Tag Archives: Far Eastern Economic Review

Those Darn PR People, Part XXXIV

It’s a cheap shot, I know, but it’s too good to pass up as an illustration of the need for a bare minimum of research by PR folk before they hit the send button on mass emails to reporters.

I’m not going to name names here, but a ‘leading global communications consultancy’ has just invited the Far Eastern Economic Review, the publication I used to write for, to a media briefing to meet a software company which wants to, the email I’ve just received says, “meet the local media for the first time since the recent opening of the company’s Asia-Pacific Headquarters”.

The problem is, as you all know, that the Far Eastern Economic Review has since last October ceased to exist as a reporting publication and is now a monthly collection of essays about the region written by contributors and put together by a hardworking staff of three. It certainly no longer covers media briefings by tech companies. And it certainly no longer carries my column (which many might say is a good thing.)

Sadly, this merely confirms to me that when the old FEER died, not everybody took as much notice as we employees might have thought. Anyway, I was told by friends to end these PR tirades on a practical and positive note, so here’s a tip to the few PR people who don’t do it already: Check the reporter you’re pitching to (or sending an unsolicited email to):

  • works for a company or publication that still exists;
  • doesn’t have a blog and take an impish delight in drawing attention to your rare missteps;
  • er, that’s it.

For my part I promise not to mention names.

Loose Wire Reopens For Business at The AWSJ

Today is the launch of Loose Wire in The Asian Wall Street Journal, following the shift of my old homestay, the Far Eastern Economic Review, to a monthly newsletter format. Of course Dow Jones own both publications, so it’s not that great a change; the column actually used to appear there a few years back, when it was just called Asian Technology. So in a sense I’m going home, although I’ll miss the FEER folks, who were an excellent and motley crew.

I’m not quite sure of the link to the AWSJ stories and columns, but for sure they’ll be subscription only. The permanent home to my column at WSJ.com is this, where Loose Wire will continue to appear. I’ll pass on more when I know it. Oh, and I still do my spot on the BBC World Service’s World Business Report. (More on that here.)

For readers of the AWSJ, thanks for reading. For FEER readers, I hope you’ll come across. For pure blog readers, none of this will mean that much to you. But thanks for reading anyway. This blog will continue to go on as before, and will act as a repository for extra bits and pieces that I couldn’t manage to fit in the AWSJ column.

Oh, and further to my piece in today’s Personal Journal on telecommuting, here are a couple of suggestions for wannabe teleworkers that we didn’t have space for on the page:

  • If you want to be mobile in the house, you still need to think about surfaces. Laptops are too hot to have in your lap, and while commercials show people happily working with laptops resting on their bed, on the carpet or on their spouse’s stomach, in real life this doesn’t happen without lawsuits. Buy a laptop rest, such as the Laptop Desk from Lapworks ($30) or the Intrigo Lapstation (which may, sadly, be out of business, as I can’t get into their website. This was a great product, since it not only served as a good work surface, but also doubled as a portable table you can use on the floor, in bed, or by the pool.)
  • For those wedded to the desk, I’d recommend buying a second monitor for your computer. Most desktop computers and laptops support spreading your display across two screens, and with prices of flat screen LCD monitors falling, it’s a no-brainer to buy one. Trust me: It’s a great timesaver to be able to read stuff on one screen, and type on the other. Just make sure your computer supports dual monitors before you buy.

If you’ve got any more tips for telecommuters, please let me know.

Sad News For The Review

Sad news: As of today, the Far Eastern Economic Review, primary home to the Loose Wire column for the past few years, has ceased publishing as a weekly magazine. That means that the column will move elseswhere, although WSJ.com readers will continue to be able to read it online. For FEER and other readers, please do drop me an email if you’d like to be kept informed of the column’s new home once I’ve decided where it’s going to be.

Loose Wire blog will continue as usual.

Wi-Fi For The Masses

I’ve been working on a story about Wi-Fi for the masses in Asia (it will be appearing in this week’s Far Eastern Economic Review; I’ll post a snippet when it comes online), looking at how Wi-Fi is opening up all sorts of opportunities to leap over the traditional problems of the rural and urban poor in this part of the world: A lack of basic infrastructure, such as roads and phone lines. It’s a great topic with some inspring characters turning talk into action.

As a follow-up, here’s an interesting piece from Robert X. Cringely, who last week pointed out that with an all-in-one router costing about $70 you could become your neighbourhood’s own wireless ISP. This week Robert chronicles (via Applied Abstractions) the things that have happened since he wrote the piece. Those include at least one guy who has, since the article apppeared, followed Robert’s advice and is running an ISP in San Francisco. Good stuff, but it was just the start.

