The Charting Of An Urban Myth? Or A Double Bluff?

Here’s a cautionary tale from Vmyths, the virus myths website, on how urban legends are born.

Vmyths says that Reuters News Agency filed a report from Singapore last week quoting anti-virus manufacturer Trend Micro (makers of PC-cillin) as saying computer virus attacks cost global businesses an estimated $55 billion in damages in 2003. That’s a lot of damage. Two spokesmen at Trend Micro have since called Vmyths to “correct” the report. One said it was “wrong.”  Another said Trend Micro “cannot gauge a damage value — because they simply don’t collect the required data”.

Vmyths says the report was later pulled, but without any explanation. I’m not so sure. I can still see it on Reuters’ own website, Forbes, Yahoo, The Hindustan Times, ZDNet, MSNBC, ComputerWorld, The New York Times, etc etc. And the story still sits in Reuters’ official database, Factiva (co-owned by Dow Jones, the company I work for.) I’ve sought word from Trend Micro (I wasn’t able to reach anyone in Taiwan, Singapore or Tokyo by phone and emails have gone unanswered for 10 hours; I guess Chinese New Year has already started. Perhaps the U.S. will be more responsive). Emails to the author of the Reuters report have gone unanswered so far.

As Vmyths points out, it’s great that Trend Micro has tried to set the record straight.  But if the story was wrong, why is it still out there on the web, and, in particular, on Reuters’ own sites? And why hasn’t Trend Micro put something up on its website pointing out the report is wrong? Has Trend Micro done everything it can to get things right? Was the report wrong, or the original data?

This episode highlights how, in the age of the Internet, an apparently erroneous story can spread so rapidly and extensively, from even such an authoritative source as Reuters, and how hard it is to correct errors once the Net gets hold of them. In the pre-WWW world (and speaking as a former Reuters journalist) it was relatively simple process to correct something: overwrite it from the proprietary Reuters screen with a corrected version, withdraw the story, or, in the case of subscribers taking a Reuters feed (newspapers, radio stations and what-have-you), sending a note correcting the story. Proprietary databases could be corrected. So long as the story wasn’t already in print, you were usually safe. Nowadays it’s not so easy.

Vmyths is right: Expect to see the $55 billion figure pop up all over the place. (Of course, until we know for sure, it’s possible that the real myth that comes out of this could be that the story was wrong, when in fact it was right.) Ow, I’m getting a headache.

Update: How Anti-virus Companies Are Making Things Worse

 Fridrik Skulason, founder of anti-virus maker FRISK, has fired off a broadside about a problem I looked at in recent postings and my last Dow Jones column (sorry, subscribers only…): that some anti-virus companies are partly to blame for the recent e-mail flood generated by the Sobig.F worm. In an open letter, he wrote: “What I am referring to is the large number of incorrectly configured mail filters that respond by sending a “virus alert” to the ?From:? address. As Sobig.F falsifies the ?From:? address, these e-mails just clutter up the mailboxes of innocent, non-infected people. These messages cause unnecessary annoyance and worry, as they typically (and incorrectly) claim that people have sent out a virus.”
 
He concludes: “I have only one word for this: Stupid!” Exactly. I believe this is a sign that many anti-virus manufacturers have not kept up with the developments of the past year, when viruses have become smarter. These companies should recognise this and either close their doors or wise up. It’s not acceptable to add this extra layer of trouble, especially if they’re charging for it. I’m going to start publishing names of the companies involved. Submissions welcome. This kind of thing makes me cranky.
 
 
 
 

News: Court says Gator-style ads are legal

  Good news for Gator, the adware company I wrote about a few weeks back. According to CNET News.com a federal court has ruled that pop-up ads for rivals of U-Haul International, placed atop the moving company’s own site by a third-party software application from WhenU.com, are legal.
 
 
Although the case doesn’t involve Gator Corp, it may well have an impact on them. Gator, like WhenU.com, peddles an Internet “helper” application that dishes ads up to people while they are surfing the Web or visiting specific sites — usually over the top of, or near, those of rivals. The judge granted WhenU’s motion to dismiss charges of trademark infringement, unfair competition and copyright infringement.

CNET says: “The early decision could influence lawsuits involving a more well-known ad-software, or “adware,” company, Gator Corporation.” In February, Gator settled a case brought by among other media companies, Dow Jones, which publish the newspaper, website and magazine I write for. Other lawsuits, CNET says, have been consolidated and will be decided by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Washington, D.C.

