Death of a ‘Toughbook’

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(update: after two days of nothing, the device is now booting again and Panasonic have offered to take a closer look at it and tell me what happened.)

My faith in my Panasonic Toughbook took a bath today when a waitress poured coffee all over it (and me.) It’s that absurd thing that waiters do of having to put coffee and food down right next to you when you’re clearly in the middle of a key discussion/interview/meeting/nap. It was bound to happen.

Still, I held out hope the Toughbook would be up to it. After all, the videos show guys doing stuff to their Toughbook we wouldn’t do to our partners (unless they asked us to.) I splashed the coffee off under a tap, knowing the damage coffee can wreak. To no avail: within minutes the screen went blank and the thing died.

Now I know why they call them ‘drop- and spill- resistant”. If it’s a spill, you might be ok, so long as it’s purified water. And “resistant”? It resists it, like Niles would Maris.

I bought a new one and am charging the hotel for it; they’ve agreed but I’ll send the lawyers home when I see the money. I happen to have a recording of the point when the coffee is spilt. It goes something like this:

Interviewee: in a fast growth  economy like India. Bangladesh, meanwhile.. [sound of crockery slipping, liquid spilling] oo shit!

Flaks (in chorus): oh no!

Me: (bizarrely quietly) Interesting…

Flaks (in chorus): oh dear!

Me: (still bizarrely quietly) OK…

[Sound of waitress disemboweling self with sugar spoon]

Lessons from all this?

  • Don’t order coffee in five star hotel lobbies when you’ve got a laptop in the area.
  • Don’t believe any waterproof claims from laptop manufacturers. Turns out that spillage only applies to the keyboard. You can see the waitress managed to get the latte everywhere except the keyboard.
  • Don’t settle for less from those responsible than full replacement immediately. I made it clear to the phalanx of hotel management that they would face serious claims if I did not check and rehouse the hard drive as quickly as possible and that meant buying a replacement computer immediately (it helped I was down the road from the place I bought it at the time. Singapore is like that.) It’s not about the computer: it’s really about the data, but it’s also about your day. You’re a working stiff and you don’t deserve to sit on your hands while they try to wriggle out of a full refund.
  • Back up your data regularly. I was lucky; the hard drive was safe. But I bet a lot wouldn’t be.

This, by the way, is what Panasonic say at the bottom of the page on spillage:

Furthermore, if you spill coffee, soft drinks, or similar liquids on the computer, the keyboard or other parts of the unit may become stained. Sugar and other substances may also cause corrosion, so liquids other than water are more problematic. Deal with such spills in the same way as directed for water and then have the unit checked.

Be aware that the spill resistance of these products in no way guarantees that liquids will not harm them or cause breakdowns.

The Limits of the Cloud

Microsoft’s FolderShare, a folder synchronizing tool that I’ve recommended in previous columns, is going off the air for up to three days in the middle of the week “for server upgrades”:

FolderShare will be offline for a little while (48-72 hours) next week for some server upgrades.

  • The outage begins Tuesday, June 17, at 6 PM Pacific Times (UTC-7).
  • We hope to be back online by 6 PM Friday at the latest.

I share some of the disbelief of commenters to the blog post and ZDNet’s Michael Krigsman:

Users are attracted to services such as FolderShare for two reasons: useful features and the promise of always-on reliability. Remove reliability from the equation and the service’s value plummets.

(Zoliblog also points to some odd, unexplained changes in the way FolderShare works, whereby the index of files you’re syncing between two computers appears to now be stored on Microsoft’s servers. Whether this is important remains to be seen.)

The bigger point is this: If we are genuinely going to shift computing to the cloud—move our stuff online, think in terms of being able to compute from anywhere, anytime—then we need to have reliable access to our files and accounts.

That Microsoft, of all people, can switch off such access for up to three days in the middle of the week highlights the inadequacies of that thinking. In the longer run it may be that we are in error for considering relying on cloud computing, and Microsoft, for access to our stuff.

(The arguments that it’s free, and in beta, don’t wash. Imagine if Google took Gmail or Google Docs down for three days: beta no longer means broken, at least not for the majority of a working week.)

Windows Live FolderShare Team Blog: Planned system outage starting June 17

Why Social Network Sites May Fail

Look at a social networking site lie Yaari and you can see where the social networking phenomenon may fail, simply by abusing the trust of its users.

