Facebook’s Many Faces

The other day I found myself in a restaurant in northern Japan explaining to a South Korean acquaintance of less than a day how I divided my social networks up. LinkedIn, I said, was for people I needed to know, or who felt they need to know me. Facebook was for my friends — people I had known for a long time, family, I keep my Facebook world for my real world friends, I said. He nodded sagely before we were interrupted by two young Japanese from across the table who had just joined the throng. 

I dutifully rummaged round for my business cards for the time-honored ritual of using both hands to exchange cards and study them intently. Our new dinner companions, had no truck with that. We don’t have business cards, one of them said, whipping out his iphone. But give me your name and I’ll add you on Facebook. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this etiquette-wise, but turning him down was not an option. My Korean friend kindly avoided pointing out my hypocrisy as I dutifully helped my even newer friend add me to Facebook. Within the hour he had tagged me on several photos of diners other than myself, which in turn had been commented upon by at least 60 of his friends. All  of course, in Japanese. 

Welcome to the weird world of Facebook. Foolish people call it a nation, And if you glanced over the shoulder of anyone at an airport, in Starbucks, on a train, in the office, at  the familiar blue ribboned page as they check back in to their portable community, you might be forgiven for thinking they inhabit the same country. But it’s not and they don’t. It’s a reflection, an adaptation of the culture, or subculture, of the people who populate it, And while there’s perhaps more overlap than the physical world between those cultures, there’s still plenty of room for the culture shock of finding yourself in another part of the Facebook planet. Only there are no guidebooks and rules, just people trying to muddle through. Like me in that Sendai restaurant. 

This is of course both good and bad. I actually quite like having some folk on my Facebook page chattering away in a language I need Microsoft or Google to make sense of. But it doesn’t make us friends. And it does somewhat devalue the connection that Facebook builds to my real friends. Their updates get crowded out by the friends who aren’t really my friends. 

But the bigger point is this. Facebook is not homogenizing the world. In fact, it’s a mirror of the cultures from which we come. And by mirror I mean mirror. Take Facebook photos, for example: Researchers have found that Americans, despite being individualistic by nature, prefer to share photos of themselves in groups on Facebook. Compare this with China, or even Namibia, two societies considered group-oriented, where users are much more likely to share photos of themselves standing alone,, smart and polished, often not even against a background which might justify posting the photo. Researchers believe this is because of the desire in such societies to project a good image of themselves to the group. 

Go figure. It might help explain my Japanese friends and their business card etiquette. Perhaps for them the exchange of business cards is an intimate expression of trust, and the most obvious online equivalent of that is the Facebook friending.. I with my Western hypocrisy and shallowness make no such commitment with my business card exchange. Or maybe they’re just a subset of a of subset of a subculture that thinks business cards are silly and Facebook is cool. I have no idea. Facebook it seems, is as interesting and confusing to navigate as the real world. Thank God for that. 

Inside the Web of Things

This is a slightly longer version of a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service

I’ve long dreamed of an Internet of things, where all the stuff in my life speaks to each other instead of me having to the talking. The vision is relatively simple: each gadget is assigned an Internet address and so can communicate with each other, and with a central hub (my, or my computer, or smartphone, or whatever.)

The most obvious one is electricity. Attach a sensor to your fusebox and then you can see which or your myriad appliances is inflating your electricity bill. Great idea! Well sort of. I found a Singapore-based company that was selling them, and asked to try one out. It was a nice, sleek device that promised to connect to my computer via WiFi and give me a breakdown of my electricity consumption. Woohoo.

Only it never worked. Turns out the device needed to be connected to the junction box by a pro called Ken, who tried a couple of times and then just sort of disappeared. I don’t mean he was electrocuted or vaporized, he just didn’t come back. The owner of the company said he didn’t really sell them anymore. Now the device is sitting in a cupboard.

Turns out that Cisco, Microsoft and Google tried the same thing. The tech website Gigaom reports that all three have abandoned their energy consumption projects. Sleek-looking devices but it turns out folk aren’t really interested in saving money. Or rather, they don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks to be reminded their power bills are too high.

This might suggest that the Internet of things is dead. But that’d be wrong. The problem is that we’re not thinking straight. We need to come up with ways to apply to the web of things the same principles that made Apple tons of cash. And that means apps.

