Loose Wire: Bookmarks Are Dead. Long Live Bookmarks

Bookmarking, the act of marking a favorite website, has become a much more complicated matter these days. Here’s how to master the art of keeping tabs on the web

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A thought occurred to me the other day, as these things do. Who uses bookmarks anymore?

Not the kind you put in books–although I have noticed they’ve been in steady decline too. I mean the kind you add to your browser to keep a record of a website you’ve visited that you’d like to go back to one day, if there was ever time.

So I dug more deeply. And I found it’s true that people tend not to bookmark as much as they did, but for a range of reasons.

It’s not that people don’t bookmark, it’s that the purpose of bookmarking is less obvious now than it used to be.

The point of bookmarking stuff is a bit more varied now. Websites we regularly visit are, for many of us, now part of our daily Really Simple Syndication feed. If we want to share a bookmark we can do it via StumbleUpon or Facebook. I see a lot more of the latter, recently—always fun to do—and StumbleUpon, if you haven’t stumbled upon it yet, is a rich trove of treasures maintained by some very fun people.

Then there are two other types: saving a webpage you won’t forget and one you’re afraid you might. That might sound silly, but it’s the difference between putting car keys somewhere prominent so you won’t lose them and leaving them somewhere prominent so you remember you have a car.

An online equivalent is your bank account website, say: You’re unlikely to forget you have a bank account, but you might forget the address—or hate typing in the address again. Whereas a cool new tool for collecting the email addresses of people who share your middle name might sound like something worth visiting again, but chances are you’ll forget it exists unless you save it somewhere.

So, saving something you go back to regularly makes sense as an in-house bookmark—one you’d store inside your browser, as in the old days.

But what happens when you come across something that looks interesting, but not exactly vital? How can you keep them some place you’ll know where to find them later, if you remember they exist?

This is where I think bookmarking becomes more of a useful service. And tagging—labels you add to things to help you find them (think losing car keys, not forgetting you have a car) is an important part of it. But it still doesn’t work that well. Tagging is a great tool—and bookmark storing services like del.icio.us have made it much easier by suggesting tags for things—but I still find navigating my own tags too time-consuming a task.

I don’t think I’m alone. What I’ve noticed that, at least among geeks, we’re turning less to software and more to people to help us find those signposts quickly.

Now, sharing our online day with others on services like twitter, gives us a channel to quickly communicate with a select crowd who are, at least for now, as cooperative and helpful as the early denizens of the net. So why bother rooting through your del.icio.us tags when you can tap into the wisdom of the twitter crowd?

That is what bookmarks, and bookmarking services, have to compete with. I’m guessing that what will evolve is a combined service where a request that is sent via twitter—anyone remember the name of that service that lets you talk to people with the same middle name?—would simultaneously search your own databases of links and saved stuff. The answers—automated, human–would merge together and the results would organize themselves into a list.

Which might itself, in true Web 2.0 fashion, become a new form of content.

So, in short, bookmarks are dead, long live bookmarks. They are still the best signposts we have for getting around the web, but we have moved beyond the idea of needing to save them in some order. What we want know is to be able to find them quickly—and to be able to have what we find put in a broader context. Who better to do that then your big network of online friends?

How do you save your bookmarks? Share them with me at the email address below.

©Loose Wire Pte Ltd. Jeremy Wagstaff is a Singapore-based commentator on technology. His guide to using computers, Loose Wire, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

How to Browse Securely

Nowadays most bad stuff lands on our computer when we’re browsing. Here’s how to stop it.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Visit a dodgy website using Microsoft Windows XP or earlier and what’s called malware—a catchall term that ranges from code that pops up annoying ads at you to really bad stuff that turn your computer into a zombie– will try to parachute into your computer. Because most of us using Windows XP do so under what’s called administrator rights—so we can install programs etc—this can be done without much difficulty because with administrator rights we’re like a careless janitor, wandering around the building leaving all the doors open because it’s easier. (Vista does things differently, so you probably won’t have to worry about this.)

Now the obvious thing to do would be to turn off administrator rights unless we actually need them to install a program, say—a bit like giving the janitor the key to each door only when he needs them. But that’s tiresome—too much switching around between accounts. Nobody I know puts up with it. So here’s a simpler way of doing it which should keep you safe, by ensuring that when you use your browser you do so without doing so as an administrator.

