Office of the Future

This was a piece I was asked to do for a BBC World Service segment on the office of the future. It was broadcast a couple of days ago. Here’s the full broadcast: 

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 Needless to say the piece has nothing do with my present work environment, which is charming and healthy.  

The office of 2050, I’m hoping, won’t be an office at all, because by then we’ll have realised that it’s the most unproductive, unhealthy and expensive environment a business could create. 

I won’t bore you with the details but think spinal diseases and, varicose veins from sitting down, allergies from the awful air, and psychological disorders caused by the stress and monotony of office work. Indeed, strip away the fancy screens and chairs and someone from a Charles Dickens book wouldn’t have much trouble navigating our office of today. Rewind to 1974 — 38 years ago, instead of 38 years hence — and the difference would just be computers replacing blotters and typewriters. 

In short, technology has altered the way we work but now where we work, and for the most part, what we work on. Things have just speeded up. 

So the first thing that will change is that we’ll have thrown out the idea of an office. Many of us already do that, trading our expensive allegedly ergonomic chair and desk for a rickety wooden chair and table in Starbucks. This trend will continue as jobs become more specialised and it becomes harder to persuade talent to move city, commute or even sit at a desk. 

By then they’ll be using their own tools, working to their own rhythm. 

What will those tools be? They’ll be very small, highly personalised and ubiquitous. If I was still around then, and had a bigger brain than I do at present, I’d be probably be replacing dry stone walls in the Peak District to keep my brain in shape, stopping occasionally to add dabs of color and code to a project which would appear on a lens grafted onto my left eye, all of it done simply by mind control. The bill for my work would be automatically generated and settled instantaneously via a downpayment on my chalet in Luang Prabang. 

In short, the office won’t exist because we’ll have discovered, belatedly, that the sense of job security is a false one. Companies will rise and fall so quickly it won’t make sense to do so, and even for those behemoths that can shapeshift fast enough to remain competitive, those with smarts won’t confine themselves to one hierarchy or the deadening office politics that goes with it. 

Organisations will have a CEO and a few other big shots, and then a precipitous drop to those who keep the lights on and get the boss’ tea. Everyone else will either have been replaced by robots or be outsourced. But these won’t be the disposable call center ciphers we think of today; they’ll be  constantly updating their skills and offering such specialized services that it is they who will control the relationship, not the other way round. 

By then, you see, organisations and those who invest in them will have woken up to the fact that the most valuable asset will be highly specialised, highly motivated, highly entrepreneurial individuals, and these individuals won’t let themselves be tied to any single location or employer. 

You can see some of this already, in the way Western startups operate — often highly flexible, where employees may be in the same state but never meet. You can also see it in online outsourcing, where companies are increasingly depending on workers overseas — not for mindless grunt work, but for their tireless yearning for quality workmanship, self-improvement and  job satisfaction. 

The future of the office lies not in the office, but in the relentless drive away from its drab four walls. 

Watch Out For the Big Skim

By Jeremy Wagstaff

For those of you nervous about doing your banking online, here are some comforting words: It may be just as dangerous to do it at an ATM machine.

That’s because scammers have figured out how to steal your account details and PIN number straight from the machine. And they’ve been doing it for a while. And they’re getting better at it: Think of it as an industry with its own standards, supply chain and, well, ethics.

Here’s, roughly, how it works. A scammer walks up to an ATM machine. He chooses one in a place that’s not too busy, where there aren’t too many surveillance cameras, and where there are lots of tourists or rich people. He reaches into a plastic shopping bag and pulls out what looks like the card slot of an ordinary ATM machine—the bit on the panel where you slide in your ATM card.

Actually, it is the slot of an ATM machine, only it’s got an extra card reader built in. He sticks this over the top of the existing slot; it fits so well that unless you look carefully you won’t see anything odd. The only thing is that now the magnetic strip on your card would be read twice as it goes in—once by the bad guy’s reader and once by the bank’s machine.

The other part is the PIN reader. This can be done in a couple of ways: either by laying an extra key pad over the existing one, in much the same way he’s laid an extra card reader over the legitimate one. This will just capture your PIN number as you key it in.

Another way is to hide a little camera somewhere near the screen to record you tapping in your PIN number. This could be hidden in a fake speaker—which is where an alert customer found one in Pennsylvania last year—or a leaflet holder, or over the customer’s head.

