Tag Archives: Man-Made Disaster

My War On ATM Spam and Other Annoyances

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(This is a copy of my weekly syndicated column)

You really don’t need to thank me, but I think you should know that for the past 10 years I’ve been fighting a lonely battle on your behalf. I’ve been taking on mighty corporations to rid the world of spam.

Not the spam you’re familiar with. Email spam is still around, it’s just not in your inbox, for the most part. Filters do a great job of keeping it out.

I’m talking about more serious things, like eye spam, cabin spam, hand spam,  counter spam and now, my most recent campaign, ATM spam.

Now there’s a possibility you might not have heard of these terms. Mainly because I made most of them up. But you’ll surely have experienced their nefarious effects.

Eye spam is when something is put in front of your face and you can’t escape from it. Like ads for other movies on DVDs or in cinemas that you can’t skip. Cabin spam is when flight attendants wake you from your post-prandial or takeoff slumber to remind you that you’re flying their airline, they hope you have a pleasant flight and there’s lots of duty free rubbish you wouldn’t otherwise consider buying wending its way down the aisle right now.

Then there’s hand-spam: handouts on sidewalks that you have to swerve into oncoming pedestrian traffic to avoid. Counter spam is when you buy something and the assistant tries to sell you something else as well. “Would you like a limited edition pickled Easter Bunny with radioactive ears with that?”

My rearguard action against this is to say “if it’s free. If it’s not, then you have given me pause for thought. Is my purchase really necessary, if you feel it necessary to offer me more? Is it a good deal for me? No, I think I’ll cancel the whole transaction, so you and your bosses may consider the time you’re costing me by trying to offload stuff on me I didn’t expressly ask for.” And then I walk out of the shop, shoeless, shirtless, or hungry, depending on what I was trying to buy, but with that warm feeling that comes from feeling that I stuck it to the man. Or one of his minions, anyway.

And now, ATM spam. In recent months I’ve noticed my bank will fire a message at me when I’m conducting my automated cash machine business offering some sort of credit card, or car, or complex derivative, I’m not sure what. I’ve noticed that this happens after I’ve ordered my cash, but that the cash won’t start churning inside the machine until I’ve responded to this spam message.

Only when I hit the “no” button does the machine start doing its thing. This drives me nuts because once I’ve entered the details of my ATM transaction I am usually reaching for my wallet ready to catch the notes before they fly around the vestibule or that suspicious looking granny at the next machine makes a grab for them. So to look back at the machine and see this dumb spam message sitting there and no cash irks me no end.

My short-term solution to this is to look deep into the CCTV lens and utter obscenities, but I have of late realized this may not improve my creditworthiness. Neither has it stopped the spam messages.

So I took it to the next person up the chain, a bank staff member standing nearby called Keith. “Not only is this deeply irritating,” I told him, “but it’s a security risk.” He nodded sagely. I suspect my reputation may have preceded me. I won a small victory against this particular bank a few years back when I confided in them that the message that appeared on the screen after customers log out of their Internet banking service—“You’ve logged out but you haven’t logged off”, accompanied by a picture of some palm trees and an ad for some holiday service—may confuse and alarm users rather than help them. Eventually the bank agreed to pull the ad.

So I was hoping a discreet word with Keith would do the trick. Is there no way, I said, for users to opt out of these messages? And I told him about my security fears, pointing discreetly to the elderly lady who was now wielding her Zimmer frame menacingly at the door. Keith, whose title, it turns out, is First Impression Officer, said he’d look into it.

So I’m hopeful I will have won another small battle on behalf of us consumers. Yes I know I may sound somewhat eccentric, but that’s what they want us to think. My rule of thumb is this: If you want to take up my time trying to sell me something because you know I can’t escape, then you should pay for it—the product or my time, take your pick.

Now, while I’ve got your attention, can I interest you in some of those Easter bunny things? They’re actually very good.