  1. First you need to download a piece of software called RemoveAdmin from Download.com (http://is.gd/1TfX).
  2. Launch the installer.
  3. Once it’s installed you’ll find a shortcut on your desktop called SecureIE.

clip_image002

If you’re using Internet Explorer double click that shortcut every time you launch the browser.

  1. To test you’re browsing securely, visit any website, right click and select View page source:

clip_image004

From the resulting window, try saving to your Windows directory (File/Save as and then navigate to C:Windows.)

If you’re browsing securely you should see this message:

clip_image006

You’re safe.

(If you’re using the Firefox browser, for some reason the installer won’t prepare a shortcut for you so you’ll have to do it manually. Find your Firefox browser shortcut and right click, selecting Properties.

clip_image008

Click the mouse in the Target field and go to the beginning of the line (hitting Home should do it).

Type the text "C:Program FilesRemoveAdminremoveAdmin.exe" (including the quotes). The full line should read something like this:

"C:Program FilesRemoveAdminremoveAdmin.exe" "C:Program FilesMozilla Firefoxfirefox.exe"

One more step: You need to change the startup directory. Type the text below to the Start in: box below the Target: box: "C:Program FilesRemoveAdmin".

clip_image010

Now check you’re safe by doing step 4.

©Loose Wire Pte Ltd. Jeremy Wagstaff is a Singapore-based commentator on technology. His guide to using computers, “Loose Wire”, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

The Pitfalls of Facebook

image

Facebook just grew up and gave some of its users a shock they probably deserve. You might even have been one of them.

You may have received a message from a friend already on Facebook; something that doesn’t sound like them, but hey, they might have been out partying when they wrote it:

“have you heard about that blog that was about you? apparently it’s pretty bad,” it will say. “I think you and everyone should read it..” And then there’s a link.

Click on the link and you’d be taken—if you’re unlucky, and haven’t upgraded your browser recently–to a website that looks a lot like a Facebook login page.

image

If you’re wary, you won’t have gotten this far, because your browser—assuming you’re using one of the more recent versions–will have flashed a warning that you’re trying to visit a dodgy site. That’s because the site itself is not Facebook.com, but Facelibook.com—a website hosted in China.

What will happen then, if you don’t notice those extra two letters hiding in the website name and enter your name and password, is that you’ll be “phished”—in other words, your password and username will now be known by someone else. Someone else who won’t necessarily be a pal.

Phishing has been around for a few years, and sadly we’re still falling victim to it. It’s simple really: A bad guy uses whatever tricks he can—technology, our gullibility, simply looking over our shoulders—to steal our passwords, and then uses that access to either empty our bank accounts or pretend to be us.

In this case, they use the Facebook account to send more messages to other people. You see, the thing about Facebook is that it’s a trusted area. All the people we get messages from are people we trust, people we know, so what better way to lure people into a trap than to send messages so they look as if they’re from someone we know?

Giving someone access to your Facebook account is not a good thing, of course. They can not only send out creepy messages that compromise your friends (and endanger your friendships) but they’ll also have access to whatever information you’ve stored in your Facebook account: your previous jobs, your interests and your address for starters. That’s enough for them to steal your identity.

But that’s not all the Facebook thing does. I’m not quite clear whether these two attacks are the same, but they may well be: The hijacked accounts, I’m told, will now send out a slightly different message this time, along the lines of “You’ve been caught on hidden cam, yo” (“cam” is short for camera, for those of you not up with the lingo. “Yo” is a term of endearment reserved for the hip and would-be hip).

Click on this particular link and worse things happen. You’re told your version of Flash player is out of date—a normal enough message, as Flash players are programs used to play animated content in your browser—and then you’re instructed to download and install an update, a piece of software called codecsetup.exe. Agree and you’ll be treated to a video of a laughing clown as, behind the scenes, a piece of malware—or software with bad intentions—is downloaded to your computer.

You won’t necessarily be any the wiser. Your computer will continue to function. Only it will also have been infected with a virus, which could do any number of things, from reporting back home all your passwords, to turning your computer into a zombie in a botnet. (Zombies are computers that can be controlled remotely, and a botnet is network of hundreds, maybe thousands, of compromised computers which can be used to send spam or launch other computer-borne attacks.)

