Google’s New Interface: The Earth

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I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

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Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

Loose Launch (Or How to Throw a Book Party in Bali)

Loose Wire, the book, was launched last night at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. It was great to have such a large turnout and gratifying to sell out all copies! More have been shipped in for today’s session of the festival, and can be found at the Java Books stall at Indus. What particularly delighted me was the varied crowd — everyone from geeks to grandmothers! Thanks to everyone for coming and making it a fun evening. I realised that launching a book was really the first time I got to meet readers face to face and hear some of their problems. Mostly, most but not exclusively, about technology.

For those who aren’t in Bali, copies of the book can be bought from Equinox, my publisher. For anyone who happens to be in Jakarta, there’ll be a special launch this coming Saturday, to which you’re all welcome. More launches in Asia and beyond in the months ahead.

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Mapping Your Tiddly Thoughts

I’m a big fan of TiddlyWiki, the personal wiki that runs in one file in your browser, and I’m very impressed by all the plug-ins and tweaks that the program’s users are introducing. (I wrote about TiddlyWiki last year in a WSJ.com column — subscription only, sorry — but have also included some notes for the piece here in the blog, including on this page (scroll down).

Anyway, TiddlyWiki is a free form database, not unlike an outliner, but with lots of cool elements that make it much more. (Yes, tags, too.) Think of lots of individual notes that you make in your browser, which you can find via ordinary search or by tags you give to each note; you can also view a list of notes chronologically — i.e. in the order you created them — etc etc.

But if you’re a fan of mindmaps, or PersonalBrain, where your information can also be viewed graphically, you might feel a tad constrained. Not for much longer, if a Java programmer and writer called Dawn Ahukanna has her way. She’s just released a “hypergraph plug-in” which creates what she calls navigation graphs (I’d call them mindmaps but that’s me). As she says, “I’ve had quite a few revelations with it already, using it to map my existing TiddlyWikis.”

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It’s an early prototype and not as pretty as it could be, but this kind of thing is in my mind the thin wedge of a revolution largely ignored by the “social” Web 2.0. Tools like TiddlyWiki, though presently a little rough around the edges and geeky, mark a very useful exploration of different interfaces for personal, portable data.

While I think of it, another interesting new TiddlyWiki modification is the MonkeyGTD (Getting Things Done, to the few people who haven’t been sucked in by the David Allen book and self-organizing philosophy), which tweaks the TiddlyWiki interface into little blocks.

The TiddlyWiki Report, Part I: Jonny LeRoy

This week’s WSJ.com/AWSJ column is about the TiddlyWiki (here, when it appears Friday), which I reckon is a wonderful tool and a quiet but major leap forward for interfaces, outliners and general coolness. I had a chance to chat with some of the folk most closely involved in TiddlyWikis, but sadly couldn’t use much of their material directly, so here is some of the stuff that didn’t fit.

First off, an edited chat with Jonny LeRoy, a British tech consultant who offered his view on TiddlyWikis over IM:

Loose Wire: ok, thanks… i’m doing a little piece on tiddlywikis, and was intrigued to hear how you got into them, how you use them, where you think they might be of use, how they might develop etc…
Jonny LeRoy: sure. I first came across them when a colleague sent round a link. The thing that hooked me was the “install software” page which just said – “you’ve already got it”. I’ve been doing web stuff (mainly Java server side development) for quite a while and seeing the immediacy of the tiddlywiki was great. I’ve tried all sorts of tools for managing thoughts and tasks and generally end up going back to pen and paper after a while. tiddlywiki is fast and easy enough for me to keep using it. The micro-content idea is pretty interesting but I’m also pretty interested in how they slot into general progressions in the “Web 2.0”. more and more functionality can now be pushed client side – especially with Ajax and related async javascript technologies. TiddlyWiki takes this to the extreme by pushing *everything* client-side …
That does raise the problem of sharing and syncing the data, but it’s not really in essence a collaborative tool. though there’s no reason why that can’t be added on top of what’s there. Does that make some sense?
Loose Wire: it does. very well put…
Jonny LeRoy: cheers 😉
Loose Wire: 🙂 i particularly like the tagging idea, which you seem to have introduced…

Jonny LeRoy: Yup – for me when I started using tiddlywiki the main thing missing was any kind of classification. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with pretty complicated taxonomies and ontologies – particularly for managing / aggregating / syndicating content on a travel start-up I was involved in. but the simplicity of sites like delicious and flickr started to make me realise that some simple keyword tags gets you nearly everything you need. and also removes half of the issues related to category hierarchies and maintenance. particularly when your dataset isn’t massive. even when the dataset and tag list grows there are ways of “discovering” structure rather than imposing it … see flickr’s new tag clusters for a good example of this. In the good open source fashion I had a quick hack at the TW code and put some basic tagging functionality in place. A few other people were creating tag implementations at the same time, but they were more based around using tiddlers as tags ….. I was fairly keen just to keep the tags as metadata. I’m still yet to see a good online wiki that has tagging built in. for me that’s been an issue with most wikis I’ve used

