Tag Archives: President

True Video Lies

This is a longer version of a piece I recorded for the BBC World Service.

The other day my wife lost her phone out shopping. We narrowed it down to either the supermarket or the taxi. So we took her shopping receipt to the supermarket and asked to see their CCTV to confirm she still had the phone when she left.

To my surprise they admitted us into their control room. Banks of monitors covering nooks, crannies, whole floors, each checkout line. There they let us scroll through the security video—I kind of took over, because the guy didn’t seem to know how to use it—and we quickly found my wife, emptying her trolley at checkout line 17. Behind her was our daughter in her stroller, not being overly patient. It took us an hour but in the end we established what look liked a pretty clear chain of events. She had the bag containing the phone, which she gave to our daughter to distract her at the checkout. One frame shows the bag falling from her hands onto the floor, unnoticed by my wife.

Then, a few seconds later, the bag is mysteriously whisked off the floor by another shopper. I couldn’t believe someone would so quickly swoop. The CCTV records only a frame a second, so it took us some time to narrow it down to a woman wearing black leggings, a white top and a black belt. Another half hour of checks and we got her face as she bought her groceries at another till. No sign of the phone bag by this time, but I was pretty sure we had our man. Well, woman.

Except I’m not sure we did. What I learned in that control room is that video offers a promise of surveillance that doesn’t lie. It seems to tell us a story, to establish a clear chain of events. But the first thing I noticed was when I walked back out into the supermarket, was that how little of the floor it covered, and how narrow each camera’s perspective was.

For the most part we’ve learned that photos don’t always tell the truth. They can be manipulated; they offer only a snapshot, without context. But what about videos? We now expect to see cameraphone footage in our news bulletins, jerky, grainy recordings taken by unseen hands, raw and often without context.

This is not to say videos are not powerful truth tellers. But we tend to see what we want to see. When a policeman pepper sprays protests at the University of California there is outrage, and it does indeed appear to be unwarranted. But when four of the videos are synchronized together a more complex picture emerges. Not only can one see the incident within context, but also one gets a glimpse of a prior exchange, as the officer explains what he is about to do to one protester, who replies, almost eagerly: “You’re shooting us specifically? No that’s fine, that’s fine.”

This is not to condone what happens next, but this exchange is missing from most of the videos. The two videos that contain the full prelude are, of course, longer, and have been watched much fewer times: 12,658 (15 minutes) and 245,226 times (8 minutes) versus 1,346,781 times (1 minute) for the one that does not  (the other video has since been taken down).

I’m not suggesting that the more popular video has been deliberately edited to convey a different impression, but it’s clearly the version of events that most are going to remember.

We tend to believe video more than photos. They seem harder to doctor, harder to hoodwink us, harder to take out of context. But should we?

It’s true that videos are harder to fake. For now. But even unfaked videos might seem to offer a version of the facts that isn’t the whole story. Allegations that former IMF president  Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have been framed during a sexual encounter at a New York Hotel, for example, have recently been buttressed by an extensive investigation published recently in the New York Review of Books. There’s plenty of questions raised by the article, which assembles cellphone records, door key records, as well as hotel CCTV footage.

The last seems particularly damning. A senior member of the hotel staff is seen high-fiving an unidentified man and then performing what seems to be an extensive dance of celebration shortly after the event. This may well be the case, but I’d caution against relying on the CCTV footage. For one thing, if this person was in any way involved, would they not be smart enough to confine their emotions until they’re out of sight of the cameras they may well have installed themselves?

Back to my case: Later that night we got a call that our phone had been recovered. The police, to whom I had handed over all my CCTV evidence, said I was lucky. A woman had handed it in to the mall’s security people. I sent her a text message to thank her. I didn’t have the heart to ask her whether she had been wearing black trousers and white top.

But I did realise that the narrative I’d constructed and persuaded myself was the right one was just that: a story I’d chosen to see.

Using LinkedIn to Research Spies Like Us

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Several of the 11 alleged Russian spies leave interesting imprints on LinkedIn, suggesting rewarding pickings for journalists.

Donald Heathfield, for example, had 74 connections.