None of this is good for you. If you’re infected by this kind of virus, you need to disinfect, and that may require a professional. If you think you might be infected, first run a check on your computer with something like Housecall from TrendMicro (housecall.trendmicro.com).

Earlier in August Facebook itself reported that a small percentage of users were infected by this virus; the trouble is that a small percentage of all the millions of Facebookers is still hundreds of users. As Avi Dardik of antivirus company Yoggie Security Systems puts it, users are lulled into making a false step through a gradual series of moves: “Notice how sophisticated this series is–the user is essentially drugged to sleep in several steps,” he says.

The simple lesson from this is that Facebook—and other social networking sites—are becoming popular enough to entice the bad guys into coming up with ways to attack us. Now there are enough of us on these sites to make it worth their while. So we need to be careful clicking on links—as careful as when we open an ordinary email. Remember: Just  because it’s from a friend doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Needless to say, make sure you’ve got antivirus software on your computer, and make sure it’s up to date. Also, make sure your browsers and operating system are up to date too: Antivirus alone is not enough to protect you. (I would recommend the latest version of the Firefox browser, but if you insist on using Internet Explorer, do make sure it’s the latest version.)

Here’s another way to play safe if you’re using Windows XP. Vista—the new version of Windows—plugs this hole by default, but the older version, XP, allows users to run their computer as an administrator. This means you can do anything—install software, change important settings, etc—which is good, but dangerous, because it means anything that can insinuate itself onto your computer can do the same thing.

This might be possible even just visiting a website—you don’t have to actively download or install anything—so it makes browsing potentially lethal. Better to forego those administrative privileges and play safe. The problem is you’ll have to switch back and forth between administrator and ordinary user should you want to install legitimate software, or change the settings on your computer.

Here’s a simple enough way round this: This link–http://is.gd/1JR6—will take you to a step-by-step guide I’ve written to surfing without administrative rights, while keeping those rights for everything else you do. That adds another layer of security that would save you from the kind of scary stuff I’ve been talking about. I’d recommend you do it right now.

Final word: Facebook et al are great playgrounds to mess around with your friends. But it’s not a bouncy castle: You can still hurt yourself.

Some Early Lessons from The Georgian Cyberwar

image

illustration fron Arbor Networks

There’s some interesting writing going about the Georgian Cyberwar. This from VNUnet, which seems to confirms my earlier suspicion that this was the first time we’re seeing two parallel wars: 

“We are witnessing in this crisis the birth of true, operational cyber warfare,” said Eli Jellenc, manager of All-Source Intelligence at iDefense.

“The use of cyber attack assets in conjunction with kinetic military operations in the current crisis now stands among the most significant developments ever seen in the field of information security or cyber conflict studies.”

Others suggest that in fact there are examples of earlier parallel conflicts: Kosovo, among them, says Arbor Networks’ Jose Nazario.

ZDNet’s Dancho Danchev takes the idea that this is all about denying participants a chance to get their message out a stage further: those put out of action are being forced to get their message out through other channels. Georgia’s foreign ministry, for example, has set up a blog at Blogger and the website of the Polish president.

The mainstream press is having a go at the story, too, including the Journal and the NYT. The main culprit, the articles suggest (following Georgia’s own claims), is the Russian Business Network, a St. Petersburg-based gang.

But as this article points out, finding out who is responsible is a slow business. Indeed, this is a strange feature of cyberwar that makes it more akin to terrorism than to warfare. This kind of makes the notion of establishing responsibility a little beside the point. Cyberattacks are a chance for ordinary (well, sort of ordinary) citizens to do their bit for the war effort. In this sense the government is a customer for the services of botnet and hacker groups or individuals with skills the government is happy to see deployed on its behalf, while able to plausibly deny it has anything to do with.

Indeed, we may be missing the more interesting aspect of this, one that predates South Ossetia. Now we’re just seeing cyber attacks work alongside the physical, or kinetic, attacks. A sort of psywar, since it’s mainly about getting the word out and winning hearts and minds.