Loose Wire: i get the impression that tagging is still considered a social thing, rather than tagging for oneself, as a way to commit to hierarchies, a la outliners etc?
Jonny LeRoy: that’s one of the beauties of it – though not so much in TW. the free-association you get by browsing other people’s tags is amazing. comparing what you can find through something like delicious compared to open directory projects – dmoz etc is quite interesting
Loose Wire: it is great, but i feel there’s huge potential in using tags for oneself, too?
Jonny LeRoy: yup – when you’re using them for yourself you can set your own little rules that get round some of the hierarchy problems. overloaded tags – with more than one meaning can get confusing in a social context, but personally it’s much easier to manage how you refer to things. also the ability to add tags together – so you can search on multiple tags creates an ad hoc structure.
Loose Wire: yes. i’d love to see TWs let you choose a selection of tags and then display the matches… oops, think we’re talking the same thing there…
Jonny LeRoy: yeah – I’d been meaning to put that in place, but haven’t had a moment 🙂
Loose Wire: is that going to happen? all the various TWs are now under one roof, is that right?
Jonny LeRoy: Yeah – Jeremy Ruston – who started it all off seems to be managing things reasonably well. and pulling together different versions. there was a bit of a branch with the GTDWiki which got a lot of publicity.
Loose Wire: is that a good way to go, do you think?
Jonny LeRoy: it’s a weird one, because it’s not like a traditional open source project with code checked into CVS. so versioning can be quite hard. but it’s also one of the beauties of it – anyone with a browser and a text editor can have a go.

Loose Wire: i noticed the file sizes get quite big quite quickly?
Jonny LeRoy: a lot of that is the javascript – if you’re just using it locally then you can extract that out into another file. that makes saving and reloading a bit quicker. the file will grow though with the amount of data you put in.
Loose Wire: is that tricky to do?
Jonny LeRoy: no – you just need to cut all the javascript – put it into a new file and put in an HTML tag referencing it
Loose Wire: how much stuff could one store without it getting unwieldy?
Jonny LeRoy: That really depends on your PC / browser combo – how quickly it can parse stuff.  if you were going to want to store really large amounts of data then you might want to look at ways of having “modules” that load separately.

Loose Wire: is it relatively easy to turn a TW into a website/page?
Jonny LeRoy: yeah – couldn’t be simpler – upload the file to a webserver … and er … that’s it. it does rely on people having javascript enabled – but 99% do. one issue is that since all the internal links are javascript search engines like google won’t follow them. but google will read the whole text of the page if it indexes you

Loose Wire: where do you think this TW thing could go? do you see a future for it? or is it going to be overtaken by something else?
Jonny LeRoy: Definitely – the company I’m working at right now (ThoughtWorks) have used it for a major UK company . they used it for a simple handbook for new people
Loose Wire: oh really? excellent!
Jonny LeRoy: really simple to use and quick to navigate – it got pretty good feedback. I see more people being likely to use it personally on their own pcs though. I use it to keep track of things I’ve got to do or have done. the dated history bit is really useful to work out what was going on a couple of weeks ago.
Loose Wire: the timeline thing?
Jonny LeRoy: yup
Jonny LeRoy: I can also see new TW like products coming out for managing tasks better – an equivalent of tadalist on the client side. beyond that it’s a good thought experiment in how datadriven sites can work. the server can push the data in some structured format to the browser and then the browser uses TW like technology to work out how to render it.
Loose Wire: yes. … [however] i feel a lot of people like to keep their stuff on their own pc (or other device, USB drive, whatever). not all of us are always online….
Jonny LeRoy: exactly – the wiki-on-a-stick idea is great. you can stick firefox and your wiki on the usb key and off you go
Loose Wire: yes, very cool…
Jonny LeRoy: The next step is then to have the option to do some background syncing to a server when you end up online
Loose Wire: do you think more complex formatting, layout and other tasks could be done? and could these things be synced with portable devices?
Jonny LeRoy: the portable devices question is interesting – it really depends on how much javascript they’ve got on their browsers. there’s no reason why it’s not possible, but there are more vagaries of how the functionality is handled
Loose Wire: javascript is the key to all this, i guess….
Jonny LeRoy: it’s a bit like the web in the mid 90s where you didn’t have a clue what people’s browsers would support. it’s actually having a bit of a comeback. many people just see it as a little glue language to stick things together or move things around ….. but it’s actually really powerful – I discovered more of it’s dynamic possibilities while playing with TW. the best thing about it for me is that anyone who’s got a modern browser can run javascript – there’s no extra install.