His specialities sound like they could equally applied to espionage:

Comprehensive management of Risks and Uncertainties, Anticipatory Leadership, Building of Future Scenarios, Development and Execution of Future Strategies, Capture of Strategic Opportunities, Global Account Management

Amusing to hear the recommendations:

“Refreshing to work with him as he puts complexe initiatives together that always fits with the end goal that was laid out as our objective.” November 3, 2008

Gerard Bridi, President, Accor Services WiredCommute
was with another company when working with Don at Future Map

“Working with Don is very enjoyable. He has a pleasant style, whilst always acting professionally. Very results and solutions focused. He does not get flustered when problems occur, patiently facilitating teams to craft a way through to their end goal.” November 2, 2008

Top qualities: Great Results, Personable, Expert

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Tracey Foley (Ann Foley), Heathfield’s wife, doesn’t have so many connections (20) but she’s a member of many groups—including four French related one and a Singapore group one. We know that Heathfield had connections in Singapore and Jakarta. Something to explore there?

Michael Zottoli appears to have a LinkedIn account, but only 10 connections and hasn’t updated it since his move from Seattle to Virginia. Patricia Mills, his wife, doesn’t seem to have a LinkedIn account.

Mikhail Semenko had 124 connections, a twitter account (10 followers, 3 tweets) and a blog about China (one post talks about the need for greater Russia China cooperation).

Richard/Cynthia Murphy NJ. Cynthia has 98 connections on LinkedIn and is a member of three groups. Christopher Metsos has no LinkedIn page that I could find.

Anna Chapman’s public profile seems to have been removed. But her main profile is still active, (you can also find it here.) and indeed, her company, PropertyFinder Ltd, has a similar name to Ann Foley’s public LinkedIn profile page: homefinder. A link there, maybe?

Her twitter feed stops abruptly on June 26 at 4.46 am (and yet wasn’t arrested until June 28. I guess she took the weekend off.) She was following a lot more people than were following her (687 vs 277, but she was really only just getting going: After tweeting first on March 13, she didn’t do much until June 16, after which she was tweeting every few hours. Could something have prompted her into more frequent updates?)

She also has a number of recommendations, from Said Abdullaev, a VP of Moscow-based Fortis Investments, who offered this:

“Anna’s entrepreneurial flair does not cease to amaze me, she sees opportunities in places were most would not think to look, and she makes them work.” November 24, 2009

The Power of Non News

I attend a lot of conferences where newsmen (yes I know it’s an outmoded, sexist term, but that’s the kind of industry we’re in) wring their hands about the future of their profession.

Or rather the lack of it.

And loyal readers of this column will know I tend to throw my hands up in the air at such discussions rather than wring them. Because these discussions never tackle the central issues of their industry.

One of them is this: What exactly is news? Or more precisely, what is the product that people are buying—even if they’re not paying for it—when they read your paper, your website, listen to your broadcast or listen to your news bulletin?

There are lots of angles to the answer to this. I’ve only got space to address one of them here.

That is: Are people looking for information, or the absence of it?

Let’s face it: Most of us don’t watch the evening news to catch up on the situation in Haiti. We don’t watch on the off-chance they’ll do something on President Obama, or a cute piece about a donkey making friends with a goldfish.

We watch because we need to know what the big brains at the BBC, or CNN, or our local news channel think are the top stories. That enough is obvious.

But why? Why is it important to us what someone else thinks are the main stories of the day?

Well, first off, it’s because if something really big has happened then we want to know about it. 9/11, tsunami, a culture-changing event, or even a big local event that we haven’t already heard about.

That’s good. Important. Significant. Editors will be happy: They spend a lot of time deciding what the main stories are and how to tell them.

But buried in that data—the data of news—is more important information: the absence of news.

We watch, read, scan and listen to news sources not only to discover information, but to discover, or confirm, the absence of information: the absence of news. Non-news.

We need to know, in other words, what isn’t happening because that way we can be sure that we’re safe. That we’re not about to be swallowed up by a tsunami, or a rate cut, or a virus.

Call it the power of non-news.

Comics like Seinfeld and George Carlin understand this. The joke usually involves the question: When would a newspaper/TV or radio station admit there’s nothing exciting happening and say: “We’re not putting out a paper/bulletin today. Nothing going on folks. Relax.”?

