Tag Archives: MP3

Stuck on Stuxnet

By Jeremy Wagstaff (this is my weekly Loose Wire Service column for newspaper syndication)

We’ve reached one of those moments that I like: When we’ll look back at the time before and wonder how we were so naive about everything. In this case, we’ll think about when we thought computer viruses were just things that messed up, well, computers.

Henceforward, with every mechanical screw-up, every piston that fails, every pump that gives out, any sign of smoke, we’ll be asking ourselves: was that a virus?

I’m talking, of course, about the Stuxnet worm. It’s a piece of computer code–about the size of half an average MP3 file–which many believe is designed to take out Iran’s nuclear program. Some think it may already have done so.

What’s got everyone in a tizzy is that this sort of thing was considered a bit too James Bond to actually be possible. Sure, there are stories. Like the one about how the U.S. infected some software which a Siberian pipeline so it exploded in 1982 and brought down the whole Soviet Union. No-one’s actually sure that this happened–after all, who’s going to hear a pipeline blow up in the middle of Siberia in the early 1980s?–but that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of those stories you know are too good not to be true.

And then there’s the story about how the Saddam Hussein’s phone network was disabled by US commandos in January 1991 armed with a software virus, some night vision goggles and a French dot matrix printer. It’s not necessarily that these things didn’t happen–it’s just that we heard about them so long after the fact that we’re perhaps a little suspicious about why we’re being told them now.

But Stuxnet is happening now. And it seems, if all the security boffins are to be believed, to open up a scary vista of a future when one piece of software can become a laser-guided missile pointed right at the heart of a very, very specific target. Which needn’t be a computer at all, but a piece of heavy machinery. Like, say, a uranium enrichment plant.

Stuxnet is at its heart just like any other computer virus. It runs on Windows. You can infect a computer by one of those USB flash drive thingies, or through a network if it finds a weak password.

But it does a lot more than that. It’s on the look out for machinery to infect—specifically, a Siemens Simatic Step 7 factory system. This system runs a version of Microsoft Windows, and is where the code that runs the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are put together. Once they’re compiled, these PLCs are uploaded to the computer that controls the machinery. Stuxnet, from what people can figure out, fiddles around with this code within the Siemens computer, tweaking it as it goes to and comes back from the PLC itself.

This is the thing: No one has seen this kind of thing before. Of course, we’ve heard stories. Only last month it was reported that the 2008 crash of a Spanish passenger jet, killing 154 people, may have been caused by a virus.

But this Stuxnet thing seems to be on a whole new level. It seems to be very deliberately targeted at one factory, and would make complex modifications to the system. It uses at least four different weaknesses in Windows to burrow its way inside, and installs its own software drivers—something that shouldn’t happen because drivers are supposed to be certified.

And it’s happening in real time. Computers are infected in Indonesia, India, Iran and now China. Boffins are studying it and may well be studying it for years to come. And it may have already done what it’s supposed to have done; we may never know. One of the key vulnerabilities the Trojan used was first publicized in April 2009 in an obscure Polish hacker’s magazine. The number of operating centrifuges in Iran’s main nuclear enrichment program at Natanz was reduced significantly a few months later; the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization resigned in late June 2009.

All this is guesswork and very smoke and mirrors: Israel, perhaps inevitably, has been blamed by some. After all, it has its own cyber warfare division called Unit 8200, and is known to have been interested, like the U.S., in stopping Iran from developing any nuclear capability. And researchers have found supposed connections inside the code: the word myrtle, for example, which may or may not refer to the Book of Esther, which tells of a Persian plot against the Jews, and the string 19790509, which may or may not be a nod to Habib Elghanian, a Jewish-Iranian businessman who was accused of spying for Israel and was executed in Iran on May 9, 1979.

Frankly, who knows?

The point with all this is that we’re entering unchartered territory. It may all be a storm in a teacup, but it probably isn’t. Behind all this is a team of hackers who not only really know what they’re doing, but know what they want to do. And that is to move computer viruses out of our computers and into machinery. As Sam Curry from security company RSA puts it:

This is, in effect, an IT exploit targeted at a vital system that is not an IT system.

That, if nothing else, is reason enough to look nostalgically back on the days when we didn’t wonder whether the machinery we entrusted ourselves to was infected.