Facebook is Dead. I’m Not Being Facetious

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Either there’s a glitch in Facebook, or else it’s dead. Well, not dead, exactly, but I noticed that, at nearly 10 pm, none of my friends have done anything today to merit appearing on the News Feed of stuff (see above).

(The News Feed, for those of you with real lives, lists recent activity by your friends in adding little widgets, updating their photos, tagging other photos, and all that sort of thing that merits an evening at home.)

(And no, I’m not filtering my News Feed at all:)

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(And yes, I do have some friends. Well, Facebook friends. They’re like fairweather friends except they don’t even hang around when the weather’s good:)

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Now, this could be a glitch. A glance at one of my most active Facebook chums indicated she’s accepted flowers, a caveman and a fire in the past hour.)

And we should distinguish between activities and updates. Status updates are still going fine: 22 of my chums have updated their status in the last six hours. But none, as far as I can work out, have added an application, tagged photos or done anything that merits being put into the News Feed (indeed a lot of the activity in the News Feed seems to be a couple of days old.)

To me that’s kind of significant. If my friends have tired of Facebook as a place to hang out and do stuff, then how long has it got left?

Facebook is Dead. I’m Not Being Facetious

image

Either there’s a glitch in Facebook, or else it’s dead. Well, not dead, exactly, but I noticed that, at nearly 10 pm, none of my friends have done anything today to merit appearing on the News Feed of stuff (see above).

(The News Feed, for those of you with real lives, lists recent activity by your friends in adding little widgets, updating their photos, tagging other photos, and all that sort of thing that merits an evening at home.)

(And no, I’m not filtering my News Feed at all:)

image

(And yes, I do have some friends. Well, Facebook friends. They’re like fairweather friends except they don’t even hang around when the weather’s good:)

image

Now, this could be a glitch. A glance at one of my most active Facebook chums indicated she’s accepted flowers, a caveman and a fire in the past hour.)

And we should distinguish between activities and updates. Status updates are still going fine: 22 of my chums have updated their status in the last six hours. But none, as far as I can work out, have added an application, tagged photos or done anything that merits being put into the News Feed (indeed a lot of the activity in the News Feed seems to be a couple of days old.)

To me that’s kind of significant. If my friends have tired of Facebook as a place to hang out and do stuff, then how long has it got left?

The Good Cable Guide

As promised to readers of the column (sorry, subscription only) on WSJ.com and in this week’s The Asian Wall Street Journal Personal Journal, here’s the full list of tips from Robert Bellows of Cable-Safe:

1. View Cable Management as an Important Safety Issue Perhaps the most important tip in keeping our cables organized is to realize that the collection of cables and devices cluttering our office floors is more than an unsightly mess, it is a clear and present safety hazard. Tangled cable clutter causes trips, falls, and excessive dust buildup that can result in overheating of devices and needless risk of fire. According to the NFPA, one of the most common causes of fires is physical damage to electrical cords. Other than fire, the most common hazards are the everyday yanks, pulls and cable snags causing unintentional system shut downs, data loss, or damage to equipment connections. This in turn causes expensive and frustrating communication or production downtime.

2. Absorb Excess Cable Length A significant cause of cable clutter is excessive cable length. A good way to absorb this length is to simply loop the excess length of each individual cable into a 10” to 12” bundle. Tie the bundle at both ends with Velcro or cable ties to form a long dog-bone shape that is compact and lays fairly straight. The loops on data cables should not be too tight. If you can fit two fingers side-by-side inside the loop, you can be sure the loop is not kinked.

Note: While absorbing excess length is the objective, it is good to leave enough extra length in the cables to allow moving computer equipment without having to disconnect cables.

3. Keep Cables Separated. Avoid Bunching Cables Into A Single Mass One quick & dirty method of “organizing” cables is to gather the whole pile into one or several large bunches with cable-ties straps. This will get them out of the way for a time, but the first time a cable has to be removed the whole mess will have to be pulled apart cable by cable. This consumes valuable IT time that could be spent more productively. To avoid this, first loop and tie all cables individually then bundle them together in small groups that are easy to separate.