(If you’re interested, you can watch some alleged bad guys installing this gear in less than a minute here: http://is.gd/41XO.)

All this information is stored on a flash card or something inside the fake keypad or card slot. Now the scammer has all the information necessary to make a fake card, program it with your account, waltz up to an ATM machine and enter your PIN number.

(Oh, and before you ask, you can buy a machine that makes a credit or ATM card, complete with magnetic strip, online for a few hundred dollars. Legitimately.)

This may be news to you, but it’s certainly not new. ATM skimming, as it’s called, has been on the go for quite a few years—at least 2004, but probably earlier. And it’s big business: Turkish police last month (Sept) arrested a man who, they said, had sold skimming devices to 10 countries including in North America and Europe. The police footage of his house—which has a swimming pool, by the way—includes boxes of ATM slot covers, keypads, and what looks like either a sun-bed or an ATM card maker. (You can watch the raid here: http://is.gd/41Xz.)

He also ran an online network which had details of at least 15,000 credit cards. Members bought gear, swapped stories, sold and bought credit card numbers, bitched about the neighbors and the FBI. The web-site was shut down earlier this month, but there’s bound to be another one up soon.

Now you may think that your visit to an ATM should be safer than this. OK, you might say, I can understand that my bank can’t be sending folk around to my house to check my computer is free of viruses, trojans and key-loggers, but surely they can have someone go around and periodically check that their ATM machines don’t have dodgy bits stuck on them, like extra card readers or keypads?

And if that’s too tricky, how about looking out for the more obvious stuff like speakers and brochure holders that weren’t part of the original design? Surely if a customer can spot these things, an employee should be able to? If you thought that I think you’d be thinking straight.

The thing is that banks do seem to be getting smarter. The problem for bad guys is that until recently they would have to go back to the ATM machine to pick up their gear and download the data. This is the risky bit, because the banks are beginning to wise up, figured out something is amiss and may be waiting for them.

So now they’re getting smarter. (The bad guys, not the banks.) They are putting cellphones or wireless chips inside the card slots or keypads or speakers or brochure holders to transmit the data back to Starbucks or wherever they’re waiting.

Now they don’t need to pick up their gear. Skimmers, as these people are called, can now buy a complete device which would transmit more than 1,800 cards via short message service before needing a re-charge. The whole kaboosh for $8,000. Or they could dial into the device when they like and download the data. By then they’ve probably got enough ATM data to buy their own bank.

In other words, you got to feel slightly sorry for the banks. This is sophisticated stuff. And it’s getting more so; according to some security consultants, there are indications that the slot covers that these guys use so closely match the ATM machines in color, material and dimensions that they well be made by the same manufacturer. As the blurb to one skimmer’s brochure put it:

Thus, we achieved the full and precise compliance of the paint’s tone, gleam, hue at the different light angles, the paint’s surface feelings to the touch etc. In the real situations the skimmers really look like an integral part of ATM.

The scammers are clearly getting smarter—either by being in cahoots with the employees of the companies that make these machines, or else by studying the material very carefully.

Either way, it looks like the banks are woefully out-gunned. They’re trying a few things—one is ‘jitter’, which moves the card around while it’s being read, confusing a scammer’s reader—but this means replacing all the old ATM machines. I can’t see that happening any time soon.

Bottom line? This may not happen everywhere, and it may not happen very often. But it makes sense to use ATM machines that are in your bank (i.e. not in a mall or the middle of a red light district), that you’re familiar with, and that you’ve thoroughly inspected for oddities—from extra card readers to brochure holders with little cameras coming out of them.

©2008 Loose Wire. All rights reserved.
Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology
. He can be found online at
loosewireblog.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

Beware of The Away Message

By Jeremy Wagstaff

There are few things more exhilarating, I suspect, than being able to set your email account to respond with an automated message that says: “I’m on holiday. I won’t be answering your email for a while. I’m going on holiday to Barbados, and Bob Loser, my colleague, is covering for me, so call him on +1–723–7893–782. Have a nice day.”

This may feel good but it’s not always a good thing to do. Here’s why.

These auto-respond messages will be sent to anyone—anyone—that sends you an email. And that means spammers, scammers and other people who may not be your friends. Do you tell everyone in your neighborhood that you’re going away? Probably not. So why would you tell anyone who happens to send you an email?