Moments later,” Robert goes on,  ”the Chinese called, and that’s when it became clear to me that this wireless stuff is simply ideal for a high-density, low-income urban culture like that found in China. Throw a wireless router in every Chinese Internet café and you’d bring phone service and Internet to hundreds of thousands of people practically overnight. Add a little mesh networking as described last week, and the number of people served could be increased by an order of magnitude.”

Indeed. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t have computers and don’t have Internet connections. Wi-Fi is the best news for them in years.

The Digital Fallout Of Journalistic Plagiarism and Fakery

How do you correct the Internet?

All these reports of plagiarism and fakery in U.S. journalism — at least 10, according to the New York Times — raise a question I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere. What should newspapers and other publications which have carried the reports do about setting the record straight?

A USA Today report says of disgraced reporter Jack Kelley that it has “found strong evidence that Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead those investigating his work.”

Here’s a taster: ”An extensive examination of about 100 of the 720 stories uncovered evidence that found Kelley’s journalistic sins were sweeping and substantial. The evidence strongly contradicted Kelley’s published accounts that he spent a night with Egyptian terrorists in 1997; met a vigilante Jewish settler named Avi Shapiro in 2001; watched a Pakistani student unfold a picture of the Sears Tower and say, “This one is mine,” in 2001; visited a suspected terrorist crossing point on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2002; interviewed the daughter of an Iraqi general in 2003; or went on a high-speed hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2003.”

That’s quite a lot of correcting to do. USA Today says it will withdraw all prize entries it made on Kelley’s behalf (including five Pulitzer nominations) and “will flag stories of concern in its online archive”.

But is that enough? Correcting the “online archive” would have to include all secondary databases such as Factiva (part-owned by Dow Jones, publisher of the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Wall Street Journal, and my employer; There are 1,495 USA Today stories with Jack Kelley’s name either on them or in them prior to this year). Strictly speaking, it should also include all Internet copies of those stories on the Internet (a Google search of [“Jack Kelly” and “USA Today”] threw up 3,470 matches; while many of those are accounts of the plagiarism charge, many precede that). And what about blog references to Kelley’s stories?

I’ll take an example. In 2001 Jack Kelley wrote about a vigilante Jewish settler named Avi Shapiro in 2001. According to USA Today, this was one of the stories where “the evidence strongly contradicted Kelley’s published accounts”. That story has been posted on dozens of websites (I counted 60). Who’s going to correct, or raise flags on all those?

Then there’s the doubt. With Kelley claiming, according to the USA Today report, that he was “being set up”, there’s no way that even a serious investigation by the paper (which included a eight-person team, a 20-hour interview with Kelly by three veteran journalists from outside the company and extensive use of plagiarism-detection software) is going to confirm with any sense of certainty what was faked or plagiarised. So what, exactly, do you correct? Do you delete his whole oeuvre?

It’s a tough one, and perhaps a sober reminder for journalists (and bloggers) using the Internet as a source that it’s not just emails that appear to come from our bank that we need to double check. Is there a technological solution to this? A digital watermark or trace that can allow someone to instantly correct a story, or at least notify those hosting the material that there’s a problem?

Electronic Voting And The Criminal Connection

The story of electronic voting machines, and the company that makes many of them, continues to roll along. I wrote in a column a few weeks back (Beware E-Voting, 20 November 2003, Far Eastern Economic Review; subscription required) about Bev Harris, a 52-year old grandmother from near Seattle, who discovered 40,000 computer files at the website of a Diebold Inc subsidiary, Global Elections Systems Inc, beginning a public campaign against a company she believed was responsible for a seriously flawed e-voting system., already in use in several states.

Anyway, now she’s turned up more explosive material, it seems. The Associated Press yesterday quoted her as saying that managers of Global Elections Systems “included a cocaine trafficker, a man who conducted fraudulent stock transactions, and a programmer jailed for falsifying computer records”. The programmer, Jeffrey Dean, AP reports, wrote and maintained proprietary code used to count hundreds of thousands of votes as senior vice president of Global Election Systems Inc. Previously, according to a public court document released before GES hired him, Dean served time in a Washington correctional facility for stealing money and tampering with computer files in a scheme that “involved a high degree of sophistication and planning.”