4. Eliminate Unused Cables As we upgrade our computer systems we are constantly switching cables. Unused cables add significantly to cable clutter and can simply be removed or coiled up and stored at its source.

5. Avoid Mixing Data Cables With Electrical Cords It is good practice to keep data cables separated from power cords to avoid the potential of electromagnetic crosstalk.

6. Throw Some Light On The Subject Taking a moment to point a a good light source under the desk before starting will make the job easier, faster and will help avoid mistakes.

7. Label Cables & Their Ports Label each cable and both connecting points before disconnecting any cable. This saves a lot of time and eliminates improper reconnects.

8. Use Adhesive Cable Clips Liberally Before organizing, have a good supply of adhesive cable clips on hand. These help track cables from port to port without having to lay on the floor. Clipping cables in keeps cables separated and avoids tangles.

9. Establish a Cable Flow If possible, it helps to group cables that are going to the same destination into a similar arch or path. This “flow” of cables looks neater and help keep cables separated and tangle-free. Cables outside of this flow can be placed into their own path with adhesive cable guides.

Thanks, Robert.

Wikinews Coverage of the London Blasts

Just been checking out how Wikinews is handling the explosions in London. Very well, I have to say: Explosions, ‘serious incidents’ occuring across London .

There’s a wealth of detail here, culled from a wide array of sources in many different languages. There are maps, diagrams and photographs, including quite a few from witnesses, such as this one, from Adam Stacey who was on the northern line just past Kings Cross. Train suddenly stopped and filled with smoke. People in carriage smashed tube windows to get out and then were evacuated along the train tunnel. He’s suffering from smoke inhalation but fine otherwise.

It’s all really good stuff. And well ordered, although perhaps not how a traditional media editor would organise it. That’s not a criticism: I’m not the first to question whether the old ‘news pyramid’ of writing news copy shouldn’t be superceded by something more suited to the Web age. For example: putting in a telephone number for worried families near the top of the page; putting information under subheadings; very clear sourcing; holding off (or backing away) from the ‘six blasts’ version which the UK police don’t seem to be supporting in their most recent statements.

Of course, there’s another irony at work here. News websites add as many stories as they can at a time like this, with the dateline moving between London, Scotland and Singapore, including updates, sidebars etc. However, the Wikinews model actually works better for most readers, adding incremental tweaks to a core story on one page as new information comes in. (Google News, for example, has 721 stories on the topic as I write.) It may not work for the news-junkie, but for most of us it’s a great resource, a real working draft of history as it happens.

Well done, Wikinews.

On News Visualization, Part II

This week’s Loose Wire column in WSJ is about visualizing news. Researching the column I had a chance to interview Craig Mod, the guy behind the excellent Buzztracker. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat:

Craig Mod: We have over 550,000 articles in the DB now, spanning back to Jan 1st 2004. “Buzztracker” went from 750 hits on google the day before the launch to now … 39,000+ which was suprising
Jeremy: when was the launch?
Craig Mod: About 3 weeks ago
Craig Mod: got slashdotted within 12 hours
Jeremy: could you walk me thro how you think people might use it, or derive benefit from it?
Craig Mod: sure. the project started about 2 years ago as a pure art project .. some of the original output was just the dots, with no map .. but the closer you looked, suddenly land masses began to emerge and you started forming associations
Craig Mod: I’ve obviously tried to make it a lot more pragmatic and functional now
Craig Mod: fundamentally it’s supposed to get people thinking about why these connections exist — why is Shanghai and Canada connected (during the SARS outbreaks)?
Craig Mod: How did the virus spread?
Craig Mod: What sorts of checks can you preform to prevent that sort of spreading?
Craig Mod: Is it possible?
Craig Mod: etc etc
Craig Mod: and from there begin to explore how these events are being covered
Jeremy: interesting.. is there a page for the SARS stuff in the archive?
Craig Mod: clicking on the locations obviously gives you a list of the articles they appear in
Craig Mod: unfortunately the SARS stuff happened when I was building the beta 2 years ago .. so it’s not in the current DB
Craig Mod: but the recent demonstrations in China have popped up a lot
Craig Mod: there’s a China-Tokyo-Jakarta triangle that appeared during the summits
Craig Mod: and you can click the “tomorrow / yesterday” buttons and see just how long these stories linger in the collective media conscience
Craig Mod: which is kind of fun

