Tag Archives: Computer-mediated communication

Scammers Scam Gmail Scam Filters

This amused me. A scam message got through Gmail’s eagle-eyed scam filters telling me to update my account details. That’s not unusual. But was it because the scammers added their own assurance that they had already done the filtering?

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It says:

**************************************************************************
This footnote confirms that this email message has been scanned by New Google Mail-SeCure for the presence of malicious code, vandals & computer viruses.
**************************************************************************

Well that’s alright then.

Video Chat in Gmail

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I’m a big fan of Google Talk (Gtalk) but hadn’t come across this before: Videochat inside the Google Talk widget inside Gmail. Does it get any better than this? (Probably, but this works pretty well. Great for those guys not using Windows, and therefore unable to use the great Gtalk client.)

Why You Should Pay for Your Email

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Screenshot from Search Engine Journal.

(update Dec 2011: Aliencamel is now more, unfortunately, and Fastmail has been sold to Opera.)

Using free email accounts like Gmail is commonplace, but not without risk. As Loren Baker, an editor at SearchEngine Journal, found to his cost, when Google disabled his account without warning. (At the time of writing there’s no explanation why his account was suspended, nor whether it had been resolved.)

The comments are supportive, but also point out the dangers of relying on a free service for business. This point, in particular, struck home; when it’s “free”, we’re not really the customers, except insofaras we’re the recipient of ads:

[such services] see the money coming from the investors rather than the users. Without monetary payment they are not even “customers”.

So what are the alternatives? Well, hosted email makes a lot of sense. If you’ve got your own domain, better to use that. But there’s also paid email services which, until Gmail came along, were where the smart users usually went.

So I asked a couple of them, AlienCamel and Fastmail, to give me five reasons why paid email services are better than free. Here’s what they had to say:

Here are Sydney Low’s of AlienCamel:

  1. No ads, no robots crawling through personal stuff
  2. Email infrastructure is expensive, you get what you pay for
  3. We backup your emails in US and in Europe
  4. Our spam blocking technology – pending email advisory – is patented and unique
  5. We’re limiting our growth to 2500 accounts – so it’ll always be fast and good

As a follow-up I asked him to elaborate on the last point: the logical thing would be that a larger provider would provide better support. His response:

Syd: scaling email backend is not linear – to go from about 3000 accounts and have the features and backup/redundancy, we would have to build a platform that would go to 10-20,000 accounts as a fixed cost business, we would need to not only spend $ on the infrastructure, we would have to spend $$$ on marketing to get the customers to pay for that infrastructure so, the business grows in complexity, cost, and we lose the closeness to the customer.

Jeremy: so a ’boutique’ email service is probably a better bet, in your view, than a mega one?

Syd: I believe so.

Here’s what Jeremy Howard of Fastmail had to say (abbreviated for space and fairness). Fastmail has been in the business a while, and is the provider of choice for those groups like Falun Gong who fear hacking by nefarious agents of the enemy (Chinese government, cough): 

  1. Support. FastMail has help for for pre-sales/configuration help and ongoing help
  2. Specialization. Free accounts are all about maximising ad revenue, not maximising your productivity
  3. Archival and compliance: FastMail provides 2 levels of archival – journalling of all of a business’s sent/received mail to a separate (searchable) archive mailbox, and on-line per-folder backups which can be used to restore a complete folder on demand. Also: searchable, complete, unmodifiable journal of all sent and received email for compliance.
  4. Supervision and control of staff’s use of business email, for security, policy-enforcement, and training purposes.
  5. Reliability.  Every email on FastMail’s systems has five levels of redundancy – Redundent HDD storage (i.e. RAID) on both a primary and real-time replica system, plus a complete on-line backup (accessible at a per-folder level).

It’s interesting stuff. It also highlights how we are perhaps being a bit too cavalier with the most important part of our lives—email has crossed the line between private and business, so many of us use our email accounts for both (Palin, cough.) Given that, we need to think hard about how we use that email, and whether free email is a false economy.