The Internet of things relies on sensors. Motion sensors which tell whether the device is moving, which direction it’s pointing in, whether it’s vibrating, its rotational angle, its exact position, its orientation. Then there are sensors to measure force, pressure, strain, temperature, humidity and light.

The iPhone has nearly all these. An infrared sensor can tell that your head is next to the phone so it can turn off the screen and stop you cancelling the call with your earlobe. (The new version can even tell how far away you from the phone so it can activate its voice assistant Siri.)

But what makes all this powerful is the ecosystem of third party applications that have been developed for the iPhone. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of sensors. There are 1000s of apps that make use of the iPhone’s sensors–most of them without us really thinking about it.

This is the way the Internet of things needs to go. We need to stop thinking boring things like “power conservation” and just let the market figure it out. Right now I want a sensor that can tell me when the dryer is spinning out of control, which it tends to do, because then it starts moving around the room. Or help me find my keys.

In short, the Internet of things needs to commoditize the sensors and decentralize the apps that make those sensors work. Make it easy for us to figure out what we want to do with all this amazing technology and either give us a simple interface for us to do it ourselves, or make a software kit that lets programmy people to do it for us.

Which is why some people are pretty excited about Twine, a bunch of guys from MIT who are working on a two and a half inch rubber square which connects to WiFi and will let you program it via a very simple interface. Some examples: hang it around your infant’s neck and get it to send you a tweet every time it moves.

It may not be rocket science, but if you’ve got an infant-wandering problem it could be just what you needed.

Quaintness in Salt Lake

(This is the script for a piece I did for the BBC World Service. Posted here by request. Podcast here.)

Something rather quaint is going on in a Salt Lake City courtroom. A company called Novell, who you’d be forgiven for not having heard of, is suing Microsoft over a product called WordPerfect, which you also may not have heard of, which it says was hobbled from running on something called Windows 95 to protect its own product, called Microsoft Word.

To be honest, you don’t need to know the ins and outs of this Microsoft law suit; nor do you really need to know much about Novell—once a giant in word processing software, and now a subsidiary of a company called The Attachmate Group, which I had never even heard of. Or, for that matter Windows 95—except that once upon a time people used to stay up all night to buy copies. Sound familiar, iPad and iPhone lovers?

It’s weird this case is going on, and I won’t bore you with why. But it’s a useful starting point to look at how the landscape has changed in some ways, and in others not at all. Microsoft is still big, of course, but no-one queues up for their offerings anymore: Indeed nobody even bought Vista, as far as I can work out. But back then, nearly every computer you would ever use ran Windows and you would use Microsoft Office to do your stuff. You couldn’t leave because you probably didn’t have a modem and the Internet was a place where weird hackers lived.

Now, consider this landscape: Apple make most of their money from phones and tablets. Google, which wasn’t around when Windows 95 was, now dominate search, but also own a phone manufacturer, have built an operating system. Amazon, which back then was starting out as a bookseller, is now selling tablets at cost as a kind of access terminal to books, movies, magazines and other things digital. Facebook, which wasn’t even a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s 11 year old eye at the time, is now the world’s biggest social network, but is really a vast walled garden where everything you do—from what you read, what you listen to, as well as how well you slept and who you had dinner with—is measured and sold to advertisers.

All these companies kind of look different, but they’re actually the same. Back in 1995 the PC was everything, and so therefore was the operating system and the software that ran on it. The web was barely a year old. Phones were big and clunky. So Microsoft used its power to dominate to sell us what made the most money: software.

Now, 15 or 16 years on, look how different it all is. Who cares about the operating system? Or the word processor? Or the PC? Everything is now mobile, hand-held, connected, shared, and what was expensive is now free, more or less. Instead, most of these companies now make their money through eyeballs, and gathering data about our habits, along with micropayments from data plans and apps, online games and magazines.

And to do this they all have to play the same game Microsoft played so well: Dominate the chain: Everything we do, within a Hotel California-like walled garden we won’t ever leave. So my predictions for next year, most of which  have been proved true in recent days : A Facebook phone which does nothing except through Facebook, an Amazon phone which brings everything from Amazon to your eyes and ears, but nothing else, an Apple-controlled telco that drops calls unless they’re on Apple devices. Google will push all its users into a social network, probably called Google+ and will punish those who don’t want to by giving them misleading search results. Oh, and Microsoft. I’m not sure about them. Maybe we’ll find out in Salt Lake City.

