Tag Archives: Product Recall

The Gecko in the Machine

 (This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. If you’re an editor interested in subscribing to the service, drop me a line. Regular readers of the blog, meanwhile, will be familiar with some of the themes here)

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I found myself reading the words of one Timo Veikkola one morning.

Frankly, before then I did not know that Timo existed, although I do know of his colleague at Nokia, Jan Chipchase. Not only do these men have far more interesting names than I, they also have far more interesting jobs: peering into the way we use technology and how we might use it in the future.

But this column isn’t about them. It’s about you and your computer. Timo and Jan made me realize that often we focus on the minutiae of computing, as if that’s where the whole thing stops.

It’s as if we’re car owners who blame the car for our being stuck in traffic. It’s worth remembering that if we are not happy with our computers, it’s not all the computer’s fault.

First off, I can understand why you’re frustrated. Computers don’t work very well (though a lot of Mac users, and even Windows Vista users, convince themselves that their particular computers do). The truth is they don’t, because computers don’t help us think better.

They are merely tools, when they should be more than that. They help us send e-mails. They help us download and listen to music. They help us draft long resignation letters we never send. They help us crunch numbers.

All of this would make the early developers of the computer initially excited (“All that computing power in the head of a pin! Back in my day we had to make do with the computing power of a toilet brush in a box the size of Angkor Wat”). They were also, quickly, disappointed (“So everyone has these computers in their homes, bags and hands, and they do WHAT with them?”).

But it needn’t be like that. Computers can be used for good stuff. Here’s how:

* Collecting stuff: Computer hard drives are big enough now for you not to worry about storing stuff (unless you take 5,000 videos and photos a day, in which case you may want to consider an external hard drive or six.)

The trick about collecting stuff — whether it’s words, pictures or audio — is to organize it. After all, you want to find it again quickly. So, if you’re not a Mac user (who has Spotlight) install Google Desktop, which will index your hard drive and let you find stuff as easily as if it were on the Web.

But that shouldn’t be an alternative to organizing your stuff. Each batch of photos you store on your computer should have its own folder, usually organizing by date (for example, 20070722 as today’s date is best).

If you’re saving information you find on the web, save it to one place. I use something called MyInfo, an outlining program that includes a button you can install in your Firefox browser, which makes it very easy to save anything you read online.

* Brainstorming: there are some great tools out there to help you brainstorm, but in my view the best are those that bring mind mapping to the computer. (A mind map is a drawing where the central idea is put at the center of the piece of paper, and other ideas are added to it, floating off like branches.)

If you’ve not done mind maps I recommend them; if you’re a big computer user then it makes sense to do them on your computer. (Mindjet’s MindManager works on both Macs and Windows; for Mac users there’s also NovaMind, which looks promising.)

* Think stuff up: The computer won’t think for you, but it will do the next best thing — help you recall things you forgot. You’re probably aware of the fact that however smart you are you won’t be able to remember what you want into the kitchen to get. Most of what we do, read, hear and say is forgotten within minutes. This is where the computer can help.

But whereas it’s great about storing stuff, it’s not good at recalling things that we don’t know we knew. Search is great if we know what we’re looking for, but for that tip-of-the-tongue stuff I’d recommend something else: PersonalBrain.

PersonalBrain is a program that I have bored my friends with for several months now — it works on Mac, Linux and Windows, and has a free version available.

It looks odd, and will take some getting used to, but think of it as a place to throw everything you know into. You add “thoughts” and then you link those thoughts to other thoughts: The more the merrier.

For Timo Veikkola (the Nokia guy) I added a thought called “Timo’s predictions” and “Timo’s ideas”. To the latter I added all the ideas I liked, including one “travel is the best stimulant”.

This is something I know but I keep forgetting. So I linked that to another thought I had elsewhere in my PersonalBrain called “Guiding principles”.

Already linked to that thought were a bunch of ideas I had added (and promptly forgotten about) which, together, form a philosophy of sorts (if you call “Don’t write columns like this before your morning coffee because they won’t make any sense” a philosophy.)

Put simply, the brain works not by hierarchy, but by connections. We watch a movie and it reminds us we haven’t sent a letter to Auntie Marge. We find a website we like but it looks vaguely familiar: We don’t realize we actually visited the same website two days ago. We are looking for a friend in Nongkhai but can’t think of anybody, forgetting that Bob used to work there five years ago.