Needless to say this is all somewhat worrying. When I followed the story I tried to concern myself merely with the technological aspects, which were pretty worrying in themselves; The e-voting system being pushed by Diebold seemed to have too many security flaws to be usable in its present state. But Ms. Harris’ digging seems to reveal a company that is, to put it tactfully, less than thorough in its background checks.

So what’s Diebold’s version? AP quoted a company spokesman as saying that the company performs background checks on all managers and programmers. He also said many GES managers left at the time of the acquisition. “We can’t speak for the hiring process of a company before we acquired it”. Acccording to Ms. Harris’ website, however, that’s misleading. Quoting a memo issued shortly after Diebold bought GES in early 2002, Dean had “elected to maintain his affiliation with the company in a consulting role”. Diebold, the memo says, “greatly values Jeff’s contribution to this business and is looking forward to his continued expertise in this market place”. AP said Dean could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon and I cannot find any subsequent report online.

It’s hard to see how Diebold is going to recover from what has been a series of body blows to its credibility in such a sensitive field as voting. The same day as Ms. Harris revealed her latest bombshell, the company announced “a complete restructuring of the way the company handles qualification and certification processes for its software, hardware and firmware”. Diebold hopes the announcement will “ensure the public’s confidence that all of our hardware, software and firmware products are fully certified and qualified by all of the appropriate federal, state and local authorities prior to use in any election”.

Clearly the whole fracas has done serious damage to public confidence in electronic voting. But it’s important to keep perspective. There’s nothing wrong intrinsically with e-voting — it’s a sensible way to speed up the process, make it easier for citizens and, perhaps, to extend the use of such mechanisms to allow the population to have a greater and more regular say in how their lives are governed. But like every technological innovation, it’s got to be done right, by the right people, with the right checks and balances built in, and it can’t be done quickly and shoddily. Most importantly, it’s got to be done transparently, and those involved in building the machines must never be allowed to conceal their incompetence by preventing others from inspecting their work and assessing its worthiness.

For details of Ms. Harris allegations, check out her website Blackbox Voting. A summary of the press conference is here, as are the supporting documents (both PDF files.)

Update: More On E-Voting

 Further to my recent column on e-voting in FEER and WSJ.com (my apologies; available on subscription only), the story continues. Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins University computer scientist who identified security lapses in the voting system Maryland is adopting appeared before state legislators in testimony that illustrates the issues involved, and entrenched positions of those trying to defend weak voting software.
 
 
 

Column: Bluetooth primer

Loose Wire — Wireless With Strings
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 1 August 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
 By now you’ve probably heard of Bluetooth technology, but chances are you’re not quite sure what all the fuss is about. I don’t blame you. If its name — better suited to a dentist specializing in unhappy teeth — isn’t enough to put you off, then you might be forgiven for wondering, “Just how is this going to improve the quality of my life?” I’m not about to suggest you go Bluetooth-crazy, but I reckon it’s worth getting a handle on because one day Bluetooth will make linking your PC, gadgets and telephones a lot easier.
 
First, let’s get the name out of the way: Bluetooth was the nickname of a Danish king called Harald. Through his impressive communication skills — no one is too specific about this, but I suspect that as a Viking they didn’t involve throwing baby showers and Tupperware parties — King Bluetooth united Norway and Denmark in the 10th century. Hence Bluetooth is a wireless standard that allows users to unite through communication. Get it? Gadgets with no fuss. Or cables. In short, one gadget with Bluetooth built in — say your handphone — should link up automatically with another gadget — say your laptop — without you doing much more than putting them in the same room.
 
This works using the same free part of the radio spectrum that WiFi, or 802.11, wireless devices use. But while WiFi connects devices over longer distances, Bluetooth gadgets only hook up within a 10-metre range. Where WiFi evangelists dream of large networks without wires, Bluetoothers dream of little informal clusters of computers, printers, personal digital assistants, handphones, headsets, cameras, floppy drives and CD-ROMs all connected wirelessly. Unlike infrared they don’t need to be pointed at each other, and they’ll also work through a door or wall.
 
It’s a great idea, so why isn’t it happening yet? Well, when Bluetooth first appeared in 1998-99 the hype raised expectations to a silly level, particularly since there was only a handful of products with Bluetooth built in. But three years on, there are still problems: There are now dozens of Bluetooth products, and more in the pipeline, but Bluetooth chips are still too expensive, meaning that few of these gadgets cost less than $100. That’s too pricey for most people.
 