Let’s take a real world example: A security expert I know found himself on the receiving end of a revenge attack by scammers he’d been trying to put out of business. To get payback they put his name and email address on a forged email that itself looked like a scam. The expert’s email in-box was deluged with bounce-backs—emails sent to addresses that don’t exist, or don’t exist anymore—and angry emails from those who believed he had suddenly switched sides and was now in the scamming game.

But what he also found was that he was receiving dozens, if not hundreds, of emails from addresses where the recipients have automated some sort of response informing the sender they’re out of the office. A lot of those auto-responses contained surprisingly personal information that would be very handy to someone somewhere: Who to call, where that person will be, when they’ll be back.

And not just that: the person’s full-name and workplace, details of injuries incurred that are keeping the person in question at home and companies notifying senders that the person in question no longer works there. In one case the auto-respond said the intended recipient of the email had been fired for misconduct.

So why is this a problem? Two words: social engineering. Social engineering is when a scammer uses our social habits to engineer a way past our defenses: calling up the overworked tech department, say, pretending to be a staff member who’s forgotten his password, or calling the switchboard to find out the boss’ birthday—a clue, perhaps, to her password— pretending to be a boyfriend.

In the case of the away message, all a bad guy would need to do is flood a company with emails, either guessing the email addresses, using a dictionary attack (where practically every word in the dictionary and English language is used) or else grabbing names from an online company directory. If a dozen people have auto-responds on, the information gained would be enough for a socially engineered attack on the company as a whole.

It needn’t be this sophisticated. If you send an auto-respond message saying you’re not going to be at work for the next few weeks, someone might decide that information is worth passing on to the local cat-burglar or someone at a rival company hoping to steal your customers.

Of course, this sort of lapse happens in the real world too, which should remind us how careless we tend to be. David Weinberger, a technology writer and consultant, pointed out on his blog recently that we’re quite happy about leaving signs on our hotel room door when we go out for the day:

“Often, on the back of a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign is a ‘Make Up My Room Now’ message of some sort,” he wrote.  “But, now matter how they phrase it, isn’t it the same as an “I’m Out, So This Would Be a Good to Rob Me, Especially If You Are Squeamish about Violence” sign?”

This is part of a bigger problem we’re all going to have to wrestle with. As we use online services like Facebook and twitter more and more—updating our friends with our moods, our location, our activities—our privacy is going to be compromised.

Some of us don’t mind this. It’s nice to share information with friends. But what we tend to forget is that, once digital, this information is more readily accessible, and movable, than it was before. Clever scammers—and not so clever—can piece together these bits of information to use against us in ways we have not yet fully thought through.

Take twitter, for example. It’s a great service: free, and designed to allow those of us who want to share with our friends what we’re doing, in 140 character bursts. It’s very popular: According to a web-site called TwitDir (twitdir.com) which lists all twitter users who allow their updates to be public, there are more than three million users.

And that’s the thing. The default setting—the way things are configured when you sign up—your tweets, as your updates are called, can be seen by anyone. Anyone can ‘follow’ you—meaning they can track all your updates, without asking you permission first.  In short, anyone on the Internet can, in theory, stalk you.

OK, now I know that I’ve said twitter is a good thing. It is. And so is Facebook. All these services allow us to connect with people—friends in real life, friends we know only online. But we need to be smart about how we use them.

If you use twitter, check to see who is ‘following’ you and if you don’t recognize them, challenge them or block them. The same goes for things like Facebook. Don’t just accept anyone who asks as your ‘friend’, and if you can’t bring yourself to say no, limit what they can see of your details. (The default on Plurk, another popular service in Asia, allows only your friends can see your updates.)

And, lastly, be smart about what you put online—whether it’s a twitter update, a Facebook moan about your boss or in your email auto-respond message. If you can’t decide where to draw the line, just think of the sleaziest person you know, and ask yourself: Do I feel happy sharing this information with them?

I leave it to you to decide whether to boycott the “Please make up room” signs on your hotel room door.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at loosewireblog.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

The Lucrative Loneliness of the Chinese

By Jeremy Wagstaff

At what point do social networks on the Internet start to supplant ones in real life?

Take China, for example. It’s a relatively big example, so it’s worth taking.

According to a recent article in Web in Travel, an online travel publication, China now has two generations of one-child families, and, in the words of Harry Hui, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo International, “one of the loneliest generations in the world.”

Of course, he’s saying this like it’s a good thing, because marketers love lonely people (they can sell them chocolate and other kinds of comfort food, for example.) But more interesting for me were the implications for technology as a kind of security blanket.