But what about a cyberwar conducted on its own, but one that leads to a physical war—at least, a cold one? Joel Hruska at arstechnica points out in a piece written a week ago, that an uncovered little cyberwar—or rather cyber-hacktivism—in Lithuania, led to a serious cooling of relations between its government and that of Russia. As with Estonia last year, the attack “marked the first time I was aware of in which a single individual with a computer was able to notably impact relations between two neighboring nations.”

Georgia, however, represents the first time we’ve seen a government almost wiped off the Internet. Whether this is a prelude to it being wiped off the map is something we’ll have to wait and see. But already some conclusions are becoming obvious:

  • Cyberwar is too powerful a tool for any government to ignore, both offensively and defensively;
  • Cyberwar is not just about putting citizens of a target country in the dark; it’s about making it impossible for the target government, and its citizens, to get their side of the story out.
  • As these tools get more powerful, when will we see cyberwar as a specific phase in a physical war designed to achieve what used to be done by the physical bombardment of communication centers?
  • Botnets, and their owners, are powerful players beyond the underworld of spam and phishing. A government that has them operating within their borders must surely know of their existence; if it hasn’t shut them down already, is it too great a leap of logic to suggest there must, at some level, be a relationship between them?

Georgia gets allies in Russian cyberwar – vnunet.com

Why Do People Contribute Stuff for Free?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

If you want to see two worlds collide, introduce a Wikipedian to a bunch of journalists.

I’ve been doing this quite a bit recently, partly for fun, and partly because I’ve decided a key part of training journalists to be ready for online media is understanding what they’re up against. “This is your competitor,” I say, introducing them to a slightly pudgy PhD candidate in ancient Greek and Latin, still sweating from his journey and a couple of hours of fencing lessons. “This person works for the single biggest media property on the web.”

Needless to say, they all look askance at the man, and me, and I can see them thinking to themselves, “Well that’s something we don’t have to worry about.” Especially when the guy, called Edward, tells them he does all his work for free and largely, he says, because he’s a pedant.

Of course Wikipedia—that online encyclopedia that now boasts 2.5 million articles in English alone—doesn’t pretend to compete with traditional newspapers or media. It’s an encyclopedia, after all, although it’s updated far more frequently than most encyclopedias, and, dare I say it, many traditional media websites.

But it’s the fact that all this is done for free that gets the journalists in my class all riled up. Edward tells them he spends about 20 minutes a day working on pieces, either adding something to a page on an obscure Chinese bridge, or tidying up someone’s grammar on a page about a kind of Southeast Asian bread. Why? they ask? Why would you spend all this time doing all this?

Well, first off, I can tell he spends way more time on it than 20 minutes. In class you can see him get distracted by an article and then start tweaking it. We’re speaking serious compulsive tendencies here. But the truth is, he does it because he enjoys it. He really is a pedant, in the nicest sense. He can’t stand to see things online that aren’t, in his view, correct. Whether it’s a serious error or a more esoteric one (he’s the first person I’ve met who can talk about ligatures until the tripthongs come home.)

Edward may be unusual, but he, and people like him, are the bedrock of sites like Wikipedia. In fact, while Wikipedia is the seventh most popular website on the planet, only 0.2% of visitors contribute anything, and only a tiny fraction of that do most of the grunt work.

This isn’t just true of Wikipedia. The history of the Internet is about the few creating, the rest doing what is usually called lurking—sitting within earshot but not actually saying anything. The ratio is called the 1% rule, meaning 90 percent lurk, 9% contribute occasionally, and 1% account for most of the contribution.

This is probably true offline as well; anybody who’s tried to get volunteers to help out on committees or at events know all about freeloaders. The web just makes this more obvious—that a lot of people tend to freeload, and a handful of people just seem to keep on giving.

But that’s not exactly true. Everyone is motivated somehow, and the Edwards of this world are motivated too. Studies have been done to show how a Wikipedia environment is very much like an academic one: those who do contribute find themselves in a weird sort of social hierarchy. Some recognise their work—there’s a merit system within Wikipedia where contributors are given barnstars by other grateful contributors. Others complain they get no recognition and that the whole thing is political anyway.

Sound familiar?