When Technology Lets Us Down

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(from tcbuzz’s flickr collection)

Two recent events from the UK underlined how dangerous our dependence on technology can be.

The soccer UEFA Cup final in Manchester was overshadowed by riots when one of the massive screens installed in the city for fans who didn’t have tickets broke down.

And more recently, the inquest into the death of a former BBC editor found that she committed suicide after failing to find support among her colleagues. Her line manager, the inquest heard, tried to find her counselling:

However, her manager sent an email to the wrong address and his request was never acted on.

Technology is passive, and doesn’t take into account the implications of failure. In the first case the technology either didn’t work, or those setting it up didn’t know how to work (or fix) it. In the second case, the error was more obviously human: the sender of an email did not enter the correct address, or did not enter the address correctly.

This is more about our failure to anticipate failure in technology, and our blind dependence on it working.

Obviously, it would have been smart of the organizers in Manchester to have had a back-up plan in place for an eventuality like a screen breaking down. And the line manager’s apparent failure to see whether the email arrived at its destination or even to have picked up a phone and tried to reach the counsellor directly.

But perhaps there are ways for technology to further help us by providing a layer of redundancy? In the case of the screen, could there be some sort of diagnostics test which would alert the technicians that something was amiss, or about to be amiss?

And, in the case of email, the answer is perhaps simpler. There are tools out there to determine whether an email has arrived safely and been opened. The one I use is MessageTag, which will inform me whether an email I have tagged with the service has been opened. (The advanced service will give me a list of emails I have tagged and show me which ones have been opened, and which havent–a very useful checklist to show me which emails I need to follow up on.)

(There are privacy implications with services like MessageTag/MSGTAG, which I’ve gone into before. But sparing use of the service, I believe, is acceptable, so long as you give recipients the option of opting out of future tagging. Other people use the receipt acknowledgement option in Microsoft Outlook and some other email programs.)

We perhaps need to be reminded that technology, as it stands, won’t save us from ourselves.

LOL? Not If You’re Dating By SMS

Technology can be a dangerous place for relationships. You’ve really got to know your lingo. And stay up to date with it. From this morning’s Sunday Jakarta Post (afraid this piece is not available online, but the Web site is here), which always has an amusing column at the bottom of the first page, we read of “Miss Twinky’s” difficulties with men who seem to have lost the art of chivalrous behavior. She was introduced by SMS to a guy who maintained a dialog via the medium, right up until he invited her for a date:

It was not much of a surprise that our first date would be at the movies but the real shock came from his last SMS that day; “You can choose the movie and venue. I’ll pick up the bill or do you want to share it? LOL” (Lots of love.)

I was stunned. I didn’t know how to reply and lost all interest to meet or get to know him.

And there the relationship ended. And with good reason. What kind of sleazeball would try to split the bill on a first date? Only, hang on a minute. Does LOL really mean “Lots of love”?  For those whose familiarity of acronyms predates the Internet, it may well mean that. But for regular users of Instant Messaging, or even SMS, it doesn’t. It means “Laugh out loud”. I suspect the writer might have been trying to tackle the problem of whether it’s chivalrous or patronizing to pick up the tab on a date before it happened, by making a joke. Of course he may not have been, but I think he might be granted the benefit of the doubt.

Another budding relationship crashing onto the rocks of technology.

Well, actually, strictly speaking, neither of us might be right. Chances are he meant what I think he meant: Wikipedia has it usually meaning Laugh out loud, though it does acknowledge its meaning as “lots of love” predates the Internet. There are other possibilities, though: The Wikipedia page on LOL lists “laughing out loud” at the top, and puts “lots of love” a seemingly lowly seventh, after a Loyal Orange Lodge, Lloret de Mar, Lands of Lore, Legend of Legaia and Love of Life, a soap opera. So it is conceivable our misunderstood and maligned Lothario might have been referring to two games, a soap opera, a coastal town in Catalonia or a Protestant fraternal organization.