Scan a Bed Time Story for Me, Daddy

image

This is up there among the lamest products of the year: a scanner that will convert a book to speech.

Well actually, it sounds quite good. I’d imagined a device that could flip the pages over while you sit back nursing a Scotch. When everything’s done the scanner converts the text to “high quality speech with a lifelike voice” and you’re off, listening to The Little Prince while you’re driving/power walking/sleeping/making out/performing keyhole surgery.

Only you’re not: The Plustek BookReader does use only one button, and it does include a patented feature that means you don’t have those weird edges when you scan a book. But you still have to do it manually. A single page at a time.

I’m all for cutting steps out, and this cuts out a lot, but it sounds to me like this is for a very specialized market. Other than the visually impaired, how many people are going to scan a whole book? At a page every 15 seconds, by my calculations, it would still take more than an hour to scan a 300-page book.

Wouldn’t it be quicker to, er, just read it?

And yet Plustek reckon that

[t]he BookReader’s printed words into MP3 capability is designed for every age; parents who want to give their children the option to listen to books instead of just music, adults who wish to enjoy reading while driving or multi-tasking, and busy executives or medical professionals who find it easier to listen to their books and documents when they don’t have the time to read.

If they’re that busy I’m not sure they’re going to have the time to sit around scanning. If their lives are so full I’m not sure an extra device that requires them to turn a book around and flip pages is going to find a slot.

Plustek BookReader, a text to speech peripheral device with book edge scanning design!

The End of the Reply All Button

I did a piece for the BBC World Service on the Reply All button the other day (MP3 to follow). I’m not saying there’s a causal link, but now Nielsen have issued a memo: 

We have noticed that the “Reply to All” functionality results in unnecessary inbox clutter. Beginning Thursday we will eliminate this function, allowing you to reply only to the sender. Responders who want to copy all can do so by selecting the names or using a distribution list.

Apparently they’re not the first to do this: Standard Chartered have done it some time back, according to comments on Techcrunch.

There’s a lot of people who don’t like this; they think it’s a dumb move. I’d tend to agree, but for maybe different reasons. Why not try to understand why the Reply All button is there, and try to find another way for staff to disseminate information?

All I can imagine from this is the time wasted as employees add email addresses one by one for fear they leave someone out of a message. There’s got to be a better way. Wikis, blogs, RSS, twitter, Yammer, anyone?

Dunder Mifflin Alert! Nielsen to Disable Employees’ ‘Reply to All’ E-mail Functionality – Dylan Stableford – Blogs B2B @ FolioMag.com

Software, Slowly, Gets Better

Is it just me, or are software developers beginning to get their users? For a long time I’ve felt the only real innovation in software has been in online applications, Web 2.0 non-apps—simple services that exist in your browser—but now it seems that ordinary apps are getting better too.

Evernote, I feel, is one that’s really leading the charge. They’ve taken the feedback that us users have been giving them and have added, incremental release by incremental release, some really cool features. For example: now you can save searches in the Windows version. Reminds me of the old Enfish Tracker Pro, whose departure I still mourn. In fact, Evernote isn’t far off becoming a real database instead of a dumping ground for things you’ll read one day. Maybe.

Skype, too, have pulled their socks up. I hated 4.0  beta, not least for its big bumbling footprint. But the new version is better—a lot better. The main improvement is the option to make it look like your old Skype. But it has some nice new touches, including a chronology scroller that might interest Evernote’s legal department (Skype on the left, Evernote on the right):

image image

Move the bar on the right and you can move easily through old chats. Legal niceties aside, I think this kind of innovation is great to see, and almost restores my faith in designers realising that we don’t just use software in the here and now, but also as repositories of past heres and nows, if you know what I mean.

In short, our decision to commit to software is largely based on how much we will be able to get out of it. Not just in terms of hours saved in what we do now, but in what past information we’ll be able to get out of it. We have been using computers long enough now to have built up a huge repository of interactions and memos, and we want, nay we insist, to be able to get that stuff back. Quickly and easily. And, increasingly, to be able to move it to other places should we wish.