Jeremy: is there a danger the external links die off?
Craig Mod: There is .. and we orignally had links to our internal cache but .. obvious copyright infringements issues scared us away from keeping the feature on new articles
Craig Mod: although, we still have all the data, of course
Jeremy: yes, the copyright thing is tricky…
Jeremy: how do you plan to deal with that?
Craig Mod: By not publicly offering the articles
Jeremy: right.
Craig Mod: And by keeping advertising off the site .. keeping it as pure an art project / public service project as possible

Jeremy: tell me a bit about you.
Craig Mod: I’m 24
Craig Mod: Born in Hartford, CT
Craig Mod: graduated from UPenn 2 years ago — degree in Digital Media Design (BSE in Comp. Sci with a very strong Fine arts component)
Craig Mod: Came to Tokyo 4 years ago for a year abroad, came back 1 1/2 years ago to run the Tokyo component of a small publishing company I helped start
Craig Mod: So a total of 2 1/2 years in Tokyo
Craig Mod: 2 years of which was spent at Waseda University in the intensive language program
Jeremy: how’s your japanese now?
Craig Mod: Extremely functional but I still can’t “relax” with a novel (although I just finished Murakami Ryu’s Almost Transparent Blue in Japanese)

Jeremy: so what are your plans for buzz?
Craig Mod: Right now I’m working on re-writing the drawing routines in a more power language .. the plan is to produce super-high-resolution prints for gallery display
Craig Mod: but being the only guy working on this + running sales / pr for CMP in Tokyo means it unfortunately takes a while to rewrite components
Jeremy: when you say hi-res prints, you mean of the maps?
Craig Mod: Correct
Craig Mod: There is a lot of information being lost in the low resolution of comp. screens
Craig Mod: especially Buzztracker connections (the thin, light lines get lost)

Jeremy: with thinking gap donned, where do you see this kind of thing going? do you think as people turn more and more to the net for news, these kind of visual displays will catch on?
Craig Mod: I don’t think traditional news delivery will be subverted anytime soon, but I do think that as digitized nformation increases (digital photographs, journals, etc) people are going to need clean, effecient methods to engage with the data / find what they want
Craig Mod: Something like buzztracker is an attempt to both clean up the delivery of a tremendous amount of information while also brining to the surface patterns otherwise invisible — missing the forest for the trees, etc.
Craig Mod: but what I’m hoping … what I had in mind as I was designing and building the information structure of buzztracker was that things need to be as clear and simple as possible
Craig Mod: this isn’t meant to provide an incredibly exhaustive set of news mining features — it’s meant to be highly accessible by anyone
Craig Mod: I haven’t seen any of the other newsmap interfaces but perhaps unlike Marcos’ work or, hopefully, mine, their information architecture wasn’t as transparent
Jeremy: transparent meaning?
Craig Mod: meaning, they innundated the user with superfluous interface elements, cluttered typography, illogical hierarchies .. I don’t want anyone using buzztracker to be concerned with how they engage the software/site .. the focus should, I hope, be engaging the data, the news
Craig Mod: (although I don’t know if they did that since I never saw any of them 🙂 )

Craig Mod: on the tech side of things, there was a point where I was debating between flash and pure html .. in the end, I think going with html made sense for those exact reasons — quick loading, standards based, etc
Craig Mod: There’s also, I suppose (to a small degree) a sense of bias being eliminated in these sorts of ways of navigating the news ..
Jeremy: very true.
Craig Mod: But almost unavoidable .. but those biases are also interesting ..
Craig Mod: buzztracker being completely rooted in anglophone news sources
Craig Mod: you start to see things like .. Africa doesn’t exist in the mind of enlgish speaking sources .. most all news takes place on a thin line just above the center of the map

