Keys to the Kingdom

In this week’s Loose Wire Service column (which runs in print publications, more here), I write about those unsung heroes of productivity: programs that store globs of text for you so you don’t have to keep typing the same thing.

Last time I talked about how the keyboard is often a quicker way to launch programs and open files than the mouse. It’s just a question of knowing how. This time around I’d like to take the idea a step further: using the keyboard to cut down your usage of the keyboard.

A lot of what we type is the same: Our name. Our address. Thank you letters to Aunt Gertrude. Disclaimers. These are all tasks we could outsource. But to whom?

Well, it depends a bit on what you’re doing. If you’re working in something like Microsoft Word, you’ll find that there are features that let you insert chunks of text just by hitting a couple of keys. While this used to be straightforward enough in earlier versions of Word but it’s gotten more complicated in the latest version.

In fact, the feature is not included; you need to add it to the toolbar at the top of the Microsoft Word window (the program’s help will tell you how.) Once that’s done, though, it’s straightforward enough. Just select the text (and any graphics) you want to reproduce, and then hit the autotext button. Give the selection a name, and next time you want to insert it, just click on the autotext button and then the name of the saved text.

Microsoft, however, clearly don’t consider this an important feature, since they’ve dropped the best bit: being able to recall — i.e., insert — the text by not leaving the keyboard. This used to be done by assigning the block of text a keystroke code — dc, for example, to insert a standard disclaimer text — and then typing it and hitting Enter. Word 2007 won’t let you do that. (OpenOffice’s free office suite will, but the feature is not particularly easy to figure out, so I wouldn’t recommend it.)

The problem with doing this is that any text you save can only be retrieved inside the program itself. Which makes it less of a time-saver and more of a time-waster. So if you’re writing an email, for example, you can’t access the text you stored in Microsoft Word. A better solution is to use a program that will insert text wherever you are.

This is where I’d recommend something called Texter, a free program created by the website Lifehacker (itself well worth a visit). Once installed, the software sits in your system tray (the bottom right hand corner of the screen) until you either double click or right click on the icon.

Adding text is straightforward: Just select the text you want to save, add a “hotstring” the keystrokes you want to use to recall it (dc, for example), and then the “trigger” — the key you hit after the hotstring to insert the text (you have the choice of Enter, Tab, Space or, none — meaning your saved text will be inserted straightaway.

Texter works well — and has lots of extra features you can explore. It won’t handle large blocks of text, however: It’s best for small bits of oft-typed text, like a note to typesetters to convert text to italics, or a sign-off (Best regards, Humphrey”).

A more powerful, and commercially minded, alternative is something called ActiveWords ($50), which allows you to do a lot more. (Think of it as developing macros for the less techy of us. Macros are scripts which automate oft-repeated functions or series of functions, like opening an email and replying to it, or selecting a word and then having your browser automatically look up the word on Google.)

ActiveWords also lets you do what I was talking about in my last column — assigning shortcuts to launching programs or opening files. It’s a wonderful piece of software and, if used well, removes the need to ever force your fingers to leave the keyboard. But it’s not worth getting unless you plan to make major changes to the way you work.

I use it for loading files buried in distant folders and for template text I sent to PR companies (though never readers; you get only my full un-scripted attention. Promise.), for inserting phone numbers (I can never remember my phone numbers for some reason) and addresses, as well as for more ambitious tasks like moving text from one program to another.

I’d suggest you start out with Texter and start building a list of the words, sentences or other text that you find yourself typing a lot. If you’re really getting into it a tryout of ActiveWords might be on the cards (the trial is for 60 days, rather than the usual 30; a smart move, since it might take you that long to really appreciate its power.)

A word of warning: Don’t put anything sacred or secret in one of your text strings in any of these programs. It’s tempting to store passwords and bank account numbers and other hard-to-remember and sensitive data.

If you’re looking for something that does that, you might want to check out RoboForm ($30) that can memorize passwords, fill in registration forms quickly and will encrypt your data. RoboForm will work in Internet Explorer and Firefox (Opera, another browser I must have recommended in the past because my wife uses it religiously, isn’t mentioned.)

The trick with these programs is not to dedicate a day to inserting lots of text strings you may never use, but to look over your own shoulder as you work and notice what text you type a lot of. Then get into the habit of saving that in whichever program you decide to use, and assigning a keystroke combination that makes sense to you and will be easy to remember. I guarantee you’ll save yourself time. You may even write more letters to Aunt Gertrude. I know she’d like that.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

My Favorite Christmas Present


  My favorite Christmas present 
  Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

It’s been a quiet but happy Christmas and I must confess I actually bought this for myself, but I love it: a small wind-up radio/torch. There’s not much call for the torch around here, but I love the sound, the feel and the low carbon footprint this little gizmo brings. Can there be anything more satisfying than cranking a handle to listen to the radio?  Plus, there’s nothing quite like listening to BBC Radio 4 at breakfast.