Sites like LinkedIn, Plaxo etc rely on expanding quickly by offering a useful service: trawling your address book to find friends and contacts who use the same service. We’ve gotten used to this, and it’s a great way to build a network quickly if you sign up for a new service.

But any service that uses this needs to stress privacy, and put control in the hands of users. Plaxo learned this a few years back. Spam a user’s contact list without them realising and you invite a firestorm of opprobrium on your head.

But surprisingly some services still do it. And in so doing they risk alienating users from what makes Web 2.0 tick: the easy meshing of networks—your address book, your Facebook buddies, your LinkedIn network—to make online useful.

Take Yaari, a network built by two Stanford grads which has for the past two years abused the basic tenets of privacy in an effort to build scale.

What happens is this.

You’ll receive an email from a contact:

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It’s an invitation from a “friend” which

  • gives you no way to check out the site without signing up. The only two links (apart from an abuse reporting email address at the bottom) take you to the signup page.
  • neither link allows you to check out your “friend”  and his details before you sign up.

If you do go to the sign up page you’ll be asked to give your name and email address:

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Below the email address is the reassuring message:

Your email is private and will stay that way.

But scroll down to below the create my account button and you’ll see this:

By registering for Yaari and agreeing to the Terms of Use, you authorize Yaari to send an email notification to all the contacts listed in the address book of the email address you provide during registration. The email will notify your friends that you have registered for Yaari and will encourage them to register for the site. Yaari will never store your email password or login to your email account without your consent. If you do not want Yaari to send an email notification to your email contacts, do not register for Yaari.

In short, by signing up for Yaari you’ve committed yourself, and all the people in your address book, to receiving spam from Yaari that appears to come from your email address. (Here’s the bit from the terms: “Invitation emails will be sent on member’s behalf, with the ‘from’ address set as member’s email address.”)

You should also expect to receive further spam from Yaari, according to the terms:

MEMBERS CONSENT TO RECEIVE COMMERCIAL E-MAIL MESSAGES FROM YAARI, AND ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT THEIR EMAIL ADDRESSES AND OTHER PERSONAL INFORMATION MAY BE USED BY YAARI FOR THE PURPOSE OF INITIATING COMMERCIAL E-MAIL MESSAGES.

In other words, anyone signing up for Yaari is commiting both themselves and everyone else in their address book to receiving at least one item of spam from the company. Users complain that Yaari doesn’t stop at one email; it bombards address books with follow-up emails continually.

Needless to say, all this is pretty appalling. But what’s more surprising is that Yaari has been doing this for a while. I’ve trawled complaints from as far back as 2006. This despite the company being U.S.-based. I’m surprised the FTC hasn’t taken an interest.

So who’s behind the site? This article lists two U.S.-born Indians, Prerna Gupta and Parag Chordia, and quotes Gupta as saying, back in 2006, that to preserve the integrity of the network access is restricted to the right kind of Indian youth. I’m not young, I’m not Indian, and I’m probably not the right kind, so clearly that goal has been abandoned.

Here are some more details of the two founders.

Gupta, who is 26, is an economics major who graduated in 2005, was working for a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley called Summit Partners until 2005. Her facebook profile is here; her LinkedIn profile is here. According to this website she once won the Ms Asia Oklahoma pageant (her hometown is listed as Shawnee in Oklahoma, although she lives in Atlanta.

Chordia, chief technology officer at Yaari, has a PhD in computer music, and is currently assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, according to his LinkedIn profile. His facebook profile is here.

There’s a video of them here. An interview with Gupta last year indicates that they’re going hell for leather for size:

We are focused on growing our user base and becoming India’s largest social networking site within the next two years. Our goal for the next year is to become one of India’s Top 10 Internet destinations.

What’s interesting is that nearly every site that mentions Yaari and allows comments contains sometimes angry complaints from users. In that sense Web 2.0 is very effective in getting the word out. Unfortunately if Yaari and its founders continue to commit such egregious abuses of privacy, we can’t be sure many people will trust such websites long enough for the power of networking sites to be properly realised.

(I’ve sought comment from Gupta, which I’ll include in this post when received.)