Here’s how it looks to Hui. “Within those born in the post-80s, there are 470 million and their world is very different. The Gang of Four is a thing of the past. The Cultural Revolution is an art movement. They are brought up by their grandparents because their parents were working. They live in one household, shaped by three generations.”

Hui paints a picture of young people isolated by a missing generation and an absence of siblings—and presumably a shortage of cousins. Unsurprisingly, then, they’re turning to social networks, where they gather friends they are likely to know only online: “Friendster has more virtual friends in China than anywhere else,” said Hui.

If this is true—I’m not quite clear how Hui came by this information—it would seem to paint a picture of a disoriented youth pressured to get on but without the usual support network of real-life friends to help them. He quotes a China Mobile survey which seems to confirm this over-dependence on technology: “The mobile phone is more important than boyfriends or girlfriends for 90% of the younger generation,” he says.

It’s not as if China is alone in embracing technology. Indonesians have become big users of cellphones—and mobile browsers, proving they’re not just using them to send text messages, but have leapfrogged the Western model by adopting the cellphone as their primary computer—and the Philippines has also become a massive user of Friendster.

But I suspect each example tells a slightly different story. Technology is moulded to the needs of people. Social networks fit the cultural requirements of a society. And societies are different. If people are stuck in traffic all day, then mobiles become more important, a la Indonesia. (You also see a lot of usage of SMS, because people need to communicate short bursts of information to one another when they have little control over the speed of their movements, so to speak.)

In China, I guess, what we’re seeing is a combination of this: a generation that is comfortable with the mobile phone but lacking the physical social network that their parents had. In this case, maybe social networking is fulfilling a slightly different need: online friendships aren’t just a continuation of real-world ties, but relationships that are created and defined online. That’s the relationship.

This will all grow and expand massively as our cellphones become more powerful, do more for us. Juniper Research last month predicted that the number of active users of mobile social networking sites is expected to rise from 54 million this year to nearly 730 million in 2013.

Most of that is going to be in north and Southeast Asia, but don’t forget India: that, Juniper says, will become the largest region for mobile dating services by 2010. I rest my case that every society bends technology to its will.

Marketing people are clearly waking up to all this. But so should we.

You can’t help wondering what happens next in a place like China. If a nation of single children marry and have one child themselves, who in turn grows up and has one child with another single-offspring person, at what point does technology move beyond just being a crutch to being the cultural gate itself, through which all friendships, romances and connections evolve?

In short, what happens when Facebook becomes not just a reflection of one’s world, but the world itself?

Yes, we mould technology to suit us, but we need to be alert to the possibility of the reverse: that it defines us.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

Curing the Inbox Twitch

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Sorry, say that again?

Research indicates we’re bad at recovering from interruption: In a study last year, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. As the Herald points out: People who check their email every five minutes waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.

Assuming you’re like me and don’t have any holidays, that’s more than 18 days a year of wondering what the hell you were working on before you opened that chain email about Sarah Palin’s collection of moose-fur slippers.

So how do you avoid this?

Well, I’ve talked before about keeping an empty inbox. That’s worth sticking to: It’s a lot easier to scan an inbox that’s nearly empty than one that’s full. (These are the kinds of profundities you get when you sign up for the Loose Wire column.)

But it’s even better not to scan the inbox at all. But I know this is not easy: I’m a compulsive email checker, and I really wish I wasn’t. What we’re really admitting, when we check our email—whether on a computer or a mobile phone—is that we’re not really in control of our lives.

We’re basically waiting for something: news, instruction, affirmation, confirmation, degradation, a sense of belonging, a distraction. Even a Dear John letter. Anything, basically, but what we have right in front of us. Anything than finishing off what we’re actually doing.

You’ll know this because on those rare occasions when you’re on a trip to the boondocks, and you have no phone signal, you’ll notice that the clouds haven’t darkened, the heavens haven’t opened, the sky, basically, hasn’t fallen. You’re still alive. The office still exists. You haven’t been fired. (And if you have, sorry about that. Maybe you should have checked your email more often. Just kidding.)

The other time you’ll notice that email absence isn’t necessarily fatal is when you’re working on something and you achieve that great moment of flow—when nothing can distract you and you’re on fire. Not literally of course; you’re just able to push aside all distractions and get on with what you’re doing.

