Radio Australia Topics, Feb 27 2009

Here’s what I’m talking about on today’s Breakfast Club:

Making Networks Do the Work

I don’t get overly excited about plug-ins but I think Xoopit may have shifted us into a new gear.

As part of a course I teach on journalist tools I do a demo of Gmail. I talk about it being the new desktop. But I’m only showing the bare bones of the thing: labels, filters, colors, stars.

For a lot of them, that’s an eye-opener in itself.

But it’s once you start talking about gadgets where you can access your calendar, your documents, your chat, then it really makes sense.

All good, but not really anything different to Outlook. Just lighter and accessible from anywhere.

But the arrival of an updated version of the plugin Xoopit, I think, really pitches webmail, well Gmail, into a new zone.

It has some basic stuff which is kinda useful. At the top is a row of picture attachments from recent emails:

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Not that useful for me, but useful.

There are also links to videos and files: click on one and it takes you to a full listing of attachments, listable by type, date received, etc. You can even search by sender: 

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But still that’s not what impressed me, and convinced me we’re on the threshold of something brand new.

Read an email thread and Xoopit will pluck out those people involved in the conversation. It will display them on the right hand side of the thread. Not only that; it will try to grab their Facebook profile and image—even if you’re not connected to them on Facebook:

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At a stroke I can now see who I’m talking to (in this case avoiding the catastrophe of misidentifying a woman as a man) and also see who we have in common:

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To me this raises all sorts of possibilities. Suddenly my networks are beginning to talk to each other, to mine each other for data and work to close the gaps in them. I’m suddenly much better informed about the people I’m dealing with, without having to do lots of legwork.

Of course, this would be better if it was also searching LinkedIn (or maybe instead searching LinkedIn, in that I’d rather connect that way to a professional contact first.)

But it’s still the first time I’ve seen leveraging like this done in such a simple and unobtrusive way. It fits into my way of working rather than a lot of these network leveragers I’ve seen, which add to the clutter or try to automate things which should  be manual.

More on that anon.

For now, congratulations Xoopit. I count this as the first step in a bright dawn of social networks and contact lists working for me rather than the other way around.

And I think it’s further proof that Gmail—or Yahoo! Mail, or any of the rich featured webmail offerings—are actually a workplace in themselves, around which can be built all sorts of useful tools mining our other networks.

Radio Australia Topics, Feb 20 2009

Here’s what I’m talking about on today’s (shortened) Breakfast Club:

Virus Grounds French Fighters

Here’s more evidence of how vulnerable armed forces are to software attacks, intended or not. The French navy’s fighter jets “were unable to download their flight plans after databases were infected by a Microsoft virus they had already been warned about several months beforehand,” according to the Telegraph:

However, the French navy admitted that during the time it took to eradicate the virus, it had to return to more traditional forms of communication: telephone, fax and post.

Naval officials said the “infection”‘ was probably due more to negligence than a deliberate attempt to compromise French national security. It said it suspected someone at the navy had used an infected USB key.

Last month, you may recall, a virus closed down the British Ministry of Defence.

French fighter planes grounded by computer virus – Telegraph

Scan a Bed Time Story for Me, Daddy

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This is up there among the lamest products of the year: a scanner that will convert a book to speech.

Well actually, it sounds quite good. I’d imagined a device that could flip the pages over while you sit back nursing a Scotch. When everything’s done the scanner converts the text to “high quality speech with a lifelike voice” and you’re off, listening to The Little Prince while you’re driving/power walking/sleeping/making out/performing keyhole surgery.

Only you’re not: The Plustek BookReader does use only one button, and it does include a patented feature that means you don’t have those weird edges when you scan a book. But you still have to do it manually. A single page at a time.

I’m all for cutting steps out, and this cuts out a lot, but it sounds to me like this is for a very specialized market. Other than the visually impaired, how many people are going to scan a whole book? At a page every 15 seconds, by my calculations, it would still take more than an hour to scan a 300-page book.

Wouldn’t it be quicker to, er, just read it?