And that’s just the start. The Free Dictionary lists 62 of different meanings of LOL (I think. You count), so he could have been making a reference to the Ladies of Lallybroch (a good name for a brothel, but in fact a community for fans of Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander series), Lawyers on Line (a wild bunch, I should imagine), Lewd Obscene Language (which should definitely rule him out for future dates), Longitudinal Output Level (ditto, for reasons of boredom), Love of Literacy (a worthy goal, but not necessarily something to bring up on the first date), or Lower Operating Limit (this at least has potential, if we’re talking alcohol levels).

If I were Miss Twinky I would drag his number out of the trash and start finding out what this guy really meant, or might have meant. At least the conversation would make a more interesting date than a movie. And we, more broadly, should learn a lesson from Miss Twinky’s discomfort. Acronyms and smileys do not travel well between people who do not yet understand or know each other. So they should be avoided. (I’ve always added three periods to my instant messaging and SMS messages, thinking they conveyed a sense of flowing conversation, softening any possible statement so it did not look like I was trying to have the final word. Turns out my Canadian friend thought I was being sarcastic. We’re still friends, but only after exceeding our Lower Operating Limits at Bugils several times.)

A lesson, then: We should vow not to allow an acronym, a smiley or period marks to come between us, and we should give the benefit of the doubt if we are not completely confident of their meaning. (Google is a good place to start educating ourselves.) And for Miss Twinky, I hope that maybe you’ll give your mysterious acronymizing date a second chance.

Phone as Beacon

The idea that your cellphone may become a beacon of your availability took one small step closer yesterday, although you’d be forgiven for not noticing amid all the post-turkey bloat.

The theory is this. Cellphones have gotten smarter, but they still miss one vital ingredient that computer users have had for years: presence. Anyone using an instant messenger, from ICQ to Skype, will know that they can indicate to their buddies, colleagues and family whether they’re at their computer, in a meeting, dead, or whatever.

I’m not available. Leave a message

This is useful information: It’s a bit like knowing whether someone is at home before you phone them. But this only works if the computer is on, connected to the Internet and the user has the software installed and sets their ‘presence’ accordingly.

Think how more powerful this concept would be if you carried it with you: if your cellphone could transmit to friends, colleagues and family whether you were available — and even where you were. This is not that hard to do, via the same instant messaging programs that now operate only on your PC. This is the vision of companies like instant messaging developer Followap, bought yesterday by a company called NeuStar, which handles a lot of cellphone number traffic via its directory services. (Followap press release here.)

The problem remains twofold: how to get all the instant messaging users onto their cellphone, and how to make these services work with each other, or interoperate. After a decade of these services, few still allow a message sent from one service to reach another. NeuStar, according to Frost & Sullivan analyst Gerry Purdy, has been developing the standards for mobile instant messaging, or Mobile IM, not just in terms of Session Internet Protocol (which sets up the communication between two users) but also for interoperability and directory standards.

Clearly NeuStar, positioned at the hub of cellphone traffic, are well placed to see the potential of Mobile IM and to act on it. Followap have the software and the ears of some cellular operators. I should have spotted that both companies occupied booths next to each other at Singapore’s recent 3GSM Asia confab, and were busy singing each other’s praises. (I wrote something about Followap in my weekly column earlier this month, tho subscription only, I’m afraid.)

Of course, it’s going to be a long march to persuade the big players like Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft to share their IM traffic with each other (something they’ve not yet managed to do on the PC) but also with cellular operators, but something like that needs to happen if Mobile IM is going to take off. Says Mr. Purdy in his most recent note (sorry, can’t find this online): “And, maybe – just maybe – the NeuStar-Followap combination will lead to the Holy Grail in messaging – where all portal users and wireless subscribers will be able to freely IM each other. That would be huge.”