This is why computers suck. They’re designed to be intrusive—to destroy flow. Your Microsoft Outlook has, as standard, a little icon that sits in the corner of your screen to inform you when an email arrives. This is basically the software’s way of telling you: “This computer is designed to help you work, but also to set your priorities for you. We know best. We know that a piece of spam we failed to identify as spam is more important to you than keeping your train of thought from coming off the rails.”

Well, this isn’t right. It doesn’t sound right, and it’s a sure sign that you haven’t figured out that YOU CAN DISABLE EMAIL NOTIFICATION. (See the little brown Outlook icon in the bottom right hand corner of your screen? Right click that and make sure that Show New Mail Desktop Alert doesn’t have a tick next to it.)

Now you won’t, or shouldn’t, get any more notifications of incoming emails. (If you’re not using Outlook you may have to hunt around to find out how to disable pop-up notifications. Thunderbird, for example, has its settings inside the Options/General tab.)

Of course, you still need to check your email. But unless you’re in a high-pressure job that demands to-the-second response times like air traffic control or running relatively large countries (in which case email overload is probably not going to be top of your list of irritating disruptions) you should be able to read your email when you feel like it, not when someone else does.

I, for example, recommend looking at your inbox not more frequently than every 15 minutes. It gives your hands a rest from the computer, and it yet it gives you enough time to pour your concentration into what you’re doing for a good stretch. If you can manage 30 minutes, go for it.

If your boss doesn’t feel you’re responding quickly enough, you may have to either tweak her or tweak the intervals between email checks.

The other way to limit email distraction is not to just respond to stuff. Cut down the emails you send and you’re less likely to get lots back. If you use a Blackberry, for example, don’t reply on the device unless you really have to; wait until you get back to the office.

Divide those incoming emails into those you need to, or can, respond to immediately without taking up lots of time. Those you can reasonably delegate, those you don’t need to respond to at all, and those you can respond to later. Only the last group needs to be dealt with later in the day; set aside time for that and do them all in one go. Then dash out the door.

Don’t copy everyone on your emails, and try to discourage your colleagues from doing so. It’s lazy practice and wastes everyone’s time. Send an email only to those people who really need to read it, and don’t think you’re being smart by forwarding stuff to other people as way of cutting down your workload. Never happens. It’ll always come back to you.

Emails, of course, aren’t the only distraction. Nowadays we tend to allow our personal life into our work life: web mail (Yahoo, Gmail, MSN) and even instant messaging services such as Skype. Facebook and social networks are one vast attention distorter. We managed quite well without them a couple of years ago; now we physically wilt if we can’t see what item Paul has stuck on his head today.

Now there’s nothing wrong with these things, well not too much, but they break up your concentration as badly as email. So don’t let them. Don’t have Facebook or web-mail accounts open in your browser when you work—not least because Facebook now includes a chat feature which lets your friends see you’re online and logged in and will almost certainly ping you for a chat.

Set aside time to do your personal email and Facebooking but make sure that it’s only a few times a day; anything more frequent and you’ll be as distracted as those highly caffeinated laptop users in Starbucks who kid themselves they’re working.

(The other modern distraction are status update services like Twitter. These are real productivity killers. They’re great for staying in touch with people, and feeling connected, but once again, set boundaries for yourself.)

If you have any say about how your organisation is run, consider proposing some alternatives to email. Wikis are a great way to move non-urgent information around. Instead of sending everyone an email about how the entertainment committee are considering a suggestion that toilets be fitted out with ambient lighting to improve bowel movement, put it on a department wiki, so employees can check it themselves from time to time. Not everyone needs to know right here right now.

In short, the smaller your inbox and the smaller your colleagues’ inboxes, the less distracted you’ll be. And hey, I didn’t check my inbox once writing this. God knows what has happened in the meantime. Better check.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

The Secret of Being Well-Read

By Jeremy Wagstaff

If you’ve been following this column closely, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of Really Simple Syndication, or RSS. I reckon it’s the single greatest thing to come out of the last few years on the Web. Well, that and Facebook. And Skype. And blogging. And disposable socks.

(For those of you not sure what I’m talking about, think of RSS like this: lots of interesting people, sending you news and thoughts in a way that suits you, not them. For more, dig around my site tenmov.es which explains how to get up to speed on RSS.)