Part of the problem, I’m sorry to say, is Microsoft. The latest incarnation of their Windows software, XP, doesn’t have Bluetooth capability. If you set up your PDA within sight of your laptop, chances are you’d hear a funny buzzing sound and the two would try to set up an infrared link to each other. If you plug a peripheral — say your new printer — into your computer the PC would recognize the printer and probably install the drivers for you so you can get printing. The same goes for most WiFi cards. Not with Bluetooth.
 
The result is that it’s easy to set up a Bluetooth Ericsson handphone, say with an Ericsson headset — just turn them both on, fiddle in the phone menu and hey presto. Try the same with the phone and a Bluetooth-enabled PC and you’re asking for trouble. Manufacturers get around the lack of Windows support by building their own software, but it’s a bit like asking your plumber to redesign the living room: Everything looks a bit odd and nothing seems to work properly. Gadgets come tantalizingly close to hooking up with each other but then fail to do what they promise.
 
Having said that, there are occasional glimpses of its potential. AmazingTech’s Bluegear offers a low-cost ($125) way to hook up two or more computers to share files and an Internet connection, via charming little blue pegs, or dongles, that fit into the USB ports most computers come with nowadays. Anycom, which focuses exclusively on Bluetooth, has some nice gadgets, including a wireless-printer module which slots into your printer’s parallel-port slot. Now, in theory, any Bluetooth device can print out stuff from across the room, cable-free. After much tweaking and a little outside help I was able to get all these to work, and had that heady sensation one sometimes gets from good technology. I had to sit down.
 
But all this is still too fiddly for prime time. And just because two gadgets are called Bluetooth doesn’t mean they’ll set up house together. Bluegear’s dongles won’t yet talk to other gadgets, though AmazingTech say something is in the pipeline. Ericsson’s T68i phone worked like a dream with the Ericsson CommuniCam MCA-10 camera and an Ericsson headset, but won’t talk to a TDK dongle or the Anycom Bluetooth Compact Flash card.
 
This is not what Bluetooth is supposed to be about. So while some pundits say Bluetooth has arrived, I’d suggest some caveats: Buy with care, don’t expect too much, and be ready for a bit of pain. The future may have fewer wires, but there are still plenty of strings attached.

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No,

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No, I Can’t
By Jeremy Wagstaff

12/13/2001 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I’m frankly flabbergasted that the Microsoft antitrust trial in the United States is reaching such an ignominious end. But am I alone in my righteous indignation?
I won’t bore you with the details, but the Redmond giant is edging close to victory, via a settlement that contains so much wiggle room you could drive a truck through it. True, it faces opposition from nine U.S. states to its settlement with the Justice Department, and a host of other hearings and investigations. But chances are Microsoft will win out. And we users won’t.

What frosts my shorts up is that for all the teams of lawyers, miles of opinion, submissions and judgments there’s rarely been any mention of what I think is the main problem with Microsoft’s dominance of the software market: that users end up being worse off the more Microsoft products they use. We face the growing probability that if something goes wrong with one Microsoft product, the whole caboodle will come tumbling down with it.
Now this might sound slightly mad, but bear with me. The legal arguments have largely revolved around whether Microsoft has harmed consumer choice by what is called bundling, or tying, its products together. The main focus has been Internet Explorer, which Microsoft stands accused of intentionally binding into its Windows operating system to undermine rival browsers.

The problem is that this debate has, since its original airing in 1998, become largely irrelevant. Internet Explorer now dominates the marketplace — AOL Inc.’s once great Netscape Navigator now looks and feels like trying to drive a car with a fish for a steering wheel. It’s hard to imagine your average computer user waking up one morning and saying: “Hmm! I think I’ll remove IE and install BloggsBrowser today!” without thinking seriously about the likely consequences. (Don’t believe me? Try using Microsoft Money or Encarta without IE running properly. It gets ugly.)

What’s more, Microsoft increasingly dominates word-processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, contact-management, encyclopaedia and personal-finance software, blending so much of the code that your computer resembles less a multifunctional powerhouse than a tower of kiddies’ bricks. Pull out one and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Take what happened to me last week. When my laptop, running Windows 98, wouldn’t close down properly, I had to turn it off myself. When I turned it back on, I was faced with a scary message informing me my registry — the directory that stores settings for all the programs loaded onto the computer — had been corrupted and replaced with a previous version that was intact.

Now, this kind of thing shouldn’t be a problem. After all, it sounded as if my computer was in good hands. Wrong. The recovered version of the registry was apparently from a different era, blissfully unaware of the printers and other bits and bobs I had installed since the invention of the cotton jenny. Suddenly, anything with Microsoft’s name in it somewhere stopped working. Outlook — the e-mail and contact-management program — had mislaid all my personal settings and blithely assumed I was a new user. Microsoft Word, meanwhile, wouldn’t even leave the garage. Increasingly frustrated, I reloaded both Office and, when that didn’t really help, Windows itself. The whole experience has taken years off my life and I’ve started drinking again.