And yet Plustek reckon that

[t]he BookReader’s printed words into MP3 capability is designed for every age; parents who want to give their children the option to listen to books instead of just music, adults who wish to enjoy reading while driving or multi-tasking, and busy executives or medical professionals who find it easier to listen to their books and documents when they don’t have the time to read.

If they’re that busy I’m not sure they’re going to have the time to sit around scanning. If their lives are so full I’m not sure an extra device that requires them to turn a book around and flip pages is going to find a slot.

Plustek BookReader, a text to speech peripheral device with book edge scanning design!

The Failure of the Open Field

It’s great that Apple has created a new platform with the iPhone and the App Store. But it’s also a ripping indictment of the personal computer industry—and cellphone industry—thus far. And not to be too nice to Apple: The beautiful stuff we’re seeing with the iPhone is mainly about pastime—not about productivity (or creativity.)

Here’s what Apple has done right: It’s created a beautiful device that works and seduces. It’s created a single environment and process for people to be able to buy, download and install applications. And then it’s set some standards so things don’t get out of hand.

This is something that should have been done years ago. Microsoft had oh so long to come up with a way for third-party developers to produce good applications and have them certified and delivered in a way that makes it easy for consumers to install them (and the developers to make a decent living from them.) Instead we have a world where increasingly users are reluctant to download apps because even the best of them come front-loaded with crapware and configuration changing tweaks.

Nokia and the other big cellphone players had a decade to get their act together: To make phones connect seamlessly with computers, and for third party developers to come up with applications that made their devices compelling. I hate installing anything on my N95 because I know it’s a nightmare. Why bother?

Now Apple have done what needed to be done. They’ve done well and they deserve to take over the market for these reasons alone. Now the iPhone has become an extraordinary device capable of some spine-tingling stuff. Computers, finally, are tapping into the creativity of individual developers. And at a price point that’s not free, but for most people is as cheap as makes no difference.

I doubt Microsoft will get it. I doubt Nokia will get it. That makes me sad. But I also have a deeper regret. That, because it’s Apple, I don’t think we’ll now see the really full potential of software ideas and development, because Apple is still a very closed-in world. That is part of the reason for its success. Making everything a single pipe tends either succeeds spectacularly or fails dismally.

But it also caps its potential. By acknowledging this success we’ve also admitted that the online chaos that we thought would work, would somehow organize itself, has not worked. Try to find a decent application for WIndows XP. Or for your N95. Try to browse and just see what’s out there, and experiment. You’re brave if you do. Apple’s walled garden approach is a roaring success because we’ve failed to make the unmown field work. And we had long enough.

From the Desk of David Pogue – So Many iPhone Apps, So Little Time – NYTimes.com

Radio Australia Topics, Feb 6 2009

What I talked about on the Radio Australia Breakfast Club today:

  • Everyone, it seems, is writing an iPhone app. Including a Singaporean 9-year old. Not surprising since half a billion apps have been downloaded since the app store went live six months ago. iPhone apps get security conscious: Bank Info lures the thief with juicy bank data but in fact transmits locational information to the owner. FoneJac will make your iPhone go off like a car alarm if someone picks it up.
  •  Google launches Latitude: Now you can see where your friends are, not where they say they are.
  • Pew Internet and American Life Project finds teens preferring SMS and instant messaging over email (d’oh) but also over social networks and virtual worlds. (Emily of textually.org points out that email was out from about 2004 in South Korea.)
  • A big step: Microsoft offers, not just a list of steps to fix a problem, but to do the steps for you, with its Fix It program. Good idea, or thin end of a dodgy wedge?

Beware the SMS Premium Number Scam

An Indian phone company is warning users against a variation on the premium rate phone scam, whereby users are contacted by email or mail and asked to call a number to confirm winning a prize. The number is a premium number—either local or international—and the user has to sit through several expensive minutes of canned music before finding they haven’t won anything.

The Indian variation is that victims are sent an SMS containing the phone number they should call. They’re then charged Rs500 ($10) a minute as they navigate their way through an automated phone tree.