 

Column: AlphaSmarts

Loose Wire — Frustrated Writers, Take Note: This Palm-powered, plain-vanilla, word-producing machine has none of the bells and whistles of other computers and won’t break your back or the bank — meaning more time for haiku

By Jeremy Wagstaff from the 26 June 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I used to write a lot better before I got a computer. Really. The lethal combination of pen and paper ensured that I could write anywhere, anytime. Then, in 1986, I bought an Amstrad word processor and it’s been downhill ever since.

Nowadays I can’t focus on one program for more than five minutes, what with all the distractions: software notifying me of incoming e-mail, software notifying me that my incoming e-mail-to-spam ratio is 96.23%, software notifying me my last e-mail to Auntie Mildred has been read 12 hours and 46 minutes after it was sent, a chat message from an insomniac Australian friend, an alarm alerting me I need to pay rent, my firewall alerting me of yet another assault on my Internet defences. No wonder I never write haiku any more.

Computers are designed to do lots of things, and with graphical interfaces like Microsoft Windows and the Mac, they’re designed to do them at the same time, jostling for room on your screen. That’s great if you’ve got tunnel vision, or are crashing up against deadline [like me right now]. Otherwise, all this extra processing power isn’t matched by any great multitasking ability in our brains. My message this week, therefore, is this: If you’re planning to write seriously, don’t use a computer. Use a Dana.

OK, for e-mails and memos to your vocabulary-challenged boss, you may not need monastic calm and a minimum of distractions. But computers, even notebooks, may not be your friend if you’re trying to compose something masterful and meaningful. Instead, you may want to check out AlphaSmart, a U.S.-based company, which realized early on that there was a market for something to write on without all the extra hullabaloo to distract you. The decade-old AlphaSmart series, now into its third generation with the 3000, has been popular with students, teachers and anyone else needing a decent keyboard and a usable screen that don’t break their back or the bank. They’re robust too: One reader describes on the company Web site [www.alphasmart.com] how her unit — stuck to the floor, and slightly melted — was the only electronic gadget still working after her house burned down.

The 3000 is about the size of a notebook, but looks more like a keyboard with a small LCD display on the top. Powered by three AA batteries, it delivers you to whatever you were writing before you turned it off [or had to flee the licking flames]. The four-line display is simple but shows just enough of what you’re doing without feeling cramped. The keyboard is full sized and there’s a USB socket for uploading files to your computer, and a socket to connect to a printer [or external keyboard, if you wish]. Grey keys line the top of the keyboard, allowing you to store and recall up to eight separate files. It’s the sort of thing a student would love, which is the market AlphaSmart has focused on, but it could just as easily work for you if you’re sick of sitting at a computer all day, or tired of firing up a laptop on a flight and watching the power die just as the Muse kicks in.

Late last year AlphaSmart took the concept one stage further with the Dana. The Dana does everything the 3000 does, only better. The screen is bigger at 10 lines to the 3000’s four, the keyboard’s nicer and the whole thing is a tad sleeker than its forbears. It also runs the Palm operating system, which brings with it plenty of advantages: For one thing, if you’re familiar with Palm, you’ll know your way around; for another, you can do everything a Palm device can do, such as swap Office documents with your computer, store contacts, calendars and whatnot. In fact, to some it could be just a bigger Palm device — most of the software is redesigned to fit a screen far wider than your hand-held — with a first-class keyboard attached. But that’s missing the point: The Dana is a word processor that uses the best Palm has to offer — compact, useful software, immediate access, configurable fonts, low power consumption — without trying to be too much else.

If you’re looking for something to write on during a trip to the country, the dentist or the restroom, and can’t be bothered to bring a laptop [or can’t afford one] then the Dana is an option. If you’re a writer and sick of the distractions of modern computing, the Dana is worth a look.

Gripes? A few. The monochrome screen is nice but looks a bit dated, especially the backlight. With a list price of $400 it’s substantially cheaper than a laptop or notebook, but not that much cheaper than a state of the art, full-colour hand-held device. [Shell out another $75 and you have a foldable keyboard which fits in your pocket.] And without a cover or clamshell, some reviewers have rightly suggested the screen might easily get scratched.