The problem is that RSS has been too successful. Everyone now offers their data in RSS form—newspapers offer dozens of RSS feeds, as they’re called, diced according to topic (sports, cookery, foreign news, corruption and skullduggery in high places; whatever the main issues are).

They’re not alone. Government departments are doing it; every blog does it; you can subscribe, as it’s called, to feeds of people’s bookmarks, their Facebook updates, their Flickr photos. It’s great stuff—it makes it possible to stay on top of all sorts of things, from big international stuff to what your kid’s doing at school—but it creates its own chaos.

The tendency, for us end-users, is to add feeds when we come across them. Visit an interesting blog and you want to take the feed so you can stay on top of what that person is saying, or see the photographs they’re sharing. Which is good; much better to grab it before you forget.

But this quickly gets out of hand. Before long you’ve acquired dozens of feeds and you’re now drowning in information. You have no time in the day to read it and now it feels like you’ve traded one bulging in-tray for another.

If this is what’s happened to you, here’s how to fix RSS excess:

The first point I’d make is to make a clear distinction between your email in box and your RSS. Email is for action: other people sending you stuff that you need to act upon, or for you to create emails and send them to other people.

RSS, by contrast, is for reflection: A chance for you to grab a cup of coffee and “read yourself up to date.” And don’t be shy about including in this stuff that which is personal—your football team, say—as well as professional. RSS is flexible enough to deal with this (as should be your boss.)

OK, a check list:

  • A feed reader that lets you create folders (Google Reader, for example).
  • An easy way to add feeds that doesn’t eat into your day (once again, check out tenmov.es for the simplest way to do this.)
  • An idea of what feeds you want, or you have already.

Now you’re ready to go.

First off, create folders that describe your interests, professional and personal: football, art, productivity, currencies, geraniums, etc.

When you grab a new feed, make sure you put it into the appropriate folder. Don’t leave it lying around for other people to trip over, or so you never find it again.

Get into the habit of checking your RSS feeds on a regular basis. Don’t let them pile up.

When you start to feel you’re getting more feeds than you can possibly read, you need to move to the next stage: creating super folders.

Create a couple of folders called ‘want to read’ and ‘must read’ (or something similar; I’m not necessarily going to come round and check you’ve done this exactly as I say.)

Move the feeds that you really need to stay on top of into the second folder. In the first put the feeds that you’d hate to miss, but upon which your job doesn’t depend. (Google Reader lets you put a feed in more than one folder, so you can keep these feeds in their original folders as well.)

If you put an “+” in front of the folder’s name you’ll find it usually sits at the top of your folder list, which makes it easier to find: Mine’s called +brainfood. Go figure.

The rule of thumb here is that you should have had time to read all the feeds in those folders by the end of the day. There’s nothing more demoralizing than coming in to work and finding a bunch of feeds piling up from the previous day. (OK, I suppose more demoralizing is coming into work and finding your company has gone bankrupt, but it’s all relative.)

If you find your new super folders are still bursting at the seams, start weeding. One way to do this is to remove those feeds from these folders that you can’t manage until you reach a comfortable level.

What I do is create another folder called “brainfood+” which contains stuff I really, really must read. I move the vital stuff from “brainfood” into this new folder until I’ve reached that sweet spot where I can manage reading the folder without breaking a sweat.

(The advantage of this, apart from it qualifying me as Grade–A Nerd, is that you’ve still got a backup folder of stuff you’d like to read if you had time. The old folder becomes a sort of wish-list of stuff you should read, whereas the + folder becomes the stuff you really have to read if you want to keep your job/spouse/house. Follow?)

Now keep pruning as you go, since the balance is likely to shift. I avoid subscribing to feeds where lots of stuff is coming in: I really, really like bloggers and writers who just write when they need to—sometimes only once a month. The beauty of RSS is that I’ll catch that rare post of distinction without having to do anything—and it doesn’t clog up my folder needlessly.

I hope this helps a bit. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got your own solutions for dealing with RSS excess.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

Scaling Business Card Mountain

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One day everyone will be beaming/Bluetoothing their business cards to people, or sending them via email as soon as they get home from the Taiwanese Horticulture Convention. But for now we’re stuck with mountains of them on our desk, waiting for that moment that never comes when we might actually do something about them.

I’ve seen a lot of solutions to this problem, and none of them work particularly well. The most common seems to be the ‘Farm It Out to Your Assistant’ routine, which works well if you’ve got an assistant, but doesn’t really help him very much, since he’s going to have to type all those details in somewhere.