Control Enter » Blog Archive » Beware of false lottery winning claims via SMS

Traffic Light Scam II

More on the Italian traffic light scam. I wrote to Mr. Arrighetti asking for comment, and received this from Silvia Guelpa, who says she is a consultant to the company. In summary, she’s arguing that the company, and its founder Stefano Arrighetti, haven’t done anything wrong and that if anyone has broken the law it’s the companies and police who have been responsible for changing the settings which created the huge volume of tickets.

She makes the points that

  • KRIA is a manufacturer and does not sell to the City Councils but to Companies who rent the T-RED to the Police with contracts based on the number of ticket (about 30%).
  • T-RED—the system–does not actually control the traffic lights, which are managed by a controller.
  • T-RED can be configured to detect immediately after the red phase begins or after a configured delay (0-10.000ms). Local Police and Companies renting the systems set the yellow on the controller for as short a period as possible and reset to zero the above mentioned delay, in order to increase the number of tickets.

This, she says, is what is causing the abnormal number of tickets.

She also says there has already been one investigation, by Milan’s attorney, which concluded after one year that KRIA is “absolutely innocent and out of any private interest.” That investigation, she says, resulted in the arrest of “bosses of the companies buying and renting T-RED and they admitted that they forced and won many tenders incorrectly.”

But with public outcry still strong—three million tickets still had to be paid—Verona’s attorney started investigating KRIA’s certification—whether or not its system had all the right paperwork. The idea, she says, was to find an excuse to cancel all the tickets.

KRIA believes it has all the right certification, arguing that the only parts which need to be certified are “the fixed, immutable components of the device”–cameras, lighting systems, PC and PCI board. But Ms Guelpa says the attorney’s power “is unlimited during the investigation phase. They can even arrest people.”

Her argument is basically that Mr. Arrighetti is being made a scapegoat on a technicality.

Lesson from this? I guess I’m still reeling from the idea that police forces would fiddle the system to fill their coffers, not just in Italy but elsewhere. But I guess the bigger point is that all kinds of technology are susceptible to this kind of manipulation, which raises the question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The Traffic Light Scam

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If true, this is a scam that is going to fuel the conspiracy theories of every driver who feels they were fined unfairly for crossing a red light. Police in Italy have arrested the inventor of a smart traffic light system, and are investigating another 108 people, on suspicion of tampering with the software to speed up the transition from amber to to red, netting the local police and others in on the scam millions of dollars of extra fines.

The question is: Is this kind of thing limited only to Italy?

The Independent writes:

Stefano Arrighetti, 45, an engineering graduate from Genoa who created the “T-Redspeed” system, is under house arrest, and 108 other people are under investigation after it was alleged that his intelligent lights were programmed to turn from amber to red in half the regulation time. The technology, which was adopted all over Italy, employs three cameras designed to assess the three-dimensional placement of vehicles passing a red light and store their number plates on a connected computer system.

Those now under investigation include 63 municipal police commanders, 39 local government officials and the managers of seven private companies.

The fraud, The Independent says, was uncovered by Roberto Franzini, police chief of Lerici, on the Ligurian coast, who – in February 2007 – noticed the abnormal number of fines being issued for jumping red lights. “There were 1,439 for the previous two months,” he said. “It seemed too much: at the most our patrols catch 15 per day.” He went to check the lights and found that they were changing to red after three seconds instead of the five seconds that had been normal.

Unanswered, of course, is why it’s taken two years for the fraud to be stopped and investigated. The inventor’s lawyer has said he is innocent. Mr Arrighetti’s LinkedIn page is here. He is described as the owner of Kria, a Milan-based company which sells the T-Redspeed and other traffic monitoring systems.

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Image of Arrighetti from Insight24 webcast

The T-Redspeed system is described in the company literature as “the newest and most innovative digital system for vehicle speed and red light violation detection. Based on special video cameras, it doesn’t require additional sensors (inductive loops, radars or lasers). It measures the speed of the vehicles (instantaneous and average) up to 300 km/h.”

Some forum posters have suggested a system used by British authorities, RedSpeed, is the same, but on first glance it doesn’t look like it. That said, reducing the amber phase seems to be a widespread source of extra revenue: The National Motorists Association of America has found six cities that have shortened the amber phase beyond the legal amount, apparently as a way to increase revenue.

Illustration from Kria brochure (PDF)