The following is just the last month’s list of people and companies who have been added to my Outlook blocked list. All of them have sent me something inappropriate at some point in the past 30 days. Many of them sent press releases; others just added me to a distribution list without asking. If their address gets harvested by spammers by being published here, so be it–turnabout is fair play.

It’s not a bad response, albeit a tad unfair to not give due warning: The list includes identifiable individuals, whose comments should be solicited prior to publication. But it is definitely a problem for us journos, and his list does reveal those PR agencies that are most egregious in this regards: 5wpr.com, webershandwick.com, techmarket.com (not heard of them) and sspr.com. I’ve had problems with at least one of these and have set up a filter to dump anything from that domain into a junk folder since I get so many follow-up emails it’s dizzying.

The problem here is sloppy, generic email blasts rather than carefully targeted emails. (“Dear X, here’s a press release you may be interested in”, compared with “Dear Jeremy, I know you’ve written on this subject before, but that was 18 months ago and I thought this announcement by our client may possibly offer a fresh angle on the topic”).

It’s not that we don’t need press releases, it’s that we need the right ones. And the more we’re sent, the less time we have to find that nugget. PR folk don’t seem to get this; one recently apologized that she couldn’t separate out the ones that matched my interests and so asked me to bear with receiving all of them. Needless to say all of them now are sent to my junk folder so in effect I’m not getting any.

The best way for both sides to get something out of each other is, in my view, simple. Journalists (and bloggers) set up a page that explains, in detail, what their interests are (mine is here.) PR pitches get a stock response: “please check my PR page for what I’m interested in. Future releases that don’t match these interests will be blocked, along with further traffic from this address.”

The Long Tail: Sorry PR people: you’re blocked

Strip CAPTCHA Spam

TROJ_CAPTCHAR.A screenshot

Whatever useful stuff the good guys come up with, the bad guys ain’t far behind. A few months back I wrote about researchers at Carnegie Mellon coming up with a way to use CAPTCHA tools to help decipher words in text by the Internet Archive. The basic idea is that the effort to prevent spammers and others automating their intrusion into websites (signing up for stuff, comment spam etc) should not be wasted.

Now a sleazeball has found a way to do the same thing: get folk to decipher CAPTCHA texts through a small program, delivered by Trojan, that offers striptease in exchange for guessing the texts correctly (Trend Micro, via via Seth Godin):

A nifty little program which Trend Micro detects as TROJ_CAPTCHAR.A disguises itself as a strip-tease game, wherein a scantily-clad “Melissa” agrees to take off a little bit of her clothing. However, for her to strut her stuff, users must identify the letters hidden within a CAPTCHA. Input the letters correctly, press “go” and “Melissa” reveals more of herself.

However, the “answers” are then sent to a remote server, where a malicious user eagerly awaits them. The “strip-tease” game is actually a ploy by ingenious malware authors to identify and match ambiguous CAPTCHA images from legitimate sites, using the unsuspecting user as the decoder of the said image.

As Trend Micro points out, the CAPTCHAs in this case are from Yahoo! Web site, suggesting that a spammer is building up Yahoo! accounts.

CAPTCHA Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me? – TrendLabs | Malware Blog – by Trend Micro

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Confusing, Sleazy Checkbox Syndrome

(Please see update below)

I am always amused by how even those companies you would think wouldn’t stoop to the foot-in-the-door tactics of spammers, do. Like this one from IBM, at the foot of a submission form — specifically for journalists, no less:

image

(The text reads:

This data may be used by IBM or selected organizations, such as Lenovo, to provide you with information about other offerings. To receive this via e-mail, check the first box below. Alternatively, if you would prefer not to receive such information by any means, check the second box.
    Please use e-mail to send me information about other offerings.
    Please do not use this data to send me information about other offerings.)

Why, specifically, two separate check boxes? What happens if you check both? Have you committed yourself to both receiving emails to get information about other offerings, and yet not allowing IBM to use this data to contact you? That would at least be a challenge for them. Leave both unchecked IBM cannot email you about other offerings, but they can use the data you just gave them (namely your email) to send you information about those exciting other offerings.

I urge you all to send them a query on their main submission form trying out both, and let me know what happens.