Podcast: Quaintness in Salt Lake

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on my predictions for next year  (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

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Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.
 

Extending Your Brainpower

This Software ‘Thinks’ Just Like You, But Makes Connections You Had Missed

WSJ Online June 22, 2007

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Here’s a heads-up on some organizing software that may take some getting used to. Frankly, it’s taken me nearly 10 years to appreciate its power. But now that I do, it has become something of an obsession. I even have dreams about it.

It’s a defiantly different kind of thought-mapping program called PersonalBrain, and a new version (including versions for Mac and Linux users) will be launched next month by U.S.-based TheBrain Technologies LP. Users include scientists, soldiers, inventors and others who have used it to marshal their collections of thoughts, projects and even databases on criminal syndicates. I find it so useful and absorbing, there’s nothing — be it a Web site link, a random idea, a contact, a document, a scrap of information — that I don’t add to its spider-web-like screen, knowing it will throw up links my brain had never considered or had failed to remember.

So what is it, and what does it do? Well, if you’ve ever created a so-called mind-map — a brainstorming technique that creates a burst of thoughts from one central idea or topic — you’ll notice the similarities. Ideas branch out from the center, organizing your thoughts in hierarchies. PersonalBrain, however, is less interested in building hierarchies, and more interested in mimicking the way the brain works. You nominate whatever is uppermost in your mind, and it rearranges things to illustrate the connections that thought has with other ideas in your head. Think less about branches, more about a freeform spiderweb.

PersonalBrain’s screen appearance hasn’t changed much since 1998, and it still looks contemporary. You’d be hard pressed to say that about any other software program. First impressions are positive. It looks good when you launch it, with its navy blue background and spinning central wheel and its spiderweb of links. Once you’ve got the hang of dragging little circles around a word, you get the idea of adding more threads to the web. Click on a word and it jumps to the center, the web of other words and links rearranging themselves around it.

It’s about now that new users tend to flounder a little. Certainly I did: I couldn’t immediately grasp the idea that PersonalBrain is less about getting a bird’s eye view of a subject — there are plenty of tools for that, like MindManager, or TopicScape 3D — than about helping you build and find connections between things you’re interested in. Italian consultant to the Italian police Roberto Capodieci (www.excomputer.net) uses it for tracking the connections among members of a criminal network, while British science historian James Burke uses it to track the links between history’s great inventors.

Now there’s nothing particularly magical in this. It’s not as if PersonalBrain is doing the linking for you. You have to build the links yourself. But remembering all the connections is something else. That’s where PersonalBrain comes in. Bali-based Mr. Capodieci, for example, adds a few basic terms (what the software calls thoughts) as categories — suspects, locations, criminal activities, phone records, etc. For each suspect, he adds a thought. Under locations, he adds places he is surveying — bars, restaurants, clubs — and then under criminal activities adds prostitution, drug dealing, robberies, etc. The next step is to start linking the suspects to the locations and to the activities. Pretty soon it is clear that two suspects in the same bar engaged in the same kind of activity are likely to know each other. Those frequenting more than one bar might be the links between two groups of suspects. Then he adds the suspects’ phone-call records, further linking them together and building a picture of the gangs he is dealing with.

Now your work or interests may not stretch to Soprano-like family trees. (Mr. Capodieci says he began using PersonalBrain when he found it installed on a hacker’s computer: the hacker was using it to store information about employees at a company to improve his efforts at engineering a scam.) But whatever your interest, however smart you are and however good a memory you have, you’re unlikely to be able to make and remember all these kinds of connections — especially over years. One longtime user, U.S.-based technology consultant Jerry Michalksi, has more than 60,000 so-called thoughts in his PersonalBrain, covering everything he has collected in 10 years.

While the new version dovetails better with Microsoft Outlook and has several important new features, it doesn’t feel quite as attractive as its predecessor. Nonetheless, after a few unsuccessful attempts I finally got going with it a few months ago, and now I can’t leave it alone. Pretty much every idea I have (admittedly not many), every Web site I like, every contact I’ve made ends up in my PersonalBrain, linked together by topic (such as “Web sites promoting good shaving practice”), or place, or friends in common, or temporary categories (such as “What I need to work on next”). While other tools would balk at trying to relate one item to more than a handful of others, PersonalBrain positively cries out for it.