Tight Angles at 30,000 Feet

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I’m sure I’m not the first person to think that economy class seats are getting smaller. This is me trying to do some writing on my ThinkPad when the person in front had her seat in recline mode. Forget about it. It’s impossible to lift the screen any higher than this (it’s a Malaysian Airlines plane.)

So what’s the answer? I want something I can type on when the muse strikes wherever I am, without worrying about space or whether I’m going to be told by attendants I can’t use the device because it’s really a phone.

I’m trying to get a new iGo ThinkOutside keyboard (spilt coffee over the last one) and was wondering whether a Palm LifeDrive might be the answer. Any thoughts? I’d like to have something with a bit of space on the screen and on the drive itself.

The Power Thieves

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Why must those of us trying to find a power outlet feel like thieves?

I’m sitting here at KL International Airport at what seems like the only power outlet (found after asking an information officer who clearly had been asked before) in the place, between a vast Samsung TV blaring bad images of Turkey to zero people and the cleaners’ entrance.

At least there’s a power outlet: given my plane’s been delayed an hour, that’s the least I could hope for. But why should we have to put up with this kind of thing? Why should we be so inconvenienced? I want to see

  • a Wiki style database of power outlets at airports so we can pool our knowledge and
  • airports (and everyone else) to wake up to the fact that we’re taking up far less power than the Samsung TV.

Anyone care to join me? (Of course you may know a better place at KLIA, in which case I’d really love to hear from you…)

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Breaking Down Resistance

Here’s a piece i missed from the International Herald Tribune by Phyllis Korkki that does a great job of looking at the problems that people increasingly face: technology. Not everyone likes it or understands it, and it’s not easy for them to find out how to do what they need to do. Here are a couple of snippets I particularly liked:

If you are uncomfortable around new technology, you may be learning at a “keystroke level” instead of a conceptual level, said Deborah Compeau, associate professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. 

Fearful learners “want to have a piece of paper that tells them what buttons to push in what order,” she said. This leaves them unprepared for errors and impasses, which are inevitable.

This is true; I’ve been working on these kind of crib sheets for some time now, and I’m not sure they are always the best way for people to learn. It’s like a map through a maze that doesn’t contain any paths beyond the route you’re supposed to take: no use you if you take a wrong turn and get lost.

Talking of which, Compeau points to what I think is the best approach in getting ideas across:

A good teacher creates analogies that make it easier for nontechnical thinkers to understand how a system works; for example, by comparing a hard drive to a filing cabinet, and directories to the drawers of the cabinet, she said.

This is what I’ve tried to do in my WSJ.com column (which comes to an end at the end of this month, sadly.) It’s not always easy to find the right analogy, and they don’t always work, but I suspect it’s the best approach.

Have a good holiday.

Tips for the tech-averse – Print Version – International Herald Tribune

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More on Veronica and Fake Flirting

Courtesy of ABC Australia IT guru Paul Wallbank, the source of my chat with Veronica Sexy may have been discovered: an automated sex talk service called CyberLover.ru. Paul points to this story from Conor Sweeney of Moscow’s Reuters bureau:

A Russian website called CyberLover.ru is advertising a software tool that, it says, can simulate flirtatious chatroom exchanges. It boasts that it can chat up as many as 10 women at the same time and persuade them to hand over phone numbers.

The service, on the surface, appears aimed at guys who aren’t able to win over girls online any other way: “It’s happened – a program to tempt girls over the internet!” Reuters quotes the site as claiming. “Within half an hour the CyberLover program will introduce you to … girls, exchange photos and perhaps even a contact phone number,” it states. Woohoo. 

But is that all it does? Antivirus and software developer PC Tools says it’s much more dangerous than that. β€œAs a tool that can be used by hackers to conduct identity fraud, CyberLover demonstrates an unprecedented level of social engineering,” a company press release quotes Sergei Shevchenko, Senior Malware Analyst, as saying. β€œIt employs highly intelligent and customized dialogue to target users of social networking systems.” The goal, Sergei says: to gather personal information about users and also to lure them to websites, possibly to infect them with malware (a generic terms for software that infects their computer which can then be used as what is called a bot to grab data, infect other computers or send spam.) That doesn’t sound like the Veronica I know. 

The website itself denies this, according to the Reuters report. “The program can find no more information than the user is prepared to provide,” one of the site’s employees, who gave his name only as Alexander, said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions. “It maintains a dialogue with a person, but is not engaged in hacking or any other such schemes, I think this should be obvious,” he said.