But these are minor niggles. I’m seriously thinking about getting one for my inspirational visits to the hills where a laptop is too much, and the miserly screen of my Palm Tungsten not quite enough. Might even try some haiku.

Column: Under the Wire

UNDER THE WIRE

From 26 June 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

You’re Fired

SMS, or text messaging, is great for staying in touch but isn’t so hot for conveying bad news. A recent spate of dismissals via SMS — staff of British insurer Accident Group, for example, were notified by administrators from PricewaterhouseCoopers that they were being laid off and would no longer be paid — raises interesting ethical and legal questions about the medium. The new chief executive of Britain’s Vodafone Group, Arun Sarin, is taking no chances: His contract says he cannot be fired via “electronic mail or any other electronic messaging service.”

More on Spam

If you need more evidence that spam is big business, try this: DoubleClick, better known for its on-line advertising strategies, on June 12 announced initiatives “to further differentiate legitimate marketing communications from spam.” Given that I’ve seen very little difference in tactics between spammers and “legitimate marketing communications” I don’t find this particularly reassuring. Here’s something else: CNET, an on-line magazine, reported last week on a legal dispute between two anti-spam software makers over patents for something called challenge-response technology, which allows an e-mail recipient to check out the sender to see if he’s [a] a person, and [b] the person he says he is. The recipient receives an e-mail asking for verification, and if the e-mail goes unanswered, the e-mail gets dumped. Nice idea, but not rocket science, in my view, and kind of time wasting. Still, Mailblocks and Spam Arrest have been slugging it out, at least until a Washington district court denied Mailblocks a preliminary injunction. I stick by my advice: Go with free software developed by people genuinely committed to ridding us of spam, not to making money out of it. My Bayesian Filters from POPFile are working wonders: In the past week only five bits of spam have reached my inbox. But if you want to try out commercial solutions, here are a couple: AlienCamel [www.aliencamel.com], allows you to select what e-mails you want to allow through, and Spam Slicer [www.spamslicer.com] provides each user with a virtual e-mail ID, so the user can tell where a spammer got his name and can block subsequent spam from that source even if the spammer changes his e-mail address.

Keep Out the Hackers

Talking of sleaze, Zone Labs Inc. [www.zonealarm] have just released a new version of their excellent ZoneAlarm firewall program. If you have a computer connected to the Internet then you should have a firewall, software that does its best to prevent ne’er-do-wells from getting in, either to steal pictures of your dog’s wedding, or to use your computer to attack other computers. ZoneAlarm Pro 4.0 improves its security features, including one that examines not just inbound but outbound e-mails for harmful file attachments — usually a kind of virus called a worm. Another innovation gathers data on suspected hackers, helping security experts to track and report them to their moms. ZoneAlarm Pro sells for $50; a free version of the earlier model is still available, and should be enough for us amateurs.

 

Column: An end to spam?

Loose Wire — Exorcism for Spam: A theory devised by an English vicar and adopted by smart anti-spammers is your best bet for keeping spam out of your inbox

By Jeremy Wagstaff

from the 19 June 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

A milestone, of sorts, was passed last month. According to MessageLabs, a United States-based company that studies these things, the Internet for the first time handled more spam e-mail messages than normal e-mails. In other words, for every legitimate e-mail sent, there was at least one spam, or unsolicited junk e-mail, sent. Compare that with a year ago when the ratio was about one spam for every 20 e-mails. A year before that? One in 1,500. Spam was never pretty, but it’s getting ugly, and something has to give. But what?

Spam is a business, and understanding that is halfway to embracing a solution that works. Why, for example, does MessageLabs spend so much time counting spam? Because it sells services and software that help companies avoid it. In fact, spam is, I suspect, much more profitable for the folk who clean it up than the guys who put it out. Think about it: It costs a spammer very little to send one e-mail, and only one in 10 million to generate a sale to stay in business, but God knows how much in lost man-hours for you or I to receive it, open it, read it, feel slightly nauseous, discard it and then wander over to the water cooler to complain to colleagues about it. There are conflicts of interest here that make me slightly uncomfortable advising you to buy products to keep out what shouldn’t be in your inbox anyway.