For most websites like this, I suspect the story is similar. People get involved because they’re interested, and then they find it’s a community, and then they want to be a useful member of that community, and then they seek recognition in that community, and the rest is history. That’s not to denigrate it; a lot of fine work has been done for worse reasons.

The same is true of open source software, of Amazon book reviews, of comments on obscure ornithology websites about the lesser-spotted rabbit catcher. The Internet is a great leveler, in that anyone with an Internet connection can join in, but then human nature kicks in, and hierarchies form. In this case it tends to be around what you know, and how much you hang around and contribute.

But there’s a bigger point here. Just as each online community depends on these power users, so do they depends on ordinary folk like us. Editing a Wikipedia entry is remarkably easy, and the warm fuzzy feeling you get for correcting even the smallest error is a a heady one. Try it and you’ll see how easy it is to get addicted.

Indeed, websites make it so easy for us to play a role that in a way the model is changing. We can add our voice while doing nothing more tiring than listening to music on our computer. Software will feed our choices of songs to others who may share our tastes and are looking for new artists to listen to. We can easily add websites to social lists of bookmarks with just a mouse click. Increasingly we do this kind of thing with our friends via social networking sites–partly because it’s fun and partly because we like to be useful.

And maybe, in the end, that’s all it comes down to. My Dad used to walk around the village picking up bits of litter—some of them so small my toy microscope wouldn’t have spotted them—just because he wanted to be useful. I suspect Edward, and all those other Wikipedians out there, are doing something similar. Which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling about the future of the Internet. Of course, a couple of barn stars wouldn’t go amiss either.

Is PaperMaster Finally Dead?

image

A reader tells me that PaperMaster, the once great scanning and file saving software, is no longer available. Tech support, the reader says, says only that the product was pulled today and no other info is available. 

Try to order one online and the message ‘531031 PaperMaster Pro International – not available’.

A sad end to what was once—and for many still is—the best program for scanning documents into folders where you can easily find them again. Paperport just isn’t quite the same, somehow.

That said, the company that bought PaperMaster, j2, have had it coming to them for a while. I found them unhelpful in my efforts to review earlier versions of the software, and this blog has been something of a gathering point for disgruntled users.

I don’t think they really understood the software, or the fanbase, that they had. The product has not been mentioned on their corporate website for some time (except, interestingly, on their legal page.)

Sad, really, given that there are lots of users still out there. If you’re in that boat, and you’re still looking for a replacement, you might want to try Evernote. It’s not quite ready to do what PaperMaster did, but they’re promising PDF thumbnails (Macs already have it, natively) so you might find it works for you.

South Ossetia: The First Cyber/Physical War?

image

BBC picture

Wikipedia is doing a good job of chronicling the war in South Ossetia; its mention of several apparent cyberattacks on both sides makes me wonder whether this is the first instance of a physical war being accompanied by a cyberwar? All those listed on Wikipedia are not parallel attacks, i.e. they are not part of an actual physical war.

So far the attacks have been by Georgian supporters on two Ossetian media sites, and attacks by supporters of South Ossetia on the Georgian National Bank website and the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which was reportedly splashed with a collage of of Saakashvili and Hitler photos.) The Georgian news site, Civil Georgia that reported the attacks on the South Ossetian websites itself now appears to be down.

Some attacks appear to preceded the war, suggesting that they were part of a deliberate build-up ahead of the entry of Russian troops into South Ossetia. On July 21 the Georgian president’s website was attacked. I wasn’t able to access the website as of early Aug 9. While tensions have been growing between Georgia and Russia for several weeks, it seems clear that the botnet involved in this attack was set up for this purpose only a few weeks ago.

Of course, none of this means that it’s done at an official level. But it’s interesting that at a time the Georgians and the South Ossetians would presumably like to get their sides of the story out, they can’t because their websites, official and unofficial, are down.

As the Georgian ambassador to the UK put it to Al Jazeera:

“Georgia has been attacked by a formidable force, it is a brutal attack with the use of air force, tanks and even the trademark cyber attack.”

“If this is not an all out war what is?” he asked.

