Clint, Veganism, and Maligning the Net

Great interview in the International Herald Tribune/NYT with Clint Eastwood, but once again, it’s old media slagging off new media and ending up looking the worse for it.

The interviewer, presumably, asks Clint to confirm that he’s a vegan. Turns out he’s not.  Apparently the writer did his research on Wikipedia, because that’s what he cites as a source:

Despite what you might have read on Wikipedia, Eastwood is not a vegan, and he looked slightly aghast when told exactly what a vegan is. “I never look at the Internet for just that reason,” he said.

Trouble is, the source is not Wikipedia. As anyone who uses Wikipedia knows, any information on there must be sourced. A glance at the actual Wikipedia page would reveal that the source for this ‘fact’ about Clint is, in fact, a fellow old media source, The Los Angeles Times:

People ask him to autograph rifles, but Eastwood is no Charlton Heston. A vegan, he was distressed to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton boast recently about bagging a bird.

This piece was subsequently run in the San Jose Mercury News, the Providence Journal and PressDisplay.

In fact, you won’t be able to see this on the Wikipedia page anymore because it’s been removed. That’s because some new media moves faster than old media: on December 11, the day the NYT piece was first published, a Wikipedian spotted the reference and prompted a discussion, and the removal of the reference on the grounds that a direct denial from Eastwood trumps an LAT piece. (You can see the discussion here.)

In other words, from what we can judge, the journalist involved researched Clint on Wikipedia, and was ready enough to accept that as a source on which to base his questions. When the fact in question turned out to be wrong, he allowed Clint to make a familiar sideswipe at the Internet, and not further research the origin of the myth.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The LA Times doesn’t cite a source. But there are plenty of them—apparently. Clint is quoted on dozens of sites as saying

“I try to stick to a vegan diet—heavy on fruit, vegetables, tofu, and other soy products.”

Sites like GoVeg.com have been happy to include him in their Animal-Friendly Celebrities (although, to their credit, they seem to have removed him. Compare this page with this cached version.)

What’s perhaps most intriguing is the source of this quote. I’ll admit I can’t find it. But it’s been bouncing around the net for a couple of years; this forum cites it in September 2006. I found a  piece in Glasgow’s Daily Record on May 23, 2006 that also listed Clint as vegetarian, although the web site does not seem to contain a record of it. The oldest reference I can find is in the Miami New Times, on October 13 2005, which lists Clint among a number of (supposed) vegans.

In other words, a myth arose on the net, without any straightforward way of establishing its provenance or authenticity, which was then happily picked up by websites, businesses, and organisations whose purpose it served, then found its way into a mainstream news article, before finally being authoritatively quashed.

So yes, in a way Clint and the NYT reporter are right. The Internet isn’t reliable. But Wikipedia is. Or at least, it’s no less reliable than the sources it cites. Which in this case, happened to be old media itself.

Lesson? As a journalist I guess I might too have fallen into the trap of trusting the LA Times. But it’s a timely reminder that there’s no fact too small or apparently established that it can’t stand to be fact-checked.

Just don’t blame the net if you get it wrong. It’s cheap and it’s old wave.

The veteran power of Clint Eastwood – International Herald Tribune

The Aviators of Social Media

What’s more astonishing: Twitter’s extraordinary capabilities for distributing information, or news managers’ reluctance to recognize its power?

When describing a digital media phenomenon to old media staff it’s useful to look for an old media analogy. I describe Twitter, as being like an old AP news printer, sitting in the corner of the newsroom, spitting out news all day long. Except it’s written by the people you choose to follow.

And there’s more. Unlike the news printer which only delivered you information, if you want to you can follow stories back to your sources and see who they were talking to about whatever it is that interests you.

But even after my analogies, my bubbling enthusiasm for Twitter, and my “see, I can see what people who do my job are saying all over the country,” I’m still often met with those “whatever makes you happy” smiles.

Which leads me to another analogy. Perhaps the Twitterati, and other news people experimenting with digital media tools are a little like the early aviators.

In the years before the First World War there were very few of them. They were flying planes, building new planes, talking about planes and constantly trying new ideas. I’ve no doubt they were totally obsessed with flight. Are two engines better than one? Will monoplanes fly faster than biplanes? How about using metal for the wings?

But for everyone else, planes probably seemed fun, but dangerous and of no real interest to them. How would planes ever impact their lives? Besides everyone else had better things to do on carts and trains. And those crazy aviators; well, good luck to them.

Times have changed. No one thinks twice about flying today. No one thinks about whether the plane will have enough fuel or what makes it stay up. Flying is just a part of life, in spite of the fact that the general idea of a flying machine has really changed very little in a hundred years. It still has two wings, a body and a tail. It’s just more refined and developed.

One day soon we’ll be in Twitter’s age of commercial flight. Everyone will take micro-blogging for granted, and wonder what life must have been like buying newspapers for news, or looking at one of those old televisions. “Remember those,” we’ll say, with a smile.

How Good Information Goes Bad

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The Internet is fast becoming a sort of gossip chamber where the real merges with the fantasy, leaving ordinary people overwhelmed. I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

Take an email my wife forwarded me this morning. It’s from a newsgroup comprising Indonesian expat mothers in Singapore (talk about niches!). The sender had forwarded an email they received from someone who claimed to have had the scam they describe befall them in Singapore.

The scam itself is ingenious: someone phones a resident, saying they’ve got a package to deliver and confirming someone will be home. The package is a beautiful basket of flowers and wine. No card (the delivery guy says it’s coming later.) Recipient happy, but told will have to pay $3.50 as proof the delivery guy left the alcohol-containing package to an adult. Fair enough.