So here’s my solution: It’s simple, costs you nothing and will improve as you get more spam. Most anti-spam software looks for things it recognizes as spam-like: words like “Viagra,” for example, and filters it out. But this isn’t always that effective — replace “i” with “1” and you have v1agra, or add some invisible formatting code in the middle of the word, so the word looks the same to a reader, but different to a spam filter. So as spammers get more cunning, filters have to get smarter. This is why using logic, rather than keywords, makes sense. Enter an 18th-century vicar called Thomas Bayes from the English town of Tunbridge Wells. He devised a probability theory that has become a useful tool in gauging whether e-mail is spam or not.

Briefly, Bayesian filters look at the content of e-mail (including the headers, in most cases, and the hidden code in e-mails, called HTML, that organizes fonts, colours and pictures), slices it into bits — words and chunks of code — and judges the probability of each bit being evidence of spam. It will then scrutinize the 15 most interesting bits and add up their probabilities (0.99, for example, meaning 99% likely it’s spam) and then cast judgment on the e-mail. The more you prod it along — yes, this one is spam; no, this one looks like spam but is actually my Auntie Edith suggesting I have plastic surgery — the better it gets. And of course the more e-mail you get, the more it has to play with. Bayesian filters don’t just look for matches, they look for patterns of behaviour that give spam away.

For starters, try POPFile which will work on most operating systems and with most e-mail programs. If you’re squeamish about manual tweaking, check out Spammunition for Outlook or SpamBully for Outlook or Outlook Express ($30 from www.spambully.com).

On top of that, try a trick of my own: Ask colleagues or friends to assign agreed tags to subject lines and set up your e-mail program to recognize those tags and filter them into special folders. [Meet] for example, could be used to relate to meetings, [Budget] for stuff related to how much money you plan to waste that year and [Fire] for e-mails alerting staff they’re being downsized. Such e-mails would then leap past any filters and be easy to search for. Spam’s not going to go away soon, but with good filters you need never see it in your inbox again. Or go to the water cooler.

Column: Under the Wire

UNDER THE WIRE

The Latest Software and Hardware Upgrades, Plug-Ins and Add-Ons

from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

History Scanned

The past is being digitized — fast. The ProQuest Historical Newspapers program has just finished scanning more than a century of copies of The Washington Post to its existing database. The database includes each page from every issue, in PDF files, from 1877-1987. The program has already done The New York Times (1851-1999), The Wall Street Journal (1889-1985) and The Christian Science Monitor (1908-1990).

Cellphone with Character

Somewhat belatedly, Nokia is getting into the handwriting phone thing, aiming itself squarely at the huge Chinese market. On May 20, it unveiled the 6108, created in the firm’s product-design centre in Beijing. The keypad flips open to reveal a small area on which Chinese words can be handwritten with a stylus. A character-recognition engine will convert the scrawls into text, which can then be sent as a message. The phone will be available in the third quarter.

Security Compromised

A new survey reckons “security breaches across the Asia-Pacific region have reached epidemic levels.” In a report released last week, Evans Data Corp. said that 75% of developers reported at least one security breach — basically any kind of successful attack on their computer systems — in the past year. China is worst off, from 59% of developers reporting at least one security breach last year to 84% this year. It doesn’t help that most of the software is compromised: Tech consultant Gartner has recommended its clients drop Passport, the Microsoft service that allows users to store all their passwords, account details and other valuable stuff on-line, saying Passport identities could be easily compromised. This follows a flaw revealed earlier this month by Microsoft after an independent researcher in Pakistan noticed he could get access to any of the more than 200 million Passport accounts used to authenticate e-mail, e-commerce and other transactions. Microsoft says it has resolved the problem and does not know of any accounts that were breached. Gartner’s not impressed: “Microsoft failed to thoroughly test Passport’s security architecture, and this flaw — uncovered more than six months after Microsoft added the vulnerable feature to the system — raises serious doubts about the reliability of every Passport identity issued to date.”

Son of Napster

Apple’s apparent success with iTunes seems to have prodded some action in the on-line music market. Roxio, maker of CD recording software among other things, said last week it would buy PressPlay from Universal Music and Sony Music Entertainment for about $40 million in cash and rename the whole caboodle Napster, which it earlier bought for $5.3 million. Pressplay offers radio stations and unlimited tethered downloads for $9.95 a month in addition to song downloads that allow for CD burning. My tuppennies? None of this will work unless companies put no restrictions on the files downloaded. Emusic does it that way and it’s why a lot of people keep coming back.