Google understands this relatively well. A chat in GTalk, for example, can be readily accessed via Gmail. And, now, we can also see and search our other data held within Google’s silos, right within Gmail, via some widgets from Google’s Gmail Labs. Here are two widgets that let you view your calendar:

image

and here’s one to see your documents within Google Docs:

image

Note the window at the top for searching through your document titles. This means one less step to access your data.

All these things have some basic concepts in common:

As I’ve mentioned, it’s about being able to get what you’ve put in out. Skype have listened to their customers and realised it’s less about the interface and more about the information the interface gives access to. If they were smart they’d find an easy way to send old chats to your email account or at least make it easy to search all your chats from one box. (I’m told that, or something like it, is coming in the ‘Gold’ version of  Skype 4.0 next year. Until now only group chats—three or more people can be saved to your contact list.)

image

Secondly, software should, where possible, work with other people’s software. Emusic’s new download manager (above), for example, does something that has been missing ever since the service launched. Previously, if you wanted to include MP3 files you’d bought from the service in iTunes, you’d need to either drag them across into iTunes or re-introduce the folder into iTunes. The new version of the downloader tool now synchronizes automatically with iTunes, meaning you don’t need to do anything. Thank God for that.

There are tons of other things that software needs to do that it presently doesn’t. I could start listing them but I need to go to bed. But maybe in this downturn developers could take a note from some of these examples, and use the time to look more carefully at what users need, at how they use your software, and explore new and better ways for them to use it for what they do, not what you think they should do.

links for 2008-09-13

Everyone Wants To Be a Player

image

Still the big players don’t get it. Still they drive people like me nuts, and confuse ordinary users, with their sly tactics that confound and bewilder.

Above, for example, Microsoft’s Windows Media Player provides a list of files that it will play by default. All are checked automatically, including DVD video, midi files, WAV files and MP3 files. Nowhere is there a button for deselecting all of them. Weirdly, at the top is a message that says

Window Media Player 9 Series will be the default player for the file types that are selected in the following list. You must be logged on as administrator or a member of the Administrators group to change these settings.

Microsoft’s way of confusing users who think this is something that they can’t control, and intimidating them into not trying. Nowhere does it say “You can uncheck these boxes if you like; of course you’ll have to do it one by one, which we’re hoping you won’t have time to do.” (I timed it; it took about 10 seconds. That’s ten seconds of my life I’m not going to get back.)

RealPlayer is notorious for this kind of thing. I installed it the other day. The Media Types window, steers the unsuspecting user to signing away all their rights with a big obvious option and one lesser option:

image

If you are stupid enough to ignore that, you can try figuring out which files you want RealPlayer to deal with, which of course, has everything checked by default:

image

There is, however, an “Deselect all” button. And alongside each format is a helpful note about what software that file type is currently assigned to. Their sneaky trick, however, is to hide the important one, the reason you presumably installed the player, so that you have to scroll down below the visible list to find the Real file types. There’s no button marked “Just let the Player handle the things it’s supposed to handle, and leave me alone, OK?”

Actually, this whole thing is a kind of battle, a bit like the default browser battle. Everybody seems to play the same game, with varying degrees of sneakiness/sleaziness. Back in the Preferences window of RealPlayer is a checkbox that lets RealPlayer fight back, in case you’ve decided against allowing it to play everything. Although in its defence, the first time it notices you’ve left the reservation, you get a warning, which says “RealPlayer is no longer the default player for some audio and video files:

image

Still, the wording is sufficiently cheeky to confuse the more casual user: “Do you want to keep RealPlayer,” it asks, as the default player for these file types?”

I like the word “keep” instead of “revert” or “return”. Most users are conservative. They don’t want to change things. RealPlayer execs probably sat in an office all afternoon thinking about the wording to that little message. This message will keep popping up, by the way, each time you change one of these file types until you tell it to stop.

Window Media Player, meanwhile, is a bit weirder. Windows’ file system will acknowledge that control of the file type has passed hands, but WMP won’t. Instead, in the file types options window, the checkbox will be ticked but “dimmed”:

image

The help file helpfully says:

If a selected check box is dimmed, Windows Media Player has only partial ownership of the file type. Multiple file extensions are assigned to the file type, but the Player only plays some of those extensions by default. To give the Player full ownership of a file type, double-click the dimmed check box.