This is the direct consequence, in my view, of this bundling thing (the computer problem, not the drinking). All my other non-Microsoft programs worked fine despite the mayhem going on around them, making me grateful I hadn’t removed a simple old e-mail program I’d ditched for the bright lights of Outlook.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’d recommend doing two things. First, limit your exposure to bundled products by trying out alternatives, like Eudora, The Bat! or Pegasus.

Secondly, I’d suggest you submit your own comments to the court (microsoft.atr@usdoj.gov or www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/ms-settle.htm) — something you’re entitled to do as a member of the public under a piece of antitrust legislation called the Tunney Act. Preferably using words like “flabbergasted” a lot.

Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com

Loose Wire: War Games By

Loose Wire: War Games
By Jeremy Wagstaff

01/10/2002 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I’m not going to venture an opinion on the state of the war against terror, but I’m probably the only one. Think you can do better than the military? Try your hand at Real War, which isn’t just another warfare strategy shoot ’em up-well OK, it is, but it does have the added kudos of being “the commercial version of the official military Joint Forces game being used to train the United States armed forces.” This may actually explain more than I’d care to know about the U.S. armed forces: if they’re training on this then they’re in trouble.

For one thing, the units — tanks, aircraft, and ships — tend to run over one another quite regularly. For another, they don’t always do the logical thing when encountering an enemy, like opening fire on them. (Instead, the tanks move around aimlessly in the vicinity, a bit like dogs checking each other out.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun game, and it extends the genre considerably. It’s just, well, I don’t like thinking the world is being saved for democracy by a bunch of guys whose training consisted of playing games like this.

A better bet, in my view, is World War III from JoWood, which has a bunch of features that raise the bar. First is the possibility of moving your point of view from high above the battlefield to right down next to the tanks you’re controlling. The terrain is beautiful, including snowfall and clouds. The tanks sport headlights that flick on after about 7 p.m., depending on whether you’re fighting in snowbound northern terrain or in the sand-spattered Middle East. Trains trundle disconcertingly past, even while you’re in the middle of a battle. All in all, the game’s worth it just for the view.

If you’re looking for a less violent way to prove your worth, then you might want to try Tropico, which makes you president of a poor Caribbean island. Your task is to make people happy and become popular, but most importantly to stay in power. This shouldn’t be too hard, given what a nice person you are, but as in any happy-go-lucky country there are always possibilities of violent overthrow — from popular uprisings to guerrilla attacks to coups d’etat by your own soldiers.

Ominously, the instruction manual is peppered with short biographies of illustrious leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu, Manuel Noriega and Ferdinand Marcos, which serve either as cautionary tales or role models, depending on what kind of mood you are in.

For the less political, there’s a welcome addition to games which are offshoots of Monopoly, that timeless board game that’s bound to cause ruptures in even the happiest family gathering. Monopoly Tycoon, from Infogrames, matches the best of Monopoly, the game, with what computers have to offer. It has great graphics — which actually show the sun going down over your town and street lights casting their pallid glow over the city — and configurability. As a would-be tycoon you must beat your opponent to build a chain of shops and apartment blocks and juggle distribution, pricing and location to woo the city’s fickle populace.

One that’s definitely not for the kids: Dope Wars, from Beermat Software, now into its second version, is a kind of Monopoly game for drug dealers. Despite its somewhat tasteless premise, it’s actually quite good fun, and there are enough warning flags for you to realize this is not an attempt to glamorize the seedy world of narcotics. Instead, you get a feel for the fact that, were it not illegal and highly destructive, drug dealing is a business like any other.

For glamorizing the tasteless, you’ll have to wait for Hooligans — The Game, a real-time strategy game where your objective is to become the most notorious group of soccer supporters in Europe. Designed by Dutch software house Darxabre, it was due for release in November but at the time of writing shows little sign of life.

That may be no bad thing: While their argument that games that involve killing, maiming and destroying your opponents are legion, there’s something pretty sad about soccer fans causing mayhem in real life, let alone on a computer. Unless of course, the graphics are so good that the police cars have got cool headlights and you can see individual flakes of snow as they drift down across the finely detailed city, in which case perhaps the U.S. army could use the program for urban guerrilla training.

Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com