(Update Nov 2 2007: IBM have agreed having two checkboxes is confusing and unnecessary and promise to remove it. I have also tried leaving both unchecked, or checking both and error message is returned. So upon reflection I don’t think this is a fair example of Sleazy Checkbox Syndrome and I take back my harsh words about Big Blue. It’s poor form design, but it’s not done to confuse the user. Interestingly a more egregious example I recently cited also seems to have disappeared, as far as I can work out. Laplink have yet to respond to my request for comment.)

 IBM Press room – Contact a media representative

The Leopard’s Spot (On)

Just gotten back from a demo of the new version of Mac’s operating system, Mac OS X Leopard (must confess I don’t like the names. It’s slightly better than Vista, but still a bit lame in my view.) But that’s not the point. I arrived halfway through the demo and so missed a lot of the stuff, but, still. Wow. There’s something about Mac software that makes you go ‘ooo’ even when you don’t really want to.

I won’t bore you with details, but watching it unfold made me think a few things:

  • Rarely is there anything startlingly new here. It’s intuitive, obvious, like all good innovation. But it’s also “why couldn’t we already do this?” And sometimes we could, at least for a while. Like widgets that are actually just segments of a webpage — a daily cartoon, or a CNN news section. I remember we could do this in 2001 in Windows, courtesy of some company that later went bust. Wish I could remember the name.
    (It also made me think of Active Desktop, which I’ve never seen people use, probably because it was fiddly and because very few of us actually saw our desktop for all the programs we had open.) Of course, Apple made it fun, easy and the kind of thing you want to do, rather than do because you can. But it’s still something that should have been around a half decade ago.
  • Then there’s stuff that’s not new, just better. Spaces lets you have lots of desktops. We could do this on Windows years ago, and even Ubuntu has had it as a standard feature for a while, but on a Mac it just looks good, and works as you would want it to. You can drag programs, for example, between virtual desktops (one day, I hope, you will be able to drag data) and the animation is both fun and strangely helpful.
  • Then there’s stuff that looks a bit like a ripoff — data connectors, for example, that will grab addresses from emails for you. Anagram, among other programs, do this already. It’s good that Mac has recognised the usefulness of this application, but you can’t help feeling sorry for the folks who have spent so long developing a feature like this, only to see themselves being overtaken by the Leopard
  • Then there’s true innovation, based on watching how people work. Like the demo guy (who used the word “cool” about 398 times too many in the presentation) said, a lot of us use email software in a way that wasn’t intended — as a kind of word processor cum note taker cum to do list. Apple realised this, and have turned Mail into exactly that, allowing you to add to do lists with images and stuff embedded. Nothing startling, but acknowledging how we work and making it easier for us.

This is not to detract from Apple’s achievement. Leopard looks hot, and makes Vista look impoverished and, I suspect, somewhat irrelevant, like someone trying to sell aluminum siding to people who realise that while people still have it on their houses, no one really wants it anymore. Apple see what people want and give it to them.

Not once did the guy mention speed, or having lots of applications open, or ‘experience’. I find that telling. Maybe he forgot to, but I always shiver when I hear these words. I know that users don’t think like that; they want to know what they can do, not whether screen redraws are quicker or the edges of windows bend like willow. (They’re happy if they do, but that’s not why they buy an OS.) Neither do they want an “experience” — they want to do stuff. Leopard, it seems will, let them to do that.

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Hit the Road, Hack

Interesting project from Reuters, who have teamed up with Nokia to create a mobile journalism toolkit: 

So what is in the Mobile Journalism Toolkit? First of all the phone. This is a Nokia N95 which now comes in three different versions. The original European version that we used for most of the trial (image on left). Then there is a the US edition which adds more memory and support for US carrier frequencies. Finally there is the news 8GB version which can store much more music and videos, and for our journalists more raw materials.

With due respect, I’d ditch the Nokia keyboard for a more rugged, and better designed one from Mobility Electronics: the iGo Stowaway is a good one. I’m also not convinced the N95 is up to this kind of thing — as Nic Fulton says, the 8GB provides more storage, but I would be looking for something I could compose on, in which case I’d probably opt for the N800 Internet Tablet or its successor, the N810, which has GPS (yes, you need a phone to transmit if you’re not in WiFi range, but that’s what the N95 is for.)