I’ve recommended before investing in a scanner, and that’s still a good option. Fujitsu’s ScanSnap lets you scan bundles of about 10 cards in one go, and does a pretty fair job of converting the images to text—what’s called optical character recognition, or OCR.

From there it’s a small step to moving the resulting files into Outlook, or whatever program you use to store these things.

But this still means you’re stuck with waiting until you get back from the convention or kayaking expedition, or wherever it was you gathered the small pile of business cards. By then you’ve forgotten who these people are, or you’re too tired to do anything about filing them away. Soon another convention comes along and the pile builds up.

Your network is rotting before your eyes.

This is made even more absurd by the fact that actually online networks, both for business and pleasure, are blooming. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, Plaxo, all operate for the sole purpose of making your network of friends and business contacts more efficient.

But name cards seem to still operate in a analog world of their own.

Here’s how I get around this problem. It’s not perfect, but it saves time and means that the leads and contacts you make are strengthened and you can find all the details you need when you need them.

First off, make sure you get a card or a name from the person. If they don’t have one, which often happens, see whether they’re up to sending you their business card digitally. Most phones nowadays make this relatively easy.

Nokia, for example, let you send a ‘business card’ to other users via either SMS text message, multimedia (MMS, a kind of email), Bluetooth or infrared. Be prepared by making sure that you have your own contacts in the phone, along with (preferably) a photo, your business title and address—all the things you’d hope would be on a business card.

(The photo is a good way of reminding other people who you are. I’m sure you’re a very memorable person and the life and soul of every party, but it’s worth hammering home the point. This photo will eventually sit on their phone and in their contacts program, so make sure it’s a good one.)

Be ready to beam these details to someone else—find the contact, select options and then send business card—and help the other person find theirs if they don’t already know how.

Chances are, however, the other person won’t be up to doing this, so just make sure you’ve got their name right, give them your card and ask them to email their details to you.

Chances are they’ll forget, so when you get back to your computer Google them (or look them up on sites like LinkedIn, or Zoominfo, or Wink.) Grab that data and make your own Outlook entry (a great tool to make this easier is Anagram—getanagram.com—which is smart enough to fill out the fields in a contact file automatically.)

If this person is on LinkedIn etc, connect to them that way to reinforce the link and to make sure that their contact details are automatically updated to your database. (More on this in a future column.)

If they do have a name card, as soon as you get back to your room, into a cab, or somewhere you can sit down, get out your cellphone and take a photo of it. Change the camera settings to close up and make sure it’s in focus (the camera usually beeps when it’s in focus.)

It’s possible, you see, to send that photo to a service which will automatically scan the name card, convert it to text (and to a standard business card format called VCF) and email it back to you all ready to go into your Outlook or other contact database. It’s also free. (The scans will also be saved online, should you ever need them.)

The service is called scanR (scanr.com) and works with most types of phone. And it works well. This means you’re scanning the name card almost as soon as you’ve received it, meaning there’s a much higher chance you’ll remember the guy—especially if you add a few notes to the contact details (“Met at party where he was wearing hostess on his head” or somesuch.)

There’s an even faster way of doing this. If you have an account at Plaxo, a networking and contacts backup service, you can tell scanR to automatically send business cards to your Plaxo account. If your Plaxo account is synchronizing with your Outlook address book  then that’s all you need to do. Once scanned with the phone, that contact wends its way back to your address book without you having to do anything.

It may seem a long way around but until we’ve ditched this charmingly antiquated little custom from our business world, I’d suggest that it’s the easiest way to avoid Business Card Mountain.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

When the Browser Grows Up

Google this week (eds: Tuesday 3/9/08) launched its own browser. Here Jeremy analyses its significance for the general user.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Geeks have gotten very excited about the launch of Google’s own browser, called Chrome. But what does it mean for us ordinary mortals?

Well, in the short term, not very much. But further down the track, you can expect all sorts of things to happen that will blur the distinction between what is on your computer and what is on the Internet. This—overall—will be a good thing, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. But it may also get a bit messy.

Google have kept very quiet about this particular product, despite the fact they’ve been working on it for at least a couple of years. Surprisingly, they managed to keep it more or less under wraps until it was launched. They needed to: By launching their own browser they’re prodding the beast that is Microsoft. Expect open war to follow.