Column: USB and the CIA

Loose Wire — How to Steal CIA Secrets: It’s as easy as USB; Universal Serial Bus drives are getting small enough to hide in coffee mugs, and you can attach them to most computers and all sorts of other gadgets

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I got some flak last time I was rude about how implausible technology is in Hollywood movies, even supposedly authentic fare such as Minority Report, The Bourne Identity and Mary Poppins. One comment was “grab a beer and chill out, dude, it’s only a movie,” though that doesn’t count because it was from my mother.

But I can’t help venting my spleen, if that’s what you do with spleen, after watching The Recruit with Al Pacino and Colin Farrell. It’s a thriller revolving around a recruit (no, really) to the Central Intelligence Agency trying to smuggle a top secret program out of CIA headquarters at Langley. There are some neat gadgets in there, such as biodegradable bugs and a program that hijacks nearby television screens. But the premise is that it’s well nigh impossible to steal data from the CIA since none of its computers have floppy drives, printers or (presumably, if we’re going to get finicky) infrared ports or Bluetooth dongles. In short, how do you transfer data if you can’t download it? I wanted to shout out suggestions but my friends, alerted by previous visits to the cinema, had gagged me beforehand.

Anyway, not a bad idea and not a bad movie. Except (skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to watch the movie) someone succeeds in downloading the top secret program by plugging a USB drive into a USB socket on a CIA computer (USB is a commonly used port that allows users to connect gadgets to their computer). She then hides the said drive — about the size of a lighter — in her aluminium coffee mug. I mean, duh! I can’t believe they have USB sockets in Langley and that the X-ray machine confuses a gadget for coffee dregs. Tsk.

Anyway, it made me realize that Hollywood really, really needs my help in making their scripts believable. So here are some ideas for future movies, all involving existing USB gadgets:

– Our hero penetrates high-security installation, wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, and accesses USB port (inexplicably left on computer despite it being responsible for massive security breach as revealed in The Recruit). Uncoils USB cable from watch strap, plugs into USB port, downloads data into USB watch from German company LAKS (between $40 and $95 from www.laks.com).

– Our hero wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, plugs USB drive into USB port (amazingly still there despite aforementioned movie and pioneering column from tech writer), and accesses own e-mail via newly released PocoMail PE ($40 from www.pocomailpe.com). Okay, this doesn’t sound that wild, but it’s a great plot twist if you’re using someone else’s computer and they don’t have an e-mail program you need, or, in the case of our hero, you don’t want to leave any trace of yourself (say at an Internet cafe or a public library).

– Our hero has made off with the data on a USB drive. But he’s caught by the bad guys. Being avid readers of this column, they know what to look for and quickly locate the USB drive. But our hero’s drive is a bit different: Made by Singapore’s Trek 2000 International (www.thumbdrive.com), his ThumbDrive Touch has a silver pad that requires the user’s thumbprint before data can be accessed. Unfortunately for our hero, but great for a plot twist, the baddies simply cut off his thumb and plonk it on the biometric pad.

– Armed with a $100 MP306 USB drive from Azio Technologies (www. azio-tech.com/azi0-root/products/MP 306.asp), our hero fails to access the CIA computer because his nemesis has installed a SecuriKey Computer Protection System, Personal Edition ($130 from Griffin Technologies at http://securikey.com/personal/). This looks just like a USB drive but in fact works like a key: If it’s not plugged into the computer, then the computer locks up. Confounded, our hero sucks his remaining thumb and admires the silver metal mini-briefcase that the SecuriKey dongle comes in. Resigned, our hero reaches for his Azio USB drive, dons earphones, kicks back and listens to MP3 music files stored on the drive. Fiddling with the built-in equalizer for improved playback quality, he hears footsteps and quickly switches the USB drive to recorder mode to eavesdrop on two CIA officers passing by, griping about their canteen lunch.

Okay, so not all these plots will win prizes. But one thing I’m willing to bet my DVD collection on: USB drives will replace floppy drives, those flat disks of old, as PC manufacturers add USB ports to new models and remove external disk drives. Prices will drop further, meaning gadgets smaller than lighters will carry gigabytes of data for peanuts. Already you can buy a 1 gigabyte model for $300: Expect to pay half that in a year or less. They will be so cheap people will give them away: Visitors to a recent launch in Britain of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 were given freebie press bags with 32-megabyte USB drives inside.