PersonalBrain helps you add this data when it first hits you and, more importantly, map its connections to other things so that you can find them again when you need them. When I add my friend Bob to my PersonalBrain, for example, I can link him not only to my other friends, but also to the places he’s worked at, the places he’s lived in — anything that may increase the chances of his name popping up when I might need him, but when I might not have thought of it.

PersonalBrain is the kind of software that makes you realize a) You spend way too much time using your computer to watch YouTube videos; and b) Your brain may be big, but you can’t remember anything that happened more than 30 seconds ago.

So, grumble as much as you like about your computer and what pain it causes you. But then set your sights higher and turn it into something that really complements you and the way you do things.

The End of the Sorry Sony Saga?

Sony to recall copy-protected CDs, according to the BBC:

Sony BMG is recalling music CDs that use controversial anti-piracy software. The software was widely criticised because it used virus-like techniques to stop illegal copies being made.

Widespread pressure has made the music giant remove CDs bearing the software from stores. It will also swap bought CDs for copies free of the XCP anti-piracy software. Sony is also providing software to make it easy to remove the controversial program from Windows computers.

Will Sony ever recover from this? Probably, but it’s not going to be easy. Hopefully they’ll think hard and long about this whole sorry episode. Well done, bloggers, for making this story gain traction.

Another Ratchet Up in the Phishing War

I must confess I’m not sure how it works, but it seems like an interesting, but potentially flawed, approach in the battle against phishing. German bank PostBank, IDG reports, has launched a new system to combat phishing, extending the existing German practice of using transaction numbers, or TANs:

Until now, Postbank customers transferring money from their account to another electronically have had to type in their PIN followed by a TAN from a list provided by the bank for each transaction. In Germany, most banks providing online services offer a similar PIN-TAN service.

Under Postbank’s new iTAN service, online customers are told by the computer which TAN to use, and only with this TAN can they complete a transaction at that very moment.

Alongside each five-digit TAN appears an index number, which the computer uses to point customers to the TAN they must use to activate the transaction.

The IDG piece doesn’t explain further how this works. I believe that banks in Europe that use transaction numbers either supply them as a printed list which customers select from when they do a transaction, or else they receive a transaction number via SMS for each transaction as it happens. This former approach has only limited safety, because phishers can and have been trying as part of their attacks to request not just PINs and passwords, but transaction numbers too. So although this is another layer of security, it remains as vulnerable to social engineering attacks as ordinary one-factor transactions.

So how are iTANs different? I’m guessing here, but it sounds as if the bank itself randomises the selection of TANs and then instructs the customer about which one to use (‘the second on the list’, I suppose, or pehaps ‘the one ending in X’). This certainly does make it harder for the phishers unless they already have the full list of TANs held by the customer.

If this is all correct, then expect the next round of phishing attacks in Germany to involve something like ‘we are sorry there has been a data error at our bank and we need to recall all your TANs. Please enter them into the form at this web page in the order they are listed on your sheet. We will then issue you a fresh list of TANs.’ And so the game continues.

Conspiracy Theories And The Weird Variable In History

I’m quite prepared to believe in conspiracies. Hell, anyone who reads history would be a fool to ignore their importance. Think Pearl Harbor. Think Rudolph Hess (yes, Churchill et al knew there was a plane coming and yes, they were hoodwinking the Germans, the French and the Americans to save the Empire). Think Cuban Missile Crisis. Think Tonkin Gulf. Think Supersemar (OK, not many of you will know that one, but trust me: It was a set-up). Pretty much every significant event of the past century has a conspiracy in it somewhere that tarnishes the folk we thought were heroes. I’m quite prepared to believe some of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, just because the law of averages must mean some of them are right. But what about the Weird Variable View of History?