Not going to happen, because a) there’s space to fill next to the ads and b) journalists never think there’s nothing to say. We’ve always got plenty to say. Slow news days are great because then we get to write the pieces we want to write. Our stories. Which are usually so obscure only our mothers will remember them.

And this is the point. For those people outside the profession of news, the absence of news is actually, to them, news. Having the lead item on the news the airlifting of a donkey out of fire strewn mountains in Crete is the equivalent of saying to listeners/viewers/readers: “Nothing going on here folks. Take the rest of the day off.”

Except if you’re the donkey, of course.

In other words, non-news is good news. But it’s still news to most people.

This may sound obvious, but it’s not to most people in the profession. They are news junkies. And they think everyone else is. They think everyone wants to read news, however petty and parochial it is. Something big comes along, everyone wants to read it. Naturally. But if nothing happens, they still think everyone wants to read a second or third rate story, or some feature that’s been sitting in a drawer. That these are going to be just as compelling.

Well, they’re not. The power of news, for most people, is that it tells us what isn’t happening. No big crisis, no need to ship the kids down to the nuclear shelter, no need to line up to get shots. The power of news is, in short, the power of non news.

Understand that and we’re half way to figuring out what news people might be willing to pay for.

Remember you read it here first.

Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.

Some Early Lessons from The Georgian Cyberwar

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illustration fron Arbor Networks

There’s some interesting writing going about the Georgian Cyberwar. This from VNUnet, which seems to confirms my earlier suspicion that this was the first time we’re seeing two parallel wars: 

“We are witnessing in this crisis the birth of true, operational cyber warfare,” said Eli Jellenc, manager of All-Source Intelligence at iDefense.

“The use of cyber attack assets in conjunction with kinetic military operations in the current crisis now stands among the most significant developments ever seen in the field of information security or cyber conflict studies.”

Others suggest that in fact there are examples of earlier parallel conflicts: Kosovo, among them, says Arbor Networks’ Jose Nazario.

ZDNet’s Dancho Danchev takes the idea that this is all about denying participants a chance to get their message out a stage further: those put out of action are being forced to get their message out through other channels. Georgia’s foreign ministry, for example, has set up a blog at Blogger and the website of the Polish president.

The mainstream press is having a go at the story, too, including the Journal and the NYT. The main culprit, the articles suggest (following Georgia’s own claims), is the Russian Business Network, a St. Petersburg-based gang.

But as this article points out, finding out who is responsible is a slow business. Indeed, this is a strange feature of cyberwar that makes it more akin to terrorism than to warfare. This kind of makes the notion of establishing responsibility a little beside the point. Cyberattacks are a chance for ordinary (well, sort of ordinary) citizens to do their bit for the war effort. In this sense the government is a customer for the services of botnet and hacker groups or individuals with skills the government is happy to see deployed on its behalf, while able to plausibly deny it has anything to do with.

Indeed, we may be missing the more interesting aspect of this, one that predates South Ossetia. Now we’re just seeing cyber attacks work alongside the physical, or kinetic, attacks. A sort of psywar, since it’s mainly about getting the word out and winning hearts and minds.

But what about a cyberwar conducted on its own, but one that leads to a physical war—at least, a cold one? Joel Hruska at arstechnica points out in a piece written a week ago, that an uncovered little cyberwar—or rather cyber-hacktivism—in Lithuania, led to a serious cooling of relations between its government and that of Russia. As with Estonia last year, the attack “marked the first time I was aware of in which a single individual with a computer was able to notably impact relations between two neighboring nations.”

Georgia, however, represents the first time we’ve seen a government almost wiped off the Internet. Whether this is a prelude to it being wiped off the map is something we’ll have to wait and see. But already some conclusions are becoming obvious:

  • Cyberwar is too powerful a tool for any government to ignore, both offensively and defensively;
  • Cyberwar is not just about putting citizens of a target country in the dark; it’s about making it impossible for the target government, and its citizens, to get their side of the story out.
  • As these tools get more powerful, when will we see cyberwar as a specific phase in a physical war designed to achieve what used to be done by the physical bombardment of communication centers?
  • Botnets, and their owners, are powerful players beyond the underworld of spam and phishing. A government that has them operating within their borders must surely know of their existence; if it hasn’t shut them down already, is it too great a leap of logic to suggest there must, at some level, be a relationship between them?