I’ve read that second sentence a couple of times, and still don’t know what it means. But to me the implication is clear: It’s virtually impossible for Windows Media Player to surrender all rights to a file type unless you actually uncheck the right box in the options window. And you may notice that the only way into the options window is through a menu that can only be accessed on the default Windows Media Player skin by a little arrow in the left hand corner:

image

The bottom line: I can understand that control of media is valuable real estate for these guys, but I really feel for the poor folk who are trying to just play music, or videos or whatever. There must be a better way of doing this.

Songs for Suits

image

Things are never so weird they can’t get weirder. Techdirt posts on a legal firm’s corporate song “Everyone’s a Winner at Nixon Peabody” which really has to be heard to be believed. I don’t guarantee it’s a pleasant experience, but it’s the only way to know just how low companies can go to get their staff feeling good about themselves.

But I frankly had no idea how many of these things there are out there. Techdirt links to a sadly now obsolete list of the best from ZDNet. And there’s hardly a big company that doesn’t seem to have one. Some companies trumpet them loudly to the world, with songs, lyrics, videos and sheet music (it would have to be a quiet weekend for someone to get out the Wurlitzer and start playing corporate songs, I suspect.)

Here’s one from Henkel (“And the story of success/Is based on more instead of less”). This was in 2005 named the best corporate song in the world by the Stevie Awards. (I can’t believe I missed that; I’ve not been following the Stevies as closely as I should.) The press release accompanying this dizzying victory quotes Ernst Primosch, Vice President Corporate Communications of the Henkel Group as saying “This confirms once more that we are on the right path with our ‘One! Henkel’ strategy.” It does, Ernst, it does.

Malaysia seems to be particularly keen on them, if these are anything to go by from DRB-HICOM, Penang Development Corporation, Park May Berhad and Kuching North City Hall.

So how do you go about writing and recording your own corporate song? Well, RedBalloon Days, an Australian website is offering a day in the studio for A$6,600 along with professional musicians and writers (you can only imagine what these pros must be thinking about their careers as they try to come up with words to rhyme with Peabody or Henkel.)

Of course, it can backfire. Shell wrote a corporate song that was so bad it was awarded “Company Song So Awful I Was Positive It Was a Spoof” by my BBC Business Daily commentator colleague Lucy Kellaway. She kept a copy of it here (yes, it is to the tune of “We Are the World”.) Lyrics here:

WE ARE THE BEST
WE ARE ALL WINNERS
WE ARE THE ONE’S WHO HAVE MADE THE CHANGE
WE’VE GROWN THE BUSINESS

You gotta love it. But not everyone does. Greenpeace’s blog said the song had become a laughing stock as it was emailed around the world. And Nixon Peabody seem none too happy their song has found its way into the public domain: They have apparently pulled the YouTube version and are apparently trying to get the MP3 file removed from Abovethelaw.com, where it was originally outed.

Which is a shame. This sort of thing, painful as it is, needs to be heard.

Technorati Tags: , ,

The Slow Death of the iPod

Jupiter Research has come up with figures [BBC] suggesting that only 20% of the tracks found on an iPod will have been bought from iTunes. The conclusion: “Digital music purchasing has not yet fundamentally changed the way in which digital music customers buy music.”

Paul Thurrot reckons that for Apple things are the other way around to what was expected (where the iPod was the razor, iTunes was the blades they made their money off): Apple has to sell more hardware for its business to thrive. He also reckons that Apple has got to come up with something neat to keep the circus rolling: “As iPod moves from gotta-have-it fashion accessory to all-too-common electronics device, it will be interesting to see if Apple can keep the momentum going.”

There are plenty of folk heralding the doom of the iPod. The Observer last week: “Sales are declining at an unprecedented rate. Industry experts talk of a ‘backlash’ and of the iPod ‘wilting away before our eyes’. Most disastrously, Apple’s signature pocket device with white earphones may simply have become too common to be cool.” One of its main sources: Tomi Ahonen, author of Communities Dominate Brands. (Check out these two posts for more discussion of this.)

This kind of talk infuriates fans of the iPod, Apple and Jobs. A piece on Arstechnica’s Infinite Loop points out that given CDs have been around for 20 years, and iTunes for only three, the idea that there are more CD tracks on iPods than from the Apple store isn’t overly surprising. (The article and the comments below, however, convey some intriguing vitriol against iPod-doom merchants specifically, and technology journalists more generally.)