Yesterday I pointed to Natalia Dmytruk and her subversive interpretation of the news on Ukrainian TV. As I was taking the tram past what was China’s defacto embassy in Hong Kong, the Xinhua News Agency (NCNA) building in Causeway Bay (now a hotel, the Cosmopolitan, for those of you who hadn’t heard), I was reminded of a tale going back 15 years which illustrates another Weird Variable. Here’s how Xinhua reported the event at the time (June 1990):

Foreign Ministry makes representations to British Embassy over Hong Kong shooting incident.
Beijing, June 8 (Xinhua) – The Chinese Foreign Ministry has made serious representations to the British Embassy in China over an incident in which a shot was fired at the new office building of the Hong Kong branch of the Xinhua News Agency early this month. The incident occurred at sometime between June 3 and 4 during a demonstration staged by the “Hong Kong alliance in support of the patriotic democratic movement in China”, which has held in the vicinity of the building. The demonstration had the approval of the Hong Kong British authorities. A hole about three to four inches in diameter was found in a window on the 11th floor of the building. After the incident, local police arrived and found a powerful bullet inside the building. The branch also made representations to the Hong Kong British authorities soon after the attack. The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed deep regret over the incident in its representations to the British Embassy. The Ministry pointed out that the Hong Kong British authorities bear responsibility for the incident and demanded that they make a thorough investigation into the matter. The Hong Kong British authorities were also urged to take effective steps to ensure the safety of the personnel and property of Xinhua’s Hong Kong branch and other mainland agencies in Hong Kong. The Chinese government is closely following developments, the Foreign Ministry stated.

This was at a difficult time in British-China relations, with the handover seven years away, and tensions in the colony were high. The Chinese clearly thought the Brits were to blame, either through some sort of subtle provocation, or by not containing the Hong Kong Alliance, a constant thorn in the flesh of the Chinese. Demonstrations were a daily occurrence outside the Xinhua building, but this was an important occasion; the year before Tiananmen Square had galvanised Hong Kong like never before. I happened to be in the colony at the time and followed the march as it filled the streets and gathered outside the Xinhua building. The Chinese were nervous and clearly assumed the bullet was an attempt to provoke.

Here’s a story I wrote more than two years later (I’m claiming no credit here; I seem to recall the meat of the story was already published in local papers. I just tried to give it a bit of context):

Gun freak jailed for mystery bullet-hole.
HONG KONG, Sept 18, Reuter – Chan Yu-tat’s obsession with guns upset the neighbours, caused an international incident and baffled Hong Kong detectives. But now he’s in jail and one of the British colony’s odder mysteries is finally solved.
On June 3, 1990, Chan was test-firing his Dan Wesson pistol on the rooftop of his apartment block when one bullet went astray, whistling over half a mile (one km) before smashing through a window of the New China News Agency (NCNA). It was a bad time and a bad target. Outside the building, which serves as Beijing’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong, tens of thousands of demonstrators were marking the first anniversary of China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests. When a cleaner discovered the bullet-hole the next morning, China, fearing political motives behind the incident, called it “very serious” and demanded an investigation.
Hong Kong obliged, launching harried detectives on a house-to-house search, ballistic experiments and fingerprint tests but drew a blank. Streets away one old man who had complained six months earlier of a bullet flying through his window on Christmas Eve while he was in bed with his wife was bemused to find the police suddenly taking an interest in his case. There were at least three claims of responsibility for the NCNA shooting, including one Chinese stowaway to Seattle who demanded political asylum on the strength of it. Chan, 26, a delivery man for a pharmaceutical firm who lived with his mother, read in the newspapers about the commotion his stray bullet had caused. But police only discovered the truth of the incident when he mailed some ammunition to a friend in Canada last year. Tipped off by their Canadian counterparts, police questioned Chan, who revealed a cache of firearms and admitted to the officers that he was behind the mystery bullet-holes. The High Court on Thursday jailed him for 7-1/2 years, the minimum sentence allowable under tough anti-gun laws introduced after a spate of armed robberies last year. “The Crown accepts that the fact the bullet happened to strike the building of the NCNA was an accident and not a political motive. It was purely by chance,” counsel Gary Alderdace told the court.

I don’t know what happened after that. I suspect the whole thing was forgotten. By then Chris Patten, Britain’s last governor, was in Hong Kong stirring things up. But I suspect — I have no proof of this — that single bullet nearly caused a serious rupture in the handover process.

Historians and conspiracy theorists ignore the Weird Variable at their peril.