Well, there’s hacking, and there’s other stuff that comes close to it. The company or individual behind this product appears to be the same as that which runs Botmaster.Net, both of which are registered to one Alexander Ryabchenko. Botmaster sells a $450 piece of software called Xrumer, which spams websites, forums and blogs to build up a website’s profile on search engines (it claims to get past CAPTCHA screens, where users are asked to identify letters in images.) Given the name of the website is botmaster you can’t help wondering what else it does. 

So was Veronica Sexy an early prototype of of CyberLover? Well, they’re both run by Russians, but beyond that it’s not clear. I hope to find out more. What is clear, though is that SkyperSex, the website Veronica was trying to lure me to, is an affiliate of Streamray, a sex website that is one of several just bought by Penthouse Media as part of its purchase of Various Inc (for $500 million). It should make for an interesting bit of research. 

Oh, and if you’re looking for automated online chat that’s a bit more real, check out My CyberTwin.

Russian computer program fakes chatroom flirting – Yahoo! News

Meet Veronica, Sexy Skype Spammer

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Maybe this is commonplace for others, but I’ve just got my first sex-chat-spam on Skype. It’s from someone called Veronica Sexy, whose profile indicates that it’s unlikely to be someone I’ve met and just forgotten about (as if I would):

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Just in case you can’t read that last bit, it reads:

can’t wait to get real nasty and show off πŸ™‚ IM REAL MISS WEB CAM!

Reply to the message and immediately you’re asked to share your contact details (a la Skype.) I didn’t risk having Veronica spam all my friends (not sure how that would work, but I’ve got some nice people on my list, and I’d hate for them to be upset.) But I did reply to her message, and her responses were quick, and, dare I say it, felt a trifle automated:

[8:53:55 AM] Veronica sexy says: Hi are U busy?
[9:03:43 AM] Jeremy Wagstaff says: hi
[9:03:50 AM] Veronica sexy says: How are u ?
[9:04:30 AM] Jeremy Wagstaff says: i’m great. who are you?
[9:04:31 AM] Veronica sexy says: I would love to chat with you, come on http://www.SkyperSex.com !!!

[9:04:36 AM] Jeremy Wagstaff says: no thanks
[9:04:37 AM] Veronica sexy says: I would love to chat with you, come on http://www.SkyperSex.com !!!

[9:04:45 AM] Jeremy Wagstaff says: i’m a bit busy. really
[9:04:47 AM] Veronica sexy says: My internet connection  is very bad come on http://www.SkyperSex.com !!!

[9:04:54 AM] Jeremy Wagstaff says: my internet connection is great!

That was the last I head of Veronica, although her scent lingers on.

The web address, by the way, is pretty much what you expect it will be — lots of alleged clips of ladies cavorting. The administrator of the website is one Alexandrof Tiberiu in Moscow, who also owns www.yourlivecams.com.

I guess what’s interesting here is that Skype don’t seem to do much policing of this kind of thing. This could be a sex site spam, or it could be something worse.

(If you want to prevent Veronica getting in touch with you, go into Skype options, Privacy settings, and click on the Show Advanced Options button. Make sure the Allow chats from… option is only people in my Contact List:

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Chances are Veronica won’t come calling. Frankly, your life won’t be the poorer for it.

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Internet Radio in the Bedroom

 

I’ve lately been looking for a way to listen to Internet radio away from my computer. This looks like a good, albeit somewhat expensive, answer: the WiFi Radio from Acoustic Energy (about S$600, that’s $415ish).

The WiFi Radio connects to your router and stores more than 5,000 radio stations by country, updated each time the machine is switched on, which you can scroll though via the somewhat pokey LCD display on the top. There’s a buffering delay but once the station kicks in the sound is great. You can also use it to stream music from your computer.

It’s a classy solution to the problem. But I think there might be a simpler one, if you’ve only got a handful of stations you want to listen to, and just want a small device you can carry around the house with you. Perhaps I could even use an old PDA with WiFi built in? Where’s that Tungsten T3 I saw lying around?

wifi radio – further information : acoustic energy

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Phishing For a Scapegoat

It’s somewhat scary that more than 10 employees of a laboratory that works on security issues (including phishing) could fall for a phishing attack. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or ORNL, managed for the U.S. Department of Energy by UT-Battelle, works on science and technology involved in energy production and national security. In late October the lab was targeted from Chinese websites, according to eWeek:

All of the phishing e-mails instructed lab employees to open an attachment for more information or to click on an embedded link. ORNL’s investigators now believe that about 11 staff fell for the come-ons and opened the attachments or clicked on the links. That was enough for the attackers to install keyloggers or other types of malware that gave attackers access to systems and the ability to extract data.