Loose Wire: yes, making the browser an editor is a wonderful thing… what sort of things do you think we might see with it?
Jonny LeRoy: I’m not sure what new thing we’ll see, but we’ll definitely see the things we use the browser for already getting much better and smoother. the user interaction is starting to become more like working on a locally installed application.

Thanks, Jonny.

Wikipedia on Your Cellphone

Further to my posting last week on how it might be possible to access Wikipedia (and other localised content) via Wi-Fi, here’s a service that makes it available via GPRS: Wikipedia goes mobile with JAVA-solution

Wikipedia is now available on mobile phones. The interactive media platform JOCA allows immediate, continuous and free access to the famous online encyclopedia via GPRS. With more than 1.6 million articles (about 678.000 in English and 275.000 in German), Wikipedia offers the largest free accessible knowledge pool worldwide. Via JOCA, a Java program developed by Interactiv, the German specialist for interactive services, mobile phone users are able to screen the entire Wikipedia encyclopedia within a few seconds. JOCA quickly displays the Wikipedia answers on research requests in English or German and offers additional links recommended by the community’s authors.

I haven’t tried it out but it sounds excellent. Particularly if this kind of thing were integrated with sound technology so one could just say to one’s phone, say, ‘Heidelberg, Philosopher’s Walk (Philosophenweg), English’, while walking along that path, and get the appropriate page delivered to one’s cellphone. (I don’t know why I thought of that particular place, and actually there’s no separate reference to the path there. Sorry. Still, it’s a nice path. Really.)

On News Visualization, Part III

This week’s Loose Wire column in WSJ is about visualizing news. Researching the column I had a chance to interview Marcos Weskamp, the guy behind the very cool newsmap, who is setting up a studio specializing in interface design and information visualization for the web called B2 inc (no website available yet).

Here’s an edited transcript of our chat:

Jeremy: what are you doing in japan at the moment?
marcos weskamp: well Ive just moved back here. I’m setting up a small interaction design office.
Jeremy: i see… why japan?
marcos weskamp: I had been living here for around 7 years before. I’m originally from argentina, I came under a scholarhip from the japanese government to study graphic design. When I finished I stayed working and so I was until november last year when I moved to italy to do a graduate program in interaction design.
Jeremy: ah i see. could you quickly update me on newsmap? why you did it, what you think it offers over other interfaces, whether you have plans to develop it further, etc?
marcos weskamp: sure
marcos weskamp: newsmap was basically born after I saw googlenews. Again, I’m from argentina, so my mother tongue is spanish, I speak english since I was 5 and I’ve learned to read and write japanese when I moved here.
marcos weskamp: so when it comes to reading the news, the web is my main source of information and I often read online newspapers in spanish, english or japanese, sometimes reading about the same story in several languages, trying to find what are the nuances that differ from each point of view
marcos weskamp: when googlenews came up I was dazzled, it was impressive. not only they agregated news from thousands of newspapers online, but also – this is the most impressive part – whenever they find the same story in several newspapers, no matter how different the actual text that makes the story is, they group them all under one single cluster
marcos weskamp: so if there’s 300 newspapers reporting about, say “Insurgent attacks in Irak” they’ll file them all under one group and tell you: theres 1357 articles related to this story now
marcos weskamp: now that particular number was what most interested me. that means if I sumed up the total number of articles, and started making percentages, I could somehow see, which stories where the ones that the media was mostly paying attention to
marcos weskamp: now, in googlenews, today you have a total of 22 countries
marcos weskamp: inside each of them  you’ll find 7 categories: world, national, business, sci/tech, sports, enternatinment and health
marcos weskamp: so when I thought about visualizaing all of the articles inside googlenews, I came into treemaps
marcos weskamp: treemaps is a visual layout algorithm developed by Proffessor Ben Shneiderman from the University  of Maryland
marcos weskamp: Treemaps are used to create space constrained visualizations of quantitative hyerarchical data. Shneiderman originally thought about treemaps to visualize the content of his hard disk. If you think about it In your hard disk you have folders that have folders that have folders that have files
marcos weskamp: that structure is hyerarchical, and those files have a quantitative value; the k size of each of them
marcos weskamp: through a treemap then he could easilly find which where the files or folders that where taking the most space in is hard disk
Jeremy: (i’ve played with a couple such programs, like spacemonger…)
marcos weskamp: in the same way, in googlenews you have countries, that have sections, that have articles. the quantitative value is the ammount of related articles for each news story
marcos weskamp: so I then thought about visualizing the all the content of googlenews in one screen, using a treemap.
marcos weskamp: though I never thought newsmap would replace google news, I simply made it so that I could see, in a quick glance, which where the most important stories at the moment, and also be able then to compare how much attention media in each country gives to each news story
marcos weskamp: what I also found later was well how do different countries look at news. for example if you go to the US, you’ll see that most of the times, the US gives more importance to national news than international news
marcos weskamp: all other countries mostly report about international news
marcos weskamp: except italy where you’ll find that sports news always takes the most space;)
Jeremy: naturally!
marcos weskamp: in a way you can see how much we are all Biased through US centric media