The Slashdot Report Part I

This week’s column is about The Slashdot Effect, (subscription only, I’m afraid) which I’ll mention in more detail in subsequent postings. This first supplement is about the commercial potential of blogs, and a case study those of you reading blogs will probably already know about:

Is it possible to harness this new kind of information flow for business ends? You bet. But it’s not easy. Here’s one success story, and it has as much to with patience and luck as budgets. DL Byron, principal of Seattle-based of website designer Textura Design Inc, came up with an idea for a better way to seal plastic bags – the Clip-n-Seal. He used Clip-n-Seal’s own blog to talk about the product, and told one or two of his blogging friends, who blogged and told their friends, until one day they hit the mother lode: Boing Boing, and two similar other big directory sites. Retail sales went through the roof, but that was just the beginning. “Great for traffic,” Byron recalls, ” but what really happened was a new market found us that we never anticipated.” As Clip-n-Seal climbed the Google search page ranks, industrial customers discovered them and suddenly organizations from crime scene policemen to biomedical companies were placing orders. Byron’s conclusion: Better to spend time on getting noticed in the blogosphere than spend money on traditional advertising. “I can say from our experience that a blog post will outsell a ad. Guaranteed.”

The Digital Fallout Of Journalistic Plagiarism and Fakery

How do you correct the Internet?

All these reports of plagiarism and fakery in U.S. journalism — at least 10, according to the New York Times — raise a question I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere. What should newspapers and other publications which have carried the reports do about setting the record straight?

A USA Today report says of disgraced reporter Jack Kelley that it has “found strong evidence that Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead those investigating his work.”

Here’s a taster: ”An extensive examination of about 100 of the 720 stories uncovered evidence that found Kelley’s journalistic sins were sweeping and substantial. The evidence strongly contradicted Kelley’s published accounts that he spent a night with Egyptian terrorists in 1997; met a vigilante Jewish settler named Avi Shapiro in 2001; watched a Pakistani student unfold a picture of the Sears Tower and say, “This one is mine,” in 2001; visited a suspected terrorist crossing point on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2002; interviewed the daughter of an Iraqi general in 2003; or went on a high-speed hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2003.”

That’s quite a lot of correcting to do. USA Today says it will withdraw all prize entries it made on Kelley’s behalf (including five Pulitzer nominations) and “will flag stories of concern in its online archive”.

But is that enough? Correcting the “online archive” would have to include all secondary databases such as Factiva (part-owned by Dow Jones, publisher of the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Wall Street Journal, and my employer; There are 1,495 USA Today stories with Jack Kelley’s name either on them or in them prior to this year). Strictly speaking, it should also include all Internet copies of those stories on the Internet (a Google search of [“Jack Kelly” and “USA Today”] threw up 3,470 matches; while many of those are accounts of the plagiarism charge, many precede that). And what about blog references to Kelley’s stories?

I’ll take an example. In 2001 Jack Kelley wrote about a vigilante Jewish settler named Avi Shapiro in 2001. According to USA Today, this was one of the stories where “the evidence strongly contradicted Kelley’s published accounts”. That story has been posted on dozens of websites (I counted 60). Who’s going to correct, or raise flags on all those?

Then there’s the doubt. With Kelley claiming, according to the USA Today report, that he was “being set up”, there’s no way that even a serious investigation by the paper (which included a eight-person team, a 20-hour interview with Kelly by three veteran journalists from outside the company and extensive use of plagiarism-detection software) is going to confirm with any sense of certainty what was faked or plagiarised. So what, exactly, do you correct? Do you delete his whole oeuvre?

It’s a tough one, and perhaps a sober reminder for journalists (and bloggers) using the Internet as a source that it’s not just emails that appear to come from our bank that we need to double check. Is there a technological solution to this? A digital watermark or trace that can allow someone to instantly correct a story, or at least notify those hosting the material that there’s a problem?

Update: Diebold Withdraws E-voting Suit?

 Further to my column about e-voting a few weeks back, Diebold, maker of electronic voting machines, has apparently withdrawn its suit against an ISP and some individuals for posting leaked company documents about some of the problems with their system.
Stanford Law School reports that Diebold had filed papers with the court saying it ?has decided not to take the additional step of suing for copyright infringement for the materials at issue. Given the widespread availability of the stolen materials, Diebold has further decided to withdraw its existing DMCA notifications and not to issue any further ones for those materials.?
 
No mention of this yet on the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s website (which is funding legal protection for the ISP) or Diebold’s.