The recipient goes to get cash. No, says the guy, it has to be by EFTPOS—a bank card—because he’s not allowed to handle cash. Fair enough.

He swipes the card on  his machine, recipient enters PIN, and off delivery guy goes.

Within a few days, several thousand dollars disappears from the recipient’s account, via a duplicated card and the stolen PIN number.

Now this is a good, classy and brazen scam. And it’s true. It did happen—in Sydney, Australia, in October (and possibly November) 2008. The guy involved was arrested on November 21.

But it didn’t, as far as we know, happen in Singapore. Or anywhere else.

But that hasn’t stopped the email from spreading virally. In Malaysia, Canada, and elsewhere.

Myth-busting sites like Snopes and Hoax Slayer have done a good job of trying to separate fact and fiction. The problem is that as these legitimate stories spread, they serve to confuse and alarm rather than educate the public. As Hoax Slayer puts it:

While they may be perfectly valid when first launched, a problem with such warning emails is that they may continue to circulate for years and eventually become outdated and redundant. And, as noted, false or misleading information may be added to the messages as they circulate and such additions can significantly erode their use as warnings. Before forwarding such warning messages, it is always wise to check that the information they contain is accurate and up-to-date.

I quite agree. It’s good that people are wary, but not based on stories that are no longer true.

Checklist to avoid such scams:

  • Ask to see credentials of any delivery guy, whether or not he’s giving you free stuff.
  • If you’re wary, don’t accept the delivery. Even if it’s free stuff.
  • You should not be asked to pay money by someone appearing at your door unless you’re expecting the package. Sadly this is not properly adhered to, even by supposedly reputable couriers. In Indonesia I would find the couriers demanding duty payments that were not sufficiently documented.
  • Don’t let anyone swipe your bank card unless you’ve established who they are.
  • If in doubt, demand a name card and take a photo of the person with your cellphone. Then close the door.

Photo credit: North Shore Times.

KL’s Airport Gets Infected

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If there’s one place you hope you won’t get infected by a computer virus, it’s an airport.

It’s not just that the virus may fiddle with your departure times; it’s the wider possibility that the virus may have infected more sensitive parts of the airport: ticketing, say, or—heaven forbid—flight control.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport—Malaysia’s main international airport—was on Friday infected by the W32.Downadup worm, which exploits a vulnerability in Windows Microsoft patched back in October. The worm, according to Symantec, does a number of things, creating an http server on the compromised computer, deletes restore points, downloads other file and then starts spreading itself to other computers.

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Enlargement of the photo above. The notification says Symantec Antivirus has found the worm, but has not been able to clean or quarantine the file.

KL airport clearly isn’t keeping a tight rein on its security. The virus alert pictured above is at least 12 hours old and the vulnerability it exploits had been patched up a month before. Says Graham Cluley of UK-based security software company Sophos: “What’s disturbing to me is that over a month later, the airport hasn’t applied what was declared to be an extremely critical patch, and one which is being exploited by malware in the wild.”

What’s more worrying is that this isn’t the first time. It’s the first time I’ve noticed an infection on their departures/arrivals board, but one traveller spotted something similar a year and a half ago, with a Symantec Antivirus message popping up on one of the monitors. I saw a Symantec Antivirus message on one monitor that said it had “encountered a problem and needs to close”, suggesting that the worm had succeeded in disabling the airport’s own antivirus defences:

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So how serious is all this? Cluely says: “Well, it’s obviously a nuisance to many people, and maybe could cause some disruption.. but I think this is just the most “visible” sign of what may be a more widespread infection inside the airport.  I would be more concerned if ticketing and other computer systems were affected by the same attack.”

He points to computer viruses affecting other airports in recent years: In 2003, Continental Airlines checkin desks were knocked out by the Slammer worm. A year later, Sasser was blamed for leaving 300,000 Australian commuters stranded, and BA flights were also delayed.

For me, the bottom line about airports and air travel is confidence. As a traveler I need to feel confident that the people deciding which planes I fly and when are on top of basic security issues. And that doesn’t mean just frisking me at the gate. It also means keeping the computer systems that run the airport safe. This is probably just sloppy computer habits but what if it wasn’t? What if it was a worm preparing for a much more targeted threat, aimed specifically at air traffic?

(I’ve asked KL International Airport and Symantec for comment.)

The Periphery of the Brand

(Updated Dec 8 with comment from IKEA)

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I’m always amazed at how companies work really, really hard on their brand, and then blow it all on the periphery.

The pictures here are taken from the Milton Keynes branch of IKEA, an otherwise wonderful store that caters to kids, has the usual IKEA range of stuff and generally lives up to the company’s brand in spades.

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Except at the entrance. The trash repository is right in front of the door, and is littered with cigarette butts, burger wrappers, ash, IKEA cups and a half-drunk glass of orange that, presumably, came from the IKEA cafeteria:

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It stands out like a sore thumb, depressing newcomers and those leaving the store alike. At a guess it’s not maintained, or maintained enough, because it’s just beyond the scope of the store, and so is probably not, strictly speaking, the responsibility of the store. There’s probably no guideline for this sort of situation in the IKEA manual. But IKEA is the only user of the building, and the stuff being left here is all from IKEA shoppers—some of it sporting the IKEA logo.

The periphery of the brand is often just beyond the reach of all the normal boxes a manager would tick in ensuring the brand is looking good. But that is often the exact point of contact for a customer—coloring either their first impression or the lasting one they have when they leave.

IKEA have promised to address the problem: In an email, they said: “At IKEA Milton Keynes, we strive to maintain high standards of tidiness across our store both inside and out to give our customers the best possible shopping experience. On this occasion, the maintenance of the bin does not reflect these standards however, we are addressing this, and are stepping up measures to make the necessary improvements.”