The interesting thing here is whether this was a “coordinated attack” and a “cyberattack” as has been suggested in the media. The Knoxville News Sentinel, for example, quotes lab director Thom Mason as saying, involved the thieves making “approximately 1,100 attempts to steal data with a very sophisticated strategy that involved sending staff a total of seven phishing e-mails, all of which at first glance appeared legitimate.” Meanwhile this AP article quotes Mason’s memo to employees:

The assault appeared “to be part of a coordinated attempt to gain access to computer networks at numerous laboratories and other institutions” in the United States, lab director Thom Mason said in a memo to the 4,200 employees at the Department of Energy facility.

The key here may be that the attackers were after personal information, not military secrets. As John C. Sharp writes:

The headlines keep coming about the news that several high-profile military labs – including some of the world’s leading nuclear research labs – have been compromised by phishing scams. Unfortunately, many of these headlines are missing the point.

Example: In one story published today, PC World claims that Chinese Hackers “launched” a coordinated “major attack” on two US Military Laboratories.

This is almost certainly *not* what happened. According to most of the published data, this was a phishing attack, plain and simple.

The fact is that China’s computers are so insecure that more or less anyone could use them to do more or less anything, from relaying spam to launching phishing attacks. So it’s not proof that China, or even Chinese, were involved just because the IP addresses are Chinese.

Of course, we don’t know for sure what happened yet. But if the attack was enabled by employees clicking on an email attachment or link that originated from a Chinese server, you’ve got to question a) the security training at a place like that, and b) wonder what kind of security filters they have on their servers that would allow such emails to get through, especially given the sheer number of emails that were sent.

Sometimes “China” is a great excuse for all sorts of incompetence and inefficiency, and “sophisticated cyber attack” is just another way of saying “sorry, we haven’t got a clue about all this Internets stuff.”

Oak Ridge Speared in Phishing Attack Against National Labs

The Inanities of the Visionary

I have a lot of respect for Doris Lessing but her recent remarks about the Internet reveal an ignorance and lack of understanding that is depressing and unbecoming of such a literary giant. Here’s what she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature:

We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.

Frankly, I’m not sure Ms. Lessing knows what blogging is. And I am also one of those people who are concerned that the Internet is changing our society in ways we haven’t thought through. But it’s certainly not killing reading, learning and writing. In fact the opposite: the Internet is actually offering us so much information, and so much knowledge, the problem now is being able to judge what is important and what is not, and to retain a sense of mystery about the world.

If we can look down from heaven on any point of the globe via Google Earth, if we can look up any fact on Wikipedia, if we can communicate with any person in any country via voice for free via Skype, if we can listen to any radio station on the planet (and watch 100s of different tv channels) or read more or less any newspaper, if we can read tens of thousands of different books for free via Project Gutenberg, not to mention hundreds of thousands of excellent blogs, I can’t really see what is “inane” about the Internet.

Ms. Lessing is concerned that amidst all this online inanity, books will die. Of course books won’t die. Books as books (pbooks) won’t die. They come in a form that has proved perfect for their content. They will also be available as ebooks, too, and in forms we can’t yet imagine or create.

The point is that writing will continue. Online it may be shorter — but not always — and it may be interspersed with other media. But I would say that there are more people reading and writing now than any time in history. As Ms. Lessing herself says, according to The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy:

She contrasted her experiences in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa, where people were hungry and clamouring for books even though they might have no food, where schools might not have a single book and a library might be a plank seat under a tree.

In a way the Internet is the solution to this kind of problem; in some ways it’s easier to bring knowledge to people and institutions via the Internet than by bringing them books. Or, failing that, bringing them the single biggest repository of free, community-based knowledge in the world: Wikipedia — printed out, or put on a CD-Rom and given via a refurbished $100 PC. I don’t think that the One Laptop Per Child idea is necessarily the correct way to go about it, but I do believe on the whole the Internet has brought people in the developing world closer to knowledge than any physical library ever has.

I’m sad that Ms. Lessing, who has been considered a social radical and has written some great science fiction, has not seen the Internet for what it is: a great leveller, redistributor and repository of information and knowledge.

( PS I just looked up dorislessing.com and dorislessing.co.uk: the first is up for auction (and sports a picture of a young woman in white with a white laptop in a white chair; definitely not Doris Lessing) and the second redirects to a radio and TV tuning website where you can tune in to dozens of radio and TV stations. Meanwhile anyone online wanting to know about her can find it on Wikipedia. It all seems somehow fitting.)

Nobel prize winner Lessing warns against ‘inane’ internet | Special Reports | Guardian Unlimited Books