It’s not as if Microsoft still dominate the browser world. Well, they do, in the sense that most people who use Windows don’t bother to use anything other than the browser that comes with it, Internet Explorer. Indeed, a lot of users can’t: At the university where I teach even the teachers can’t download or install anything, so switching to other browsers is not an option for most people.

But there are plenty of better browsers out there: A Swedish company called Opera has been plugging away at its own browser, and, at least until a few years back, has introduced lots of cool new features that have gradually made their way into Internet Explorer (tabs, for example, where you can have more than one window open inside the same program.) And then there’s Firefox, an Open Source descendant of Netscape Navigator, which ruled the roost in the mid- to late 1990s until Microsoft crushed it like a bug. (Oh and Apple have their Safari, which also works on Windows, and is sleek and fast.)

Firefox has made some serious inroads into Microsoft’s market share, partly by harnessing the hard work and great ideas of volunteers, who push the edges of what is possible by developing extra bits called extensions that users can bolt on to the browser to increase its potential. These could be as simple as swishing your mouse to move back pages, to as fancy as using Firefox as a drawing and painting program.

Firefox, or the company behind it, makes its money by renting out to Google its search box—the little window in the top right of the screen—so that the default search engine points to its servers. This helped Firefox and made sense for Google, directing lots of traffic to them, and allowing them to build a close relationship with Firefox developers.

But now the search engine giant has realised this doesn’t go far enough. You see, Google isn’t just about search. It’s not just about entering a few words in a box and hitting Enter. It’s about accessing information. If you take that definition broadly enough, you can see that Google wants to place itself right in the middle of pretty much everything you do. Whether you’re working on a document with colleagues, trying to find a restaurant in Banglampoo, or setting up a corporate web site, you’re handling information. And if you’re doing it with Google, then you’re sitting just where they want you to be to take their ads.

Seen like that, it’s a natural next step to try to move into browsers. The browser—as revealed by its name—was once a fairly passive beast, designed for surfing and reading stuff. Now we spend as much time typing into our browser—email, blog posts, documents—as we do watching or reading stuff. We’re used to every web site we visit giving us the opportunity to comment or contribute. The browser is no longer a browser but—horrible word coming up—an interface.

Now, with a bit of tweaking, we can do all sorts of things inside the browser. Even without doing anything we can use it as a word processor, a spreadsheet, a mind mapping application; we can edit pictures and audio. With some extra bits installed we can even do some of this when there’s no Internet connection. Who needs Microsoft Word when you can do it all in a browser, for free?

Now you might be seeing why Microsoft isn’t happy. It doesn’t really care about having a browser as competition; it cares about Google—a behemoth with deep pockets and some very good programmers—having a browser.

Until now, the dreams of a browser replacing all the other programs on your computer was just that. The browser wasn’t really designed for all these extra things going on inside it. And while Firefox is an impressive beast (as is Opera), both depend on old machinery under the hood. Google realised this, and realised that someone needed to overhaul the browser so it could be a platform in its own right.

Now Google’s other products—its online applications, its  blogging tools, its drawing and mapping applications—can become part of your browser. More importantly, us users won’t need to install anything to move these applications from the web—the cloud, as it’s called, meaning anywhere but on your computer—to your PC. Something called Google Gears did that already, but it was something you had to install, whereas now it comes as part of the Chrome browser. In short, if you use Google Docs you can edit as easily online—where the document you’re editing sits in the cloud—to offline—where it sits on your computer.

It’s not necessarily going to be as smooth as one would like. There are teething problems—the version of Chrome I tested was wonderfully fast and elegant, right up until it started hogging my computer’s resources—and there’s bound to be some tension between Google and its erstwhile comrades-in-arms at Firefox. And yes, we should be a little alarmed that the already powerful Google can now have more access to our data.

But on balance it’s exciting. For you and I it means leaner, meaner applications that do what we want, where we want, and without us having to for them. As Dương Thành An, the Vietnamese founder of Evolus which developed the drawing application I mentioned above, puts it: What else do we need in our PC?” 

It means a new wave of innovation from developers—since Chrome is Open Source, meaning anyone can fiddle with it and add to it—and from Google’s rivals like Microsoft—who will be forced to come up with responses of their own.

So download it, give it a spin, and let me know how you get on.

©Loose Wire Pte Ltd.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a regular contributor on technology to the BBC World Service and elsewhere. His book-length 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.

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.

The Pitfalls of Facebook

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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.

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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.