I like the idea of recording direct to the N95 with an external microphone; hopefully Nokia will put the attachment they cooked up for this project on the market. It’s silly phones don’t have input ports.

Anyway, good stuff from Reuters and I look forward to hearing more about it. Yesterday I got myself in a terrible tangle trying to capture some video in an interview on my N95 while trying to record audio on my Olympus DS-20 and typing up the transcript on a Mac. It wasn’t pretty. In the meantime, regular readers will remember my humbling encounter with The Bangkok Post’s Don Sambandaraksa, whose keyboard dexterity put us all in the shade.

(Thanks, Mark)

The Mobile Journalism Toolkit contents – Reuters Mobile Journalism

Banks Cross Borders, But Their Service Doesn’t

Banks always talk about being global, and thinking local, and all that tosh. And it is tosh. Really.

My bank just called me, for example, to congratulate me for linking my bank accounts in different parts of the world so I can see them from one website. Great idea, weird it hasn’t been possible until now. But I couldn’t help smiling to myself at its limits. The conversation went like this:

“Mr Wagstaff Jeremy Rupert John (they seem to call me this, I guess it sounds better), do you have any questions or feedback for us on our service?”

“Well, I found I couldn’t remember one of the passwords for one account in country X. Can you help with that?”

“Er, no, that is handled by our other office in that country. I work here.”

“Oh.” Pause.

“Any other feedback or questions?”

“Yes. I’d like to complain that I can’t ask about resetting my password in my account in another country even though it’s the same bank.”

“OK, thanks for that. Any other feedback or questions.”

“No, that’s it.”

“OK, thank you for using our service.”

“No, thank you.”

Gee, banks are old fashioned. Why haven’t they disappeared already? Still, they give me free coffee every time I drop by, so I shouldn’t complain.

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Soccer 2.0

image 

Photo: The Offside

In Soccer 1.0 the manager is king. But an Israeli football team is experimenting with a sort of crowd-sourcing, wisdom-of-the-Kop type approach, where fans monitor the game online and suggest starting line-up, tactics and substitutions.

Reuters reports from Tel Aviv that “diehard football fan Moshe Hogeg was so upset when star striker Lionel Messi was left off Argentina’s side for a World Cup match against Germany last year that he teamed up with an online gaming company to buy a club where fans decide over the Internet who will play and in what position.” Hogeg’s company, an Israeli social network for sports fans called Web2sport, teamed up with online backgammon website Play65 to buy Hapoel Kiryat Shalom, a team in Israel’s third amateur division.

Fans log on to the team’s website and make suggestions and vote in poll which are monitored by an assistant to the coach. Ahead of the season’s opening match some 6,000 people tried to log on to make suggestions. The team lost 3-2 to Maccabi Ironi Or Yehuda in injury time.

Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t think crowd-sourcing is going to replace the genius of Wenger, Mourinho or Ferguson. On the other hand, as a Spurs fan, I certainly think manager Martin Jol could do with some help.

Press Release: The First Web 2.0 Football Club in the World

Time to Give the Telephone Back to the Cellphone?

Was interviewing a guy intimately involved in the mobile phone industry the other day, and we were comparing the various features of our sophisticated smartphones, when he suddenly leaned over and said, “Off the record, but this is my favorite phone.” And he showed me this:


Nokia 1100, photo Mobile Phones UK

The Nokia 1100, according to Wikipedia, is the world’s best selling handset, having shifted 200 million units. It seems to cost about $20, often less, and has a battery life of about 400 hours. And, crucially for my friend, sports two important features: It makes and receives calls and SMS. Beyond that, in the words of Bryan Ferry, there’s nothing. (Well, actually there’s WAP, but who uses that?)

The point about the Nokia 1100 is that it’s a phone. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else (except a flashlight, if you press and hold the “c” key down (presumably “c” stands for torCh or flasChlight or “come into the light where I can see you, Mildred”.) It’s designed for conditions in developing countries — dustproof keyboard, non-slip sides — but for many of us that could describe an ordinary day in the office (dusty, slippery, in need of illumination).

“For email,” he said, “I use this,” waving a Nokia BlackBerry clone. “For phoning and SMS, I use my 1100.”