Georgia gets allies in Russian cyberwar – vnunet.com

South Ossetia: The First Cyber/Physical War?

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BBC picture

Wikipedia is doing a good job of chronicling the war in South Ossetia; its mention of several apparent cyberattacks on both sides makes me wonder whether this is the first instance of a physical war being accompanied by a cyberwar? All those listed on Wikipedia are not parallel attacks, i.e. they are not part of an actual physical war.

So far the attacks have been by Georgian supporters on two Ossetian media sites, and attacks by supporters of South Ossetia on the Georgian National Bank website and the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which was reportedly splashed with a collage of of Saakashvili and Hitler photos.) The Georgian news site, Civil Georgia that reported the attacks on the South Ossetian websites itself now appears to be down.

Some attacks appear to preceded the war, suggesting that they were part of a deliberate build-up ahead of the entry of Russian troops into South Ossetia. On July 21 the Georgian president’s website was attacked. I wasn’t able to access the website as of early Aug 9. While tensions have been growing between Georgia and Russia for several weeks, it seems clear that the botnet involved in this attack was set up for this purpose only a few weeks ago.

Of course, none of this means that it’s done at an official level. But it’s interesting that at a time the Georgians and the South Ossetians would presumably like to get their sides of the story out, they can’t because their websites, official and unofficial, are down.

As the Georgian ambassador to the UK put it to Al Jazeera:

“Georgia has been attacked by a formidable force, it is a brutal attack with the use of air force, tanks and even the trademark cyber attack.”

“If this is not an all out war what is?” he asked.

War in South Ossetia (2008) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Update on Aug 12: some more links

http://lists.grok.org.uk/pipermail/full-disclosure/2008-August/063820.html

http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-10014150-83.html

Google Killer? A Clip Around the Ears, Maybe

There’s a new search engine out there, according to the Guardian, and it sort of tries to figure out what you’re looking for. Which is good. Google searches are great so long as they’re simple. But is Powerset up to snuff?

Here are some searches I did (betraying my interests):

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Pretty good stuff. And how about me?

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Even less obvious matches seem to work:

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Also right on the money. Nixon got second place when I asked who was the first u.s. president to resign? which is good enough:

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Other searches tho — how many copies of Office 2007 has Microsoft sold? and how far is it from London to Sydney — weren’t any good at all.

Of course, Powerset is so far only parsing Wikipedia articles (only — there are 2.3 million of those in the English language). And ask Google the same questions and you’re also likely to get the answers high up (1st in the case of Nixon, Taser inventer, Suharto resignation, though nowhere on my own alleged career (fittingly). Sydney/London throws up a WikiAnswers page, and I’ve given up hope trying to find out how many copies of Office 2007 have been sold.)

Still, it’s early days for something like this. There’s no question that a better search engine will one day come along, perhaps belonging to Google, perhaps not. Will it need to parse every sentence for meaning? Who knows?

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Backed Up? Or Cracked Up?

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There’s quite a commotion online about a program called g-archiver that promises to back up your Gmail account, but in the process apparently harvests all users’ Gmail usernames and passwords, and mails them to a separate Gmail account.

This is indeed scary, although it’s possible that the person behind it wasn’t collecting the passwords for nefarious purposes. But it highlights some important issues that we tend to overlook in this Web 2.0, mashup age:

  • Your online email account is more vulnerable than an offline one (by which I mean, storing your old emails online, rather than downloading them to your computer and deleting the online copy.) In this sense, POP is good, IMAP and webmail bad.
  • If you give your username and password to third parties, i.e., those who access your account on your behalf, you need to be more rather than less careful than with the original service. For example, services like Plaxo allow you to access your other accounts but will inevitably require you to enter your username and password, which will be stored on their server.

On top of that, it’s intriguing to take a look at how legitimate this one program appears, and how little those websites helping in its distribution have vetted it. I found copies at Download.com (owned by CNET), despite a commenter pointing out it steals passwords, Shareware Junkies, BrotherSoft, Softpedia, ZDNet, Download3000, FreedownloadsCenter, the excellently named Safe Install and Filedudes.

Just out of interest, G-Archiver is apparently the work of a company called MateMedia, which registered the website hosting the software. An interview with the company’s president, Russ Mate, is here.