From Mars to a Second Life Bot

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Interesting to see that NASA is really getting with the program on the Phoenix Lander. First there was Twitter, where it would talk in the first person about what it was up to (and now answer questions directly), and now there’s an AI presence in Second Life, where it can talk intelligently to Second Lifers about what it’s doing.

The technology behind the bot comes from MyCyberTwin, which I profiled last year in the Journal. The chats aren’t perfect, but they’re more sophisticated than you might expect from a bot. Though the comments by founder Liesl Capper are somewhat revealing about what we may expect in the future:

“It’s like having a fully-staffed call centre online and available around the clock to take queries – but it’s all virtual. “People would rather talk to a well crafted AI than some distant person in a foreign call centre.”

I’m not 100% convinced about that, although yesterday, frustrated that a web hosting service required me to call them to confirm a transaction and yet had no one to take the call, I tried one of those online chat customer service things with a competitor. I was impressed that I got a response immediately, and while I wasn’t sure whether I was dealing with a bot or a real person, I didn’t care. The questions got answered, and I shifted hosting provider on the spot.

The Predictable Human (and a Privacy Issue)

A study of mobile phone data shows that we are extraordinarily consistent about our movements. Mobile phone data, unsurprisingly, provides rich pickings for researchers since we carry one around with us all the time, and, unlike dollar bills, it’s more likely to stick with one person. But some have questioned the ethics of such a study.

The BBC reports that the study, by Albert-László Barabási and two others, shows we are much more predictable in our movements than we might think:

The whereabouts of more than 100,000 mobile phone users have been tracked in an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of human movements.

The study concludes that humans are creatures of habit, mostly visiting the same few spots time and time again.

Most people also move less than 10km on a regular basis, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

This is fascinating stuff, and perhaps not unexpected. But appended to the Nature news article on the study are two signed comments by readers alleging that the authors of the study didn’t follow correct ethical procedure. Someone calling themselves John McHaffie says

What is particularly disturbing about this study is something that the Nature news article failed to reveal: that Barabasi himself said he did not check with any ethics panel. And this for an action that is, in fact illegal in the United States. Disgusting lack of ethics, I’d say. And the statement from his co-author Hidalgo isn’t much better: “We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better”. The old “trust me, I know better” argument. Maybe this two should take a basic graduate-level ethics course.

I’ve not yet confirmed it, but it’s likely to be John G. McHaffie of the University of Wake Forest. Another commenter, Dan Williams, calls for a federal investigation of the school involved in the study.

I don’t have access to the original Nature article, so I can’t explore this further right now. But the Nature news item itself says that “Barabási and his colleagues teamed up with a mobile-phone company (unidentified to protect customers’ privacy), who provided them with anonymized data on which transmitter towers had handled the calls and texts for 100,000 individuals over the course of 6 months.”

This is clearly gold. The article suggests that others have long sought to get their hands on mobile phone data. It quotes Dirk Brockmann of Northwestern University in Illinois, as saying that he had not been able to expand a study he did using dollar bills because of privacy issues:

Strict data-protection laws prevented Brockmann from carrying out his own version of the mobile-phone study in Germany, where he was based until recently. Mobile-phone data have the potential to reveal information about where individuals live and work. “I’ve been trying to get my hands on mobile-phone data but it isn’t possible,” he says.

Privacy issues aside, the study is fascinating, and could be useful in monitoring disease outbreaks or traffic forecasting. (I wrote about one using Bluetooth a couple of days ago.) And how about riots? Unrest? Shoppers?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Mobile phones expose human habits

Bluetooth Tracking

morning rush hour

Research from Purdue University shows that Bluetooth would be a very good way to track travel time. Bluetooth devices give off unique IDs which could be used to measure speed and movement of pedestrians and vehicles.

But why stop there? Wouldn’t it be possible to track people via their Bluetooth signal, if you knew one of their device IDs? Anyway, here’s the abstract (thanks, Roland.)

Travel time is one of the most intuitive and widely understood performance measures. However, it is also one of the most difficult performance measures to accurately estimate. Toll tag tracking has demonstrated the utility of tracking electronic fingerprints to estimate link travel time. However, these devices have a small penetration outside of areas served by toll facilities, and the proprietary tag reading equipment is not widely available. This paper reports on tracking of a wide variety of consumer electronics that already contain unique digital fingerprints.

Method uses ‘Bluetooth’ to track travel time for vehicles, pedestrians