War in South Ossetia (2008) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Update on Aug 12: some more links

http://lists.grok.org.uk/pipermail/full-disclosure/2008-August/063820.html

http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-10014150-83.html

Six Degrees of Networking

A recent report by Microsoft researchers had breathed life back into something that looked like a myth: the idea that we’re only six people away from everyone on the planet. Six Degrees of separation, as it’s called, suggested that someone we knew would know someone else who would know someone else who would know someone else who would know someone else who would know the person we’re trying to reach. It’s called the small world experiment, and we like it because it makes the world seem smaller, somehow, more cozy.

That idea is more than 40 years old. And most people had begun to think it wasn’t true. Of course, then, there were only 3.5 billion people on the planet. Now it’s nearly double that. I’m not a mathematician, so I’m not actually sure whether that makes it easier or harder.

Anyway, the idea wasn’t doing terribly well until recently, when researchers from Microsoft gobbled up 30 billion chats on Microsoft’s instant messaging system between some 240 million people around the world and concluded that the average path length between any messenger user and another is 6.6.

What the Microsoft guys have really discovered is that the Internet has created a new kind of connection. The Internet is all about connecting computers to other computers; we just happen to be sitting at their keyboards.

Facebook, for example, is a very efficient tool for turning even the most scatterbrained recluse into a social networker. If you’ve ever used Facebook, you’ll know that it can reassemble the disparate networks of friends, colleagues, relatives and childhood foes alarmingly quickly. I now have 399 friends on Facebook, and they span the globe and a lifetime of boozy lunches and cigarettes behind the squash courts. A little application on the side will constantly nudge me with suggestions for people I might know but haven’t added.

But these networks are about more than recreating the bulging address book of half-forgotten friends you would occasionally send Christmas cards to. Other services, liked LinkedIn, try to leverage connections to build business networks. I have a modest 518 connections on LinkedIn, and another 194 invitations still awaiting a reply, but I have no idea who most of them are. They might be people I once met, interviewed, emailed, or, more likely, contacts of people I once met, interviewed or emailed, or even just people who thought I was a cool guy and wanted to be linked to me.

Of course, they’re not interested in me so much as who I know: And vice versa. If I want to reach someone at the Daily Telegraph, for example, I could reach more than 35 of them through people in my network, who either know someone there, or know someone who knows someone who is there.

I found that simply by typing in the name of the company. It took me 30 seconds and cost me nothing.

The reality is that the Internet makes our networks very efficient, so that the line gets blurred between what these connections actually mean. Are we gathering friends and business connections because we’re interested in these people, or because we want to a) show off or b) start selling them vacuum cleaners or sending them our CV? Perhaps it’s always been like that. There was always someone who seemed keener to know you for your friends than a fascination with your collection of tie-dye t-shirts.

But things are different. Those of us plugged into the net—or our cellphone—for much of the day are already familiar with how we unconsciously layer and maintain our networks—whether it’s on tools like twitter, or Facebook, or Skype, or Windows Messenger. Back in 1967, when the six degrees separation experiment took place, they used letters to explore the connections between people. The quickest took four days: 232 of the 296 letters never reached the destination.

Now we have 100 different ways to connect almost immediately to anyone else on the planet—who happens to be on a network. We may think they’re the same, but they’re different worlds. We’re connected to people, not because of any innate sociability of social skill, but because of the awesome power of the Internet.

That said, some thing never change. The Microsoft study also found that people on instant messaging tend to communicate more with people of the same background. That makes sense. But there was one area where this wasn’t true: cross-gender conversations, as they put it, are both more frequent and of longer duration than conversations with users of the same reported gender. In short, most instant messaging is about flirting. I’m guessing that was probably true back in 1967 too.

Old Content Still Gets Readers Excited

image

Here’s evidence that online publications should try to re-use—and make accessible—old content. The most emailed story on the BBC website at the moment—Aug 5 2008—is actually a story from January 2004:

image

which is this one:

image

I have no idea why it is—although the subject matter is pretty compelling, I must admit. (The gadget, it turns out, is not half the price it was back then. You can find it here; the BBC link no longer works.)

Bottom line: Some stories are just too good to allow to grow old.

Update, Aug 23: Further to comments, I don’t think this is deliberate self-promotion. I noticed another story near the top of the most emailed list again today, which didn’t offer anyone any obvious commercial benefit. It was on raining fish, a story from 2004:

image