A message on the original blog post purporting to be from Mr. Mate says “MateMedia is a legitimate company and we are absolutely horrified that this has occurred”, and will be notifying any download sites hosting the software to “remove it immediately.”

That clearly hasn’t happened yet, but neither has the company removed it from its own website, at the time of writing. (Seeing the software alongside tools like FriendTools, which automates adding friends and comments for MySpace spammers, or TubeAdder, which does the same thing on YouTube, might give a prospective user pause for thought.)

My rules of thumb:

  • Never download software without visiting the author’s original site, and finding out who produced it. This applies to Facebook apps as well. (In G-Archiver’s case, there is no contact page.)
  • Think hard before you give your email password to any service, however legitimate. It’s not so much about losing your email password but about all the other passwords and personal data that a bad guy could access inside your email account.

As Web 2.0 involves more and more cross-pollination of information, so we need to be smarter about who we give our passwords to, and what information we store behind those passwords, both in email and in social networking accounts.

Offended By Spit

The truth about writing, especially comic writing, is that you’re always going to offend somebody. The trick is not to do it deliberately, but also, not to care when you do. Seinfeld’s The Boyfriend episode is a classic of the genre, mocking JFK assassination buffs (Stone’s JFK had just come out) with the spitting sequence. It caused such laughter in the studio audience they had to edit some of the laughter out, but still some folk were offended, and remain so. Like this commenter from a Seinfeld fan site I recently came across: 

There were lots of great elements in this show, but I found the JFK spoof material incredibly offensive. It’s one I always skip when I see it in syndication. It just seems like incredibly bad taste (way beyond Seinfeld bad taste) to be mocking the killing of an American president, especially one less than 40 years ago. I never, ever understood what was funny about those scenes.

I’m not saying such people are stupid to be offended, or too tightly coiled for Seinfeld. It’s just you always will offend people, whatever you write, but it shouldn’t stop you or alter your course. Fortunately for us, it didn’t stop Seinfeld.

Seinfeld: The Boyfriend – TV Squad

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Piracy Helps Some Countries Grow

One can only imagine Bill Gates’ discomfort: Standing silently as the Romanian president told the world that pirated Microsoft software helped his country become what it is:

Pirated Microsoft Corp software helped Romania to build a vibrant technology industry, Romanian President Traian Basescu told the company’s co-founder Bill Gates on Thursday.

“Piracy,” Reuters quoted him as saying during a joint news conference to mark the opening of a Microsoft global technical center in the Romanian capital, “helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania.” True, but as Reuters points out, 70 percent of software used in Romania is pirated and salesmen still visit office buildings in central Bucharest to sell pirated CDs and DVDs.

(And to be fair to the prez, he did actually call piracy “a bad thing”, according to another report by the AP, and said that “became in the end an investment in friendship toward Microsoft and Bill Gates, an investment in educating the young generation in Romania which created the Romanians’ friendship with the computer.”)

Actually I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that (a) this is true. In places like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines etc, the impressive and attractively priced range of pirated software available raises local savvy and interest in computing. When you can buy 100 software titles for the price of a Coke, what’s not to like? And this brings me to (b): the likes Microsoft, I suspect, actually don’t mind this situation too much, or at least may not hate it as much as they say.

I’m not the first to suggest this: Microsoft knows it can’t sell legit copies of Windows or Office to every user in these places. So it gives away what it can, or at least sells at a steep discount, to youngsters. Businesses it tries to wrestle to the ground. The rest it writes off. Sure, it would be great if lots of people bought legit copies, but better that younger people are getting hooked on it, rather than to the opposition (Linux, Ubuntu etc.) One day they’ll pay.

I’ve often wondered, for example, whether folk like Adobe and Microsoft actually aren’t at cross purposes. Sure, they’re both members of the Business Software Alliance, but whereas Microsoft know that it’s better to get a nation hooked on Windows even if it’s on pirate copies than to crack down and plunge it into the hands of the Open Source brigade, for Adobe it’s a different story. No one is really going to buy a copy of Photoshop ($400-$700), so the idea of getting them hooked doesn’t really count. Better to crack down as hard as possible, so those few who really do need it cough up. Better 10 legit copies sold now than 100 possible sales later.

Is that why Bill didn’t say anything?