A lot of this, I suspect, is down to the differing experiences across the globe. U.S. cellphones have long been woeful, but online commerce cheap and highly efficient, so it’s not surprising the iPod/iTunes model would work well. Europe is a little trickier: great cellphones, but at least in the case of the UK, overpriced iTunes content is apparently driving users legally dubious music download sites like AllofMP3.com (which overtook Napster.com in traffic about a year ago, according to Alexa). Asia is a different kettle of fish: cheap, small, generic MP3 players are so ubiquitous here, as are cellphones, it’s a tough call. But most people are going to prefer one device to two, so as music on phones gets better and easier, expect to see music shift.

That said, Apple are now so much more visible in Asia because of the iPod and there’s no reason they can’t be a part of that although if the iPod becomes commoditized, it’s hard to imagine Apple keeping pace with the already commoditized cellphone. I guess the final point here is the shift from music as a product to a service: It makes a lot of sense to listen to music on your phone if your collection is somehow fed to you by your cellphone operator. Subscribe to songs and they are on your music phone when and where you need them, and the whole ripping/syncing thing is going to seem pretty antiquated. Think ringtones, a market 12 times the size of iTunes.

Portability Over Quality: The MP3 Scam

I happen to be a new fan of Alva Noto, whose minimalist bleeps and hisses may not be everyone’s cup of tea. (My wife thinks we have mice.) Anyway, I’m also testing headphones so I’m sitting outside by the communal pool taking in his second album with Ryuichi Sakamoto (my hero; I once interviewed him in such a grovelling fashion I couldn’t bring myself to watch the recording of it afterwards. I think my toughest question was “What do you think makes you so talented?”) with a pair of Logitech noise-cancellers (I’d have to take them off to tell you which make, and I’m not going to do that.)

But all this reminded me of an interview I read recently between Alva Noto (real name: Carsten Nicolai) and Robin Rimbaud, in which they discussed, among other things, how music is listened to, and treated, differently in the age of MP3. Rimbaud, himself a performing artist, asks Nicolai about the influence of “mobile listening” on him and his audience:

I listen to music more in a mobile situation because there isn’t much time to just sit down and listen anymore. I now have this obsession for headphones, which is probably born from this way of listening! I have a set for every situation!

Kind of interesting, I reckon. Reduced time available, and technology, has made music much more of a mobile activity now. I personally love listening to music or speech when I’m walking, hiking or jogging because I love the subliminal associations the mind makes between what one sees and what one is hearing. Views become associated with songs, or ideas expressed, with whatever you were listening to when you saw that view for the first time.

But there is a downside: Do we ever sit still and listen to music? Do we ever give it our full attention? Worse, perhaps, is that fact that the emphasis on portability has reduced the emphasis on quality — when was the last time sometime stressed the quality of a music device over its storage? As Rimbaud points out:

For digital cameras we are sold a machine that exploits quality — it’s sold on the strength of how many mega pixels each camera offers, whereas with MP3 players it’s never on the actual quality of the music but the quantity.

Nicolai agrees:

I think this shows a problem for our time — compression has taken over the quality in sound. Transmitting and distribution of the sound file is more important than the quality and I wonder if next year the industry will pick up on this and tell us “listen, last year you bought compressed audio, now you need to buy the real thing”. We’ve already re-bought our LPs as CDs, then as digital versions. Now quality will come back as a marketing strategy.

Could be. Perhaps as storage becomes meaningless — when your iPod can store your music collection many times over –  we’ll be told that 128 kbps is not enough and we need to buy all our MP3 files all over again. And so the circus continues.

If Your Computer Won’t Acknowledge Your iPod

For anyone who can’t get their computer to recognise an iPod plugged into a USB port, the likeliest solution is to reset the iPod. This won’t remove any files from the iPod, though some settings may be lost. Here from the Apple website is how to do it, although the title, Resetting iPod if it appears frozen or doesn’t respond, is misleading as your iPod may actually be working fine. Anyway:

    • Toggle the Hold switch on and off. (Slide it to Hold, then turn it off again.)
    • Press and hold the Menu and Select buttons until the Apple logo appears, about 6 to 10 seconds. You may need to repeat this step.

That should do it.