Jeremy: do you plan to develop it further?
marcos weskamp: yes, definitivelly. I’m working on it:)
Jeremy: what kind of plans do you have?
marcos weskamp: well, I have to add all countries now present in the agreggator. from a data perspective that’s no problem. it only means there’s more html to process (I’m  not using the google api)
marcos weskamp: but in the front end I need to change the interface a little bit, and also it’s tough to display asian characters cleanly in flash without a hughe download. I’m looking into alternatives now. there will be other features like being able to reverse the treemap, so that you can find which stories where burried by the big news.
marcos weskamp: there’s also a java version in the works which allows me to display the actual shift of the news throughout the whole week. but well I hope you’ll see it when I publish it sometime later

Jeremy: do you see this kind of thing hitting the big time? replacing the way people view their news online ?
marcos weskamp: not really. again I never pretended to replace the aggregator. this is simply a visualization that gives you a different perspective of what’s inside googlenews.
marcos weskamp: I like to think about it as a complement to googlenews;)

Thanks, Marcos.

A New Opera

Opera has launched a new version of its browser, 7.50, for Windows, Mac, Linux, FreeBSD and Solaris. Opera 7.50 includes an e-mailer, newsreader, IRC-compatible chat client, contact database and support for RSS newsfeeds. It’s 3.5 megabytes in size (without Java).

The interface has been revamped, with a new panel selector. Opera Mail has had a facelift too, including fast content search, a contact database, a newsreader, automatic filtering, and a spellchecker. The chat client is IRC-compatible and supports both private and group
chats.

The browser is available free of charge with sponsored advertising. An ad-free version costs $40.

Anatomy Of A Phishing Trojan

Phishing emails don’t need to be sophisticated to lure the unwary. Indeed, there’s some evidence those behind the more convincing looking emails masquerading as bank emails are also behind a spate of key-logging trojans, which use basic methods to fool the recipient into making them active.

Australian Daniel McNamara of anti-phishing website Code Fish has found a new trojan that does a scary amount of work; he believes it’s the same phishing gang which recently launched attacks against his website and which targeted Westpac and ANZ banks. The emails themselves contain no special tricks, just plain text mentioning something newsy about Australia and offering a link to read more.

In this case it’s not the emails themselves that are sophisticated (in fact, their very simplicity may be the lure); it’s the website they link to (the website in question, apparently, is a cracked Windows XP machine sitting on a broadband link in Canada). All the user sees there is a blank page, whereas in fact, for unpatched Internet Explorer users, the website quickly uploads a trojan into the user’s computer using a Java applet built into the web page. All it takes is a second, and all the user might see, if his eyes are quick, is a message appearing for a few seconds in the status bar at the bottom of the browser window: “Applet intialising..” Now his computer is infected.

It’s worth taking a look more closely at the payload, courtesy of Daniel’s groundbreaking sleuthing. The trojan copies the contents of a file to the Windows directory. It then creates an executable file, which is then launched. It creates a subfolder in the Windows directrory called “ijn” in which it then places two files, nm32.exe and mn32.dll. The executable is then deleted. A small text file is created in the same directory.

This is all so well-hidden from view only a real expert could know it was going on. As far as Windows is concerned the trojan and the directory it created doesn’t exist, even in the Windows Task Manager, even with “show hidden files/directories” turned on. As Daniel says, “somehow the trojan has set up a ‘screen’ so that the overlying Windows GUI denies their existence. Judging from what we found out later it’s because it’s managed to place some hooks into Explorer that allow it to basically become invisible to the average end user.”

Behind the scenes, however, the trojan is busy. As soon as a user visited an Australian banking site it will log all keystrokes to a file, in the same directory, called “kbd.txt”. The results are then emailed to a server in Russia. The ps.txt file, the other file created by the trojan, is delivered via FTP — a standard to send one file from one computer to another over the Internet — which appears to include, Daniel says, passwords stored on the victim’s computer, including those for Outlook Express, AOL and possibly Microsoft’s Passport. The FTP site is hosted on a computer belonging to a web hosting company in the U.S.