Even after three months I’m only scratching the surface with about 4,000 thoughts. I’m also discovering connections that wouldn’t have occurred to me — and finding, lurking there in my PersonalBrain things I’d already forgotten I knew. As its creator, Harlan Hugh, said recently: “It’s like anything that’s truly new; you’re not going to be an instant expert, but we think it’s easy enough to see the benefits.”

I can’t guarantee PersonalBrain will help you sleep better. But if you persevere, I feel sure it will grab you as much as it has grabbed me.

Behind the Akamai DDoS Attack

A bit late (my apologies) but it’s interesting to look at the recent Distributed Denial of Service attack on Akamai, an Internet infrastructure provider.

The attack blocked nearly all access to Apple Computer, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo’s Web sites for two hours on Tuesday by bringing down Akamai’s domain name system, or DNS, servers. These servers translate domain names — www.microsoft.com — into numerical addresses. The attack was made possible by harnessing a bot net — thousands of compromised Internet-connected computers, or zombies, which are instructed to flood the DNS servers with data at the same time. This is called Distributed Denial of Service, of DDoS.

But there’s still something of a mystery here: How was the attacker able to make the DDoS attack so surgical, taking out just the  main Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Apple sites? As CXOtoday points outAkamai is an obvious target, since “it has created the world’s largest and most widely used distributed computing platform, with more than 14,000 servers in 1,100 networks in 65 countries.”

Indeed, before Akamai admitted the nature and scale of the attack there was some skepticism that this could have been a DDoS: ComputerWorld quoted security expert Bruce Schneier as saying “My guess is that it’s some kind of an internal failure within Akamai, or maybe a targeted attack against them by someone with insider knowledge and access.”

The Ukrainian Computer Crime Research Center says it believes the attack was a demonstration of capabilities by a Russian hacker network. As evidence they point to an earlier posting by Dmitri Kramarenko, which describes a recent offer by a Russian hacker to “pull any website, say Microsoft” for not less than $80,000. The story appeared four days before the DDoS attack.

Why You Should Never Give A Company Your Data

Here’s a great example of why you can never really entrust your information to anyone but yourself.

The Register’s John Leyden reports that Pointsec Mobile Technologies, a data security company, has obtained via eBay a hard disk apparently owned by ”one of Europe’s largest financial services groups”. On the hard disk were, in the words of Pointsec, “pension plans, customer databases, financial information, payroll records, personnel details, login codes, and admin passwords for their secure Intranet site. There were 77 Microsoft Excel documents of customers email addresses, dates of birth, their home addresses, telephone numbers and other highly confidential information, which if exposed publicly could cause irrevocable damage to the company.” The disk cost Pointsec £5 (about $8).

The purchase wasn’t just a one-off, either. Pointsec says they bought 100 hard drives as part of research into this kind of problem, and found they were able to read 70% of them, despite the fact that all had supposedly been reformatted to wipe off data. They also visited airports in Sweden, the U.S. and Germany where laptops lost in transit were being auctioned off. In one case, using password recovery software, Pointsec was able to access information on the laptops even before purchasing the laptops. In Sweden the company bought a laptop on which they found ”four Microsoft Access databases containing company- and customer-related information and 15 Microsoft PowerPoint presentations containing highly sensitive company information.”

Ouch. I can’t find anything on Pointsec’s website about this but John’s report gives us enough to show this kind of problem is not an obscure one. Not only does it raise serious questions about company (and government) data security, but it also highlights how stupid we are to give any of our information to a company unless it’s absolutely necessary. This would, sadly, include folks like Plaxo, who may be sincere when they say they’re doing their utmost to protect our data. But what happens when they replace one of their hard drives?

Personally I think Pointsec should name the companies whose data they have retrieved: The Register says they won’t, and they’ll destroy the hard drives. This kind of research may prove to be good for Pointsec’s business, since they can take the data to the companies in question and offer to fix the problem, but what about all the thousands of other companies that don’t think it’s their kind of problem? Unless they are named and shamed I don’t think there’s enough incentive for companies to double check their data security and privacy policies.