Clearly my interviewee friend is not alone. A glance at Mobile Phones UK’s page on the model, the phone has a sizeable fanclub, with comments from Romania, Pakistan, Iran, the Philippines, Argentina, UK, Zaire and Tanzania. (Typical comment: “I needed a simple, sharp looking, long life phone. I got it. I love it!”) Of course, there are some who aren’t happy, but with 200 million units out there, that’s not surprising.

I guess my worry is, and has been for a while: As phones get more sophisticated, when do they stop being phones? And if it takes you longer to make or receive a call (or an SMS) than it used to, at what point do we need to split the phone/SMS functionality from our smartphone and give it back to the likes of the 1100?

Sleazy Linkers Lose An Ally

Seems as if there’s a bit of a groundswell building against internal links, which I got all upset about a few months ago. (internal linking is where you place a link on a word like, say, Google, but instead of actually linking to Google you link to another page on your own blog about Google.) Amit from Digital Inspiration points out that

Valleywag, the Silicon Valley gossip blog that everyone hates but still reads, always practiced excessive internal linking but good sense prevailed at Gawker and they have suddenly changed that habit.

Amit also points to Shane at the Daily Telegraph, who is complaining about the same practice. Etre.com points out how brazen TechCrunch are at doing it, but points out that Mashable and Engadget continue to do so.

I find it personally annoying because I tend to drag links into PersonalBrain or elsewhere and expect a link that says ‘Flock’ to go to Flock. But it’s also dishonest, like putting an EXIT sign over a door in a shop which instead goes into another part of the shop. It’s against the principles of the net, and, frankly, tells me that something is wrong in the state of Web 2.0 if this kind of thing is considered acceptable or even good practice.

What to do? Maybe a name-and-shame list until these recalcitrants start respecting the intelligence of their readers?

A Lesson from Valleywag – Good Linking Etiquettes | India Inc.

Blogged with Flock

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The Puppy Love Scam

The scam emails offer a Yorkshire Terrier dog for adoption

A few weeks back I wrote about love scams (“You Give Love a Bad Name,” WSJ.com) — how scammers are trawling online dating sites looking for suckers. What interested me about the scam is that in some cases the scammers play a very patient game — luring the mark in over a period of months before any sting is attempted. 

Sophos, the antivirus people, say they have found a new twist on the same scam, where scammers are apparently luring folk by offering a puppy up for adoption:

The emails, which come from a husband and wife who claim to be on a Christian Mission in Africa say that their Yorkshire Terrier dog is not coping well in the hot weather.

Says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos:

“The criminals are offering the pet puppy in an attempt to gather information from kind-hearted people who jump in to help. If you respond the scammers will try and steal confidential information about you, or sting you for cash. If you fall for a trick like this you’ll be the one ending up in the doghouse.”

Actually this is not quite new and not completely accurate. The LA Times wrote back in May about how the scam works:

People who responded to the ads eventually were asked to send hundreds of dollars to cover expenses such as shipping, customs, taxes and inoculations on an ever-escalating scale.

Some reported paying fees totaling more $1,500.

A piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week said the scam had been going across America for a year and points out that a Google search for “Nigerian Puppy Scam” turns up more than 200,000 “hits.” (I must confess I found only 16,000.) Bulldogs and Yorkshire Terriers are favorites. The paper was apparently alerted to the scam when ads were found to be running in its own paper. A month earlier the Toronto Star reported that a local woman had parted with $500 for a 11-week old terrier, after responding to an ad on a free local classified site and complying with requests for three payments to ship the dog from Nigeria. (A reporter called up the scammer, who uttered the immortal scammer’s words:

“Are you trying to call me a scam? I’m a family man,” he said. “I am a man of God. I am a missionary.”

For more detail on scams and how to spot them, check out this page on the IPATA website.

Dogs work because we love them, and are suckers for the sob story. What’s interesting here — and why these scams are in some ways more dangerous — is that the scam does not play upon people’s greed at all, but instead upon their charity and sense of decency.

Two conclusions from this:

  • These scams are aimed at throwing a wider, and slightly different, net to the old scams. The victims are going to be people who are moral, not greedy.
  • Chances are the scammers are aiming at making less money from these scams, but perhaps make up for it in volume. Perhaps the days are over when scammer aimed to make five-figure sums.

Puppy offered for adoption by Nigerian email scammers

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