In other words, this trojan not only captures your banking passwords, it also trawls around for any kind of passwords on your computer that may prove useful.

So who’s behind it? There are a couple of clues: The email appears to be delivered to a Russian email address (server@mail.ru). There’s also a snippet in one of the files that would seem to indicate the author, or someone involved in the trojan’s creation was Russian, or at least East European.

There are a couple of points worth making here:

  • The weekend attack: These attacks happen too quickly for anti-virus companies, but particularly if they hit at weekends. Daniel says he spotted the trojan on Friday night, but said the website that supported it was not working until midday Saturday, Eastern Australia time (This is Friday afternoon/evening, U.S. time). Within an hour or two he had heard from one person was infected after his anti-virus software failed to stop it. Daniel says he forwarded the trojan to the anti-virus companies late Saturday (Australian time), but so far there’s no sign they’ve updated their libraries, or posted a warning.
  • Phishers are not just after your bank details. They could also make use of your other passwords — remember, the trojan loading website was on a hacked broadband computer (probably a home computer) in Canada, which may or may not have been hacked into. The FTP site was a on a legitimate web hosting server in the U.S., where an account had been hacked into.
  • Phishing is not just fancy graphics. Phishing is about social engineering, but it can be primitive, and still successful. This was a plain text email but with enough appeal to get someone to click on the link. (Indeed, with public awareness of the more sophisticated phishing attacks growing, this may be a deliberate move on their part.) Daniel’s convinced the people behind this one are behind others: He points to the fact they use exactly the same technique to upload the trojan as in previous attacks on Westpac and ANZ customers.
  • Sophistication This trojan does add some elements to the mix that show how, with every attack, the folk behind them get smarter. There’s really no evidence this trojan has gotten onto your computer and resides there unless you take a real, close look.

Bottom line: Phishers use lots of different methods, and lots of different tricks, to get a broad range of information out of you. And, if they hit at weekends, anti-virus companies may be asleep at the wheel, so don’t rely on them.

Nokia Sets An Example For RSS

Here’s a sign of what a company can do with RSS, winning fans, distributing information and building bridges. Technical consultant and blogger Russell Beattie points to a wonderful page by Nokia, containing all of Nokia’s documents, announcements and toolkits via a bunch of different RSS feeds.

As Russell says, “There’s sooooo much to be gleaned from Nokia’s site it’s incredible.” He points to just one document, a presentation Music, video, streaming contents services Demand in Asia Pacific which has some fascinating facts about current mobile data services world wide:

  • Approx 1 billion SMS/day globally
  • Mobile ring tones are already a USD 3-5billion business
  • UK ring tones market will overtake the CDs singlesmarket 2003
  • UK: over 780 million WAPpage impression /month in June 2003 (130% growthin 9 months)
  • Est~10 millionmobile Java downloadsglobally / month in June 2003
  • Over 75 operators have launched mobile Java services
  • Over 140 operatorshave launched MMS(Aug 2003)
  • mmo2 reportsapprox 5 MMS /monthsper active user
  • Over 20 operatorshave launched mobile video content services (MMS video, streaming)

There’s enough there for a dozen columns. But what I like is that Nokia have taken the trouble to present all this information in an accessible way. My grumble with Nokia until now is that their sites are not intuitive — unlike their cellphones — but you can’t say that anymore. I wish more companies would do this kind of thing. It’s not rocket science but it is helpful.

Windows 98 Users Face A Scary Future

A by-product of Microsoft’s decision to phase out support for some of its ‘old’ products, citing Java-related legal issues: users are going to be very exposed to viruses and bad stuff like that. Ottawa-based AssetMetrix Research Labs found that more than 80 percent of companies surveyed were still using Windows 98 and/or Windows 95.

“On January 16th, 2004, Microsoft Windows 98 enters the non-support portion of its support lifecycle. Windows 98 is considered obsolete, and security-based hot fixes will not be generally available for users of Windows 98 or Windows 98-Second Edition,” eWeek quoted Steve O’Halloran, managing director of AssetMetrix Research Labs, as saying.

This is daft. According to some reports, Microsoft doesn’t need to do all this until next September, raising suspicions that it’s just trying to make Sun — owner of Java — look like the evil wolf, and to force buying folk to migrate to XP. If any of this is true, I’d like to see Microsoft agree to provide security updates for at least Windows 98 users for as long as they can. I can’t see Sun, or the courts, objecting to that.