It would be huge, but don’t underestimate the power of SMS. Gerry sees SMS as having inherent limitations — 160 characters only, lack of message threading — but these aren’t necessarily downsides. The character limit has never been considered a real burden for most users, who either enjoy the brevity or else can simply send a longer message and have it split. As for message threading, this is a simple software problem that is being fixed in many phones. Mobile IM will only really take off if it is cheaper than SMS and includes powerful features that extend the use of the phone to a device to signal one’s availability, or presence.

For me the best thing about the Followap demo I received was that by switching your phone to silent your buddy list presence was automatically switched to ‘Do not Disturb.’ Immediately, all your buddies/colleagues/family know you not available without having to do anything. Now, that’s a glimpse of the future.

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The Email Hole

Email is not something to get too upset about, until you lose one to downtime by your provider of choice. And then you realise that it is too important to be left to free services, or even a domain hoster.

I use a hoster called Hostway, and they went spectacularly down last week. (This despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that Hostway launched a new service recently offering 150 GB of space for $10 a month.) It was only about a day, but several domains I based there lost email access when their storage failed. Now I have no idea who might have been trying to reach me and couldn’t because of bounced emails, what newsletters I’ve been removed from because of bounced emails, what email newsletters I may have missed

Now this kind of thing happens, but it made me realise that losing one email is the same as losing all of them if you don’t know which email it is, since it may be the important one you’ve been waiting for offering you money/marriage/a new nose. Email is different to hosting a website: a website can go down, and you’ll lose some traffic, but it will come back up again. Email is a stream of discrete bits of information, and there’s no way of telling whether there are any missing.

In short, a good hoster needs to guarantee that, should something go wrong, no email is left behind. Hostway have not, so far not been able to assure me of that. They say that emails lost during the outage have been recovered, but as far as I can work out that does not refer to those lost because of the outage — in other words, those emails that were stored on their servers and not recovered by users before the outage hit. (Emails to their technical staff about this were responded to with pasted notifications from their support team, which didn’t address this issue.

This surprises me, but shouldn’t. They are listed by Netcraft as the second most reliable hoster last month and I’ve not had many problems with them. But they are a domain hoster, which means that bullet-proof email is not top of their priorities. As Syd Low of AlienCamel puts it (declaration of interest: I’ve been using Syd’s email service the past few years, and it’s rock solid), there are three types of email service: bundling services (like Hostway), free services (like Gmail) and paid services (like AlienCamel) which provide Web access, lots of redundant backups to make sure no email goes missing, plus anti-spam, anti-virus and anti-phishing features.

My lesson from all this: email is too important to entrust to people who don’t take it seriously, or who aren’t getting money for your business. Of course, no one wants to pay for something they’re getting for free, or more cheaply, but sometimes free and cheap is not enough.

The Message Behind Instant Messaging

Be careful what you wish for. For nearly a decade I, and a lot of people like me, have been dreaming of the day when we could send an instant message to someone who wasn’t on the network as us. An instant messaging program is one that sits on your computer and allows you to send short text messages to other Internet users in real time — if they are online they see the message as soon as you’ve sent it. it’s faster than email because they get it straightaway, and it has the added bonus of letting you know whether the other person is at their computer and awake. Hence the name instant messaging. The big players, like Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google all have their own programs and networks, with millions of users. The services are free but beam ads at users through the software.

Now here’s the rub: Because there are no open standards, most instant messenger users can only trade messages with others using the same program. So if I signed up with ICQ, say, I won’t be able to chat with Aunt Marge if she only signed up with Yahoo. It’s a bit like only being able to send emails to people who use the same email service as yourself. Or only to make phone calls to other people using the same operator.

I’m not going to get into who’s to blame for all this. For the past few years I’ve been using a program that lets me include all my chat accounts in one small program, so I can talk to anyone on any service without having to run four or five different chat programs. No ads and less clutter on my screen. Yes, I do feel slightly bad using software that leaches off other people’s work, but if those other people can’t solve my communication problems with Aunt Marge I had to find someone who could.