Korgo Spreads Its Wings

Seems like the big anti-virus boys are waking up to Korgo, the ‘phishing worm’ that F-Secure was warning about a few days ago.

Symantec have just issued an advisory upgrading W32.Korgo.F, a new variant of the worm, from a Level 2 to a Level 3 threat. As Symantec says, W32.Korgo.F is a worm that attempts to propagate by exploiting a Microsoft Windows vulnerability publicly announced on April 13, 2004, the LSASS Buffer Overrun Vulnerability. This vulnerability allows a hacker, in the words of Symantec, “to execute malicious code on a vulnerable system, resulting in full system compromise.”

But what I don’t understand is that Symantec don’t indicate the real threat behind this worm: That it steals passwords. And no mention of the keylogging properties of Korgo (sometimes called Padobot or Lsabot) on Sophos or McAfee (which has found a seventh variant, but measures all the threats as low). Even a more detailed explanation on Virusdesk doesn’t refer to the keylogging capability. Why is that?

F-Secure point out that “this latest worm makes it possible to gain access to secure passwords and other valuable information, such as credit card numbers.  Banking information is especially vulnerable as this is essentially a keylogging virus.” I can’t see Symantec mentioning this key bit of information, which as UK-based Netcraft points out“represents an alarming advance in phishing, as it forgoes the need to trick the end user into divulging details.”

End users: Symantec recommends that users update their antivirus definitions and configure their firewalls to block ports 113 and 3067.

X1 and NewsGator Get Together

X1 Technologies, Inc., the hard disk indexing guys, have teamed up with NewsGator Technologies, the RSS-in-your-Outlook guys, to allow fast searches through your subscribed RSS feeds and Usenet newsgroups.

This basically involves an extra element in X1, which “lets a user sort through the aggregated messages and find the content they want, narrowing and displaying results as they type the search terms.  Results are displayed in the X1 preview pane for a quick read or, with a double-click, can be
opened in Outlook.” For now, folk buying X1 Search get NewsGator, which normally sells for $29, free. NewsGator users can buy X1 at a 30% discount.

So how good is this? Robert Scoble, the Microsoft blogger, adds his seal of approval in the X1 press release, calling it “a little bit of Longhorn for you before it ships”. I’m a bit more cautious: Although I’ve written glowingly of both products before, I’ll air a confession: I don’t use either on a regular basis. Why? First off, I’m not a big Outlook fan. It’s big, slow to load, and doesn’t do things I want it to. I use it for contacts, but not for email, so having RSS run through Outlook doesn’t really make sense for me.

And X1? I think X1 is an excellent product, and the guys behind it have raised the bar in terms of listening to users and making something that really works well. Are they there yet? I don’t think so. A couple of things holding me back: It’s not powerful enough to launch or store complex searches and its file viewer is nice but doesn’t remember changes to the way you view data. Don’t get me wrong: For ordinary daily use it’s perfect, but if you’re a power searcher, I don’t think it’s the one. Yet.

The Audio Wonder Of OneNote

I’ve been playing with OneNote — the Microsoft program that allows you to create and organise notes — quite a bit lately, and I have to say it’s a big leap forward for software.. and Microsoft’s record for innovation.

Here’s an interesting post on a feature I haven’t explored as yet: audio. Wayne reports that OneNote will add timestamps to your text notes as you record audio, so jumping to a particular note will include an icon shortcut to the corresponding part of the audio.

So, say you’re recording a lecture (or an interview, if you can imagine taking your laptop with you): You’re typing (or writing, with a TabletPC) brief notes about what’s being said, but also recording. Hovering your mouse over the notes afterwards will throw up little icons, matching the same point in the recording. Pretty cool.

One comment pointed out that recording audio on a laptop isn’t great. True. You really need an external mike. And while those folk recording lectures, meetings or seminars in civilized environments (quiet, you can get near the subject, power outlets, tables to park your laptop on) should be ok, this is not going to be particularly helpful for us journalists.

For that I’d recommend Olympus digital recorders. Of course there are others but I’ve had one (well three, actually) since 1999 and they’ve been a godsend. The best trick: use an external microphone on a long cable, keep the recorder close to you and use the yellow index button to mark good quotes. When you upload the file to your computer to transcribe, you can quickly jump to the best bits.

Another option if you’re looking to record lectures with your laptop: LectureRecorder.