In future, folk will carry around all their programs and data aboard one dongle and run it from any computer they come across, effectively personalizing the computer for however long they’re sitting at it, but without leaving any trace. Wait for the futuristic movie where everyone’s life is stored on a USB drive and every computer in the world is for public consumption. Interested? Call my agent.

Column: the paper mountain

Loose Wire — Conquer That Paper Mountain: It’s time to get organized; Here’s some software to help you scan and locate photos and documents; But perhaps you shouldn’t ditch the filing cabinet just yet

By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 29 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I’m a little suspicious of programs that, adorned with images of bits of paper and photos disappearing into a smiling computer monitor, promise to give order to the junk that is my life. The paperless office never happened — we still make printouts because it’s so easy — and while everyone seems to be photographing digitally these days, that doesn’t sort out our cupboards full of snaps. And even if this stuff does find its way onto your computer, chances are it’s all over the place, in subfolders with obscure names. A sort of digital chaos, really.

I don’t promise an end to all that. And the programs I’m about to tout are not really a new idea, but they both do a better job than their predecessors of helping you to get organized, whether you’re trying to sift through documents already on your computer, or get a handle on your photos.

First off, Scansoft’s PaperPort (deluxe version, $100 from www.scansoft.com/paperport/). Into its ninth version, it’s a lot more sophisticated than its forbears. PaperPort and its competitors allow you to scan documents into the computer, and then let you organize and view those documents into folders of your choosing. You can then convert them to digital text, a process called OCR or Optical Character Recognition, which in turn allows you to move chunks of the original document into a word-processing file. In theory it’s a great way to get rid of paper clutter on your desk, helping you to find those documents — or parts of them — easily, or to convert them to something you can use in your spreadsheet, document or whatever. In practice, it’s too much of a fiddle. Most folk find it easier to locate the hard copy of a document (behind the bookcase, next to the dead cockroach) than the soft one (What name did I give it? What keyword should I use to find it?), so they just buy another filing cabinet.

PaperPort hasn’t resolved the riddle of why we can always locate something under a messy pile of papers, but never after we’ve cleaned up, but it’s a few steps closer to making it easier to handle documents on your PC. First, you can scan them in a format called PDF, short for Adobe’s Portable Document Format, a widely used standard for viewing documents. By working within this standard — rather than PaperPort’s proprietary standard — everything you scan in PaperPort can be accessed and handled by other programs, or by folk who don’t use PaperPort. Common sense, I know, and they’ve got there at last. Another common-sense feature is a search function that allows you to search through an index of documents, whatever format they’re in, within PaperPort.

For a long time I’ve used PaperMaster, now owned by J2Global, the Internet-faxing company, which promises to have an updated version available later this year. PaperMaster does pretty much what PaperPort does, but it’s been doing it a lot longer and it actually looks like a filing cabinet, which I find reassuring. But it doesn’t work well with Windows XP, and is looking somewhat dated. Most importantly, it won’t save your scans in a file format recognized by anyone else on this planet. What’s more, it sometimes loses whole drawers of documents, which kind of defeats the object of the exercise.

So check out PaperPort. It will handle photos too, but if you’ve got a lot of them, I’d suggest Adobe’s new Photoshop Album ($50 from www.adobe.com/products/photoshopalbum/). Album is elbowing for space among a lot of similar products vying for the burgeoning home-photo market, but it has features and a very intuitive interface that I suspect will put it ahead of the pack.

Basically, it can collate pictures from more or less any source — scanning, digital images on your hard drive, on a digital camera, on a CD-ROM — and give you the tools to touch them up, label them, order them around and generally beat them into submission. You can create the usual things with them — albums, video disks, printouts, slide shows and whatnot — all in as tasteful a way as you can expect from a homespun photo album. I particularly liked the way you could tag photos more than once so, say, a picture of your Uncle Charlie doing the gardening in his pantomime costume could be categorized both under Family and Environmental Pollution Hazard. All in all, a smart program, and not badly priced.

Gripes? They’re a bit stingy on the tools they provide to touch up photos, so all the facial blemishes of my adolescent years are still there if you look closely.

These programs won’t change our lives. They may only make a dent in a filing cabinet and photo drawer. But they’re good enough for what they try to do, which is to lend a little order to our pre-paperless lives.