But as instant messaging has grown, the arguments against fencing users of each system in have grown weaker. Instant messaging is no longer the province of teenagers: it’s as popular in business now as it is in the home, and many a market deal from London to Seoul has been done over instant messenger. Not only that: and the rise of voice over internet services like Skype, which include instant text messaging features, and the introduction of video chat, mean the clamor for interoperability has become harder to ignore.

Hence the recent announcement that Yahoo and Microsoft have started a test run of allowing users of their services to swap messages. This is a big step forward, although it’s noticeable that AOL, by far the biggest player in all this with their ICQ and AIM services, aren’t yet joining the party. Still, it’s good news. But there’s a sneaking worry about it all this. Why has it taken them so long? And why now? In reality, hard commercial reasons lie behidn the decision. It’s not just about helping me send a message to Aunt Marge on another network. In the recent words of Niall Kennedy (thanks, BJ Gillette), program managers at Microsoft, it’s about gathering information about us as we chat and surf so that the companies can target better ads at us. Quite reasonable for them to want to do, I suppose, but one more reason for me to be a tad suspicious about what I say or do online. For now I’m sticking with my third party, ad-free, leaching program.

Shoot The Messenger

Every time I start to feel warm and fuzzy about Microsoft something jumps up and slaps me back to reality. Here’s my latest slap:

For some reason my Trillian messenger wasn’t connecting to MSN because of some weirdness with my ISP so I had to download and install the 9 MB behemoth that is MSN Messenger. As usual it tried to change my homepage (at least it asked first, which I don’t remember the MSN Search bar doing so) but it worked ok. But try closing it down and you get an error message:

Msn1

Which says:

There are other applications currently using features provided by MSN Messenger.  You must close these other applications before you can exit MSN Messenger.  These applications may include Outlook, Outlook Express, MSN, MSN Explorer, Internet Explorer, and Three Degrees.

Whatever Three Degrees is. (Why hasn’t Diana Ross sued yet?) Why should I have to close all these programs just to close this clunky jalopy of a program? I thought Microsoft was past all this nonsense? I didn’t have to close those programs to install the messenger, so I can’t imagine they have somehow become seamlessly integrated with Messenger inbetween whiles. Or could they? And if they could, why wasn’t I asked? And is this a good thing? No wonder my mail box is full of plaintive complaints from folk who feel their computer’s been taking over by aliens. Or zombies. Whatever.

Advice for today: Until further notice, don’t install anything that, well, has Microsoft on it.

Female? In a Chatroom? Get Out While You Can

We probably didn’t need an academic study to tell us this, but the figures are still quite surprising: The University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering has, in a study released today, found that chat room participants with female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames:

Female usernames, on average, received 163 malicious private messages a day in the study, conducted by Michel Cukier, assistant professor in the Center for Risk and Reliability in the Clark School’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and an affiliate of the university’s Institute for Systems Research, and sophomore computer engineering student Robert Meyer.

First off, I have several questions. What is a School of Engineering doing in a study like this? Isn’t this more of a sociology, or anthropology type research project? Secondly, what were a couple of fellas doing impersonating females in chatrooms? And, more importantly, what names did they use? Thirdly, 163 sounds a lot. How long were they online for?

The study, the press release says, “focused on internet relay chat or IRC chat rooms, which are among the most popular chat services but offer widely varying levels of user security. The researchers logged into various chatrooms under female, male and ambiguous usernames, counted the number of times they were contacted and tracked the contents of those messages. Their results will be published in the proceedings of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers International (IEEE) Conference on Dependable Systems and Networks (DSN ’06) in June.” Now I’m really curious. Ambiguous? Sean? Stacey? Bob?

Seriously, though, this kind of thing is pretty awful. But it’s not new. I did my own bit of sleuthing back in 1997 pretending to be a female in some chatroom or other and was approached by more men, or people claiming to be men, than a nun at a bishops’ convention. I can’t imagine it’s gotten any better. And, as the study points out, this kind of thing is by no means reserved for adults. Their advice: use ambiguous or gender-nonspecific names when you register, and be alert. If you need any good pseudonyms for this kind of thing, I’m collecting fake spam names here.