Craig Mod: Animations are also comming .. along side the high-res output ..
Jeremy: how would the animations work? evolution of a story over a period of time?
Craig Mod: you could follow certain keywords — allowing you to follow certain stories .. You could also map the news on an hourly basis — interpolating the rise and fall of events smoothly ..
Craig Mod: the thing with the animations is that, I believe, by watching repeated time lapses you’ll start to see “news rhythms” erupt ..
Craig Mod: which begs the questions — if you map these animations to sound, can you decern other patterns that you were missing visually?

Jeremy: what about some of the criticisms that you’re leaning towards datelines, and so stuff like the tsunami wasn’t represented properly?
Craig Mod: There are some events (like the tsunami) which appear after the day they happened .. one of the best and worst parts of Buzztracker is that it’s fully automated so if something doesn’t appear when it “should” that’s representative of the media in some ways
Craig Mod: The spain explosions last year are incredibly represented
Craig Mod: I think some — such as false results, or skewed distrobution in the wrong ways — could be corrected by simple human intervention .. Looking for, spotting these “errors” in calculation, and adding rules to fix them
Craig Mod: but at the same time, that takes away from a bit of the purity of the automation of Buzztracker .. it’s always about balance I suppose

Thanks, Craig.

Life In Indonesia

Folk ask why I live in Indonesia. Here’s why.

The Associated Press reported today that villagers in the South Sulawesi town of Watampone were protesting Tuesday outside the local police station demanding action against a local man they accused of practising black magic when it started raining. The police invited the protesters to shelter inside. Waiting for the storm to pass, some of the protesters wandered into the police armoury, which was unlocked, where they started playing with some explosive material. Some of it fell on the floor. The resulting explosion left four villagers injured. Local police chief Lt. Col. Oya Zulfikar was quoted as saying the four would be questioned when they were discharged from hospital.

Did A Computer Virus Bring Down The Soviet Union?

Did software, deliberately programmed by the CIA to fail, hasten the end of the Soviet Union?

The Washington Post reports (registration required) that “President Ronald Reagan approved a CIA plan to sabotage the economy of the Soviet Union through covert transfers of technology that contained hidden malfunctions, including software that later triggered a huge explosion in a Siberian natural gas pipeline.”

It quotes a new memoir by Thomas C. Reed, a former Air Force secretary who was serving in the National Security Council at the time (At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War, to be published next month by Ballantine Books) as saying the pipeline explosion was just one example of “cold-eyed economic warfare” that made the Soviet Union eventually “understand that they had been stealing bogus technology, but now what were they to do? By implication, every cell of the Soviet leviathan might be infected. They had no way of knowing which equipment was sound, which was bogus. All was suspect, which was the intended endgame for the entire operation.”

Aspects of this operation have been revealed before, but it’s still a pretty extraordinary tale, and makes one realise the power that software holds over us. And given that all this happened in 1982 or even earlier, does that make the CIA the first successful virus writers? The record is presently held by Fred Cohen, who created his first virus when studying for a PhD at the University of Southern California and presented his results to a security seminar on 10 November, 1983, according to the BBC website.

Update: Nokia Batteries Safe Shock

 Nokia, hit by a recent spate of reports, from Vietnam to the Netherlands, of its batteries overheating and catching fire or exploding, says a follow-up test by a Belgian consumer watchdog had shown its own-made batteries were safe for use, Reuters reports.
 
Nokia said in a statement a new test by Test-Aankoop, conducted on November 17, showed all Nokia-made batteries were protected against short-circuiting, believed to be the cause of the problems. The Belgian firm said in a separate statement its previous test released earlier this month had accidentally included counterfeit batteries in the sample. But it said Nokia should address the issue of many forged batteries sold under Nokia’s brand.