The Lost Art of Clipping

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One of the lingering peculiarities of the web is that it’s not easy to save any of it.

This is somewhat weird. You’d think we’d have figured out that this was something people wanted to do quite a lot: If you like something you see or read, surely it’s a natural enough thing to do to want to keep a copy of it somewhere?

Back in the days of newspapers, we’d be clipping things all the time. We had a whole department at the BBC doing just that; if I needed background on Laos, say, I’d call up our secretary who would call up someone else who would magically deliver me a buff folder containing all the newspaper clippings on Laos. I felt like I was in MI5.

Nowadays we’ve got Google. Or if we’ve got the budget, Lexis Nexis or Factiva. But what about if we want to do the clipping ourselves?

Well, there are options. None is perfect.

First off, there’s Evernote, which you’ve heard me talk about before. For Windows and Mac users, it does an excellent job of saving anything you ask it to, whether it’s text or a screenshot.

(Tip for Windows users: Don’t bother with the new beta version of the software, which is not good. Go with the old one until they get their act together.)

But Evernote is by no means perfect. You’ve still got to select the text, or the bit of screen you want to save. And this can be fiddly, because most web pages now are optimized for ads, not reading, so the chances are that just dragging a mouse over the text in question will include all sorts of detritus you don’t want.

In which case, try a browser bookmark called Readability (free from When you visit a page you want to save—or part of which you want to save—click on the Readability button and all the detritus will disappear, leaving just the main article on the page. It’s great for saving stuff, but also worth using if you’re having problems reading web pages cluttered with ads and other bits of nonsense.

(It does a remarkably good job of this, but it does sometimes leave out important bits, such as the date of the articles, material which I find useful to save.)

Another weakness of Evernote is that it assumes you want to save all this material to one big database. Most times we do, but sometimes I find I am just saving bits and pieces for a specific task or project and would rather keep them all in one place separately.

Another weakness of Evernote is that it assumes that what you’re clipping stuff only from the web. While it will let you drag other material into Evernote using the mouse, or the clipper application, Evernote is aimed primarily at users of the browser.

But if we’re gathering material we’re probably gathering them from other sources too, such as Acrobat PDF files, or Word or Excel files.

If that’s your game, then I’d recommend a new tool called Topicgrazer. From the makers of Topicscape, a 3D mind mapping-file organizing application, Topicgrazer simply grabs everything you choose to copy to the Windows clipboard, and stuff it in one text file, with links to the files or wepages the material came from.

It’s a simple but powerful tool, and works remarkably well. Even things that are notoriously difficult to copy, such as spreadsheet cells, handle well. It’s not the most beautiful of apps, nor the most customizable, but it’s surprisingly good. Topicgrazer costs $10 from

Another tool I really like for its simplicity is something called CintaNotes. CintaNotes does something similar to Topicgrazer—one keystroke saving whatever you have selected in whatever application–but instead of copying it into one document, it creates separate entries, where the title is the name of the file, or the webpage.

CintaNotes also saves the source of the material as a link. CintaNotes is free from, and was put together by a 29-year old native of Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk called Alex Jenter.

Where it differs from Topicgrazer, and where it comes closer to Evernote, is that it saves all these entries in a chronological roll, one after the other. And like Evernote it lets you add tags. In fact, it’s a bit like Evernote’s younger sibling.

But maybe that’s its strength. Evernote is intended to capture everything you might ever want to capture. CintaNotes, though powerful, is perhaps best used as a specialiist cabinet, where you just keep stuff that is specific to one project. It loads faster than Evernote, and doesn’t take up much space, so you might find it more to your liking if you’re not a serial clipper.

There are other tools out there. Some folk just copy and email themselves stuff they like the look of, and there are add-ons for Firefox and Chrome to help you do this. The Opera browser has its own note-taking application, which works well—so long as you only want to save stuff from the web.

I don’t think any of these applications help in one regard: highlighting and annotating text. Perhaps it exists, but I’ve not yet found an application that lets you add highlight to text you find, and add your own notes in a seamless (and easily retrievable) way. After all, that’s what we’d do with those newspaper clippings of old: We’d highlight the bits that were relevant, and could rarely resist scrawling our own comments in the margin.

There are other bits of our clipping past I’d like to recreate: The feel, the smell, the atmosphere of those little scissored flakes of newsprint, carefully layered in those buff folders. Even if the clip was only a few weeks old, you couldn’t help feel you were somehow handling a slice of history. The mere act of cutting out the article, stamping it with the date, and adding it to a folder lent it importance, reverence, that Evernote and its ilk don’t quite capture.

Maybe it’s too much to ask, but I’d love to get a bit of that back.

Elitism’s Big Security Hole

You would expect that if you choose an elite, premium product or service that it was more secure than its lesser, bog standard one. But after an incident today I’m not so sure.

I happen to have a fancy premium account at my bank. I didn’t really want it, and object to such things on champagne socialist grounds, but it happened that way. So I arrive in town, and am looking for an ATM. I espy the logo of my bank on the airport concourse and head that way. Three members of staff stand around the branch entrance, doing that half-welcoming, half-bouncer thing that staff do. I asked if there was an ATM inside, and they said yes, but instead of letting me in, pointed me back across the vast concourse to the railway terminus. “None in here?” I asked, surprised. By then I was fishing inside my wallet for my ATM card and they caught a glimpse of its fancy charcoal greyness. Their attitude changed in a flash to one of abject obeisance. “This way, kind sire,” they said (or something like that) and ushered me inside the darkened interior, round a couple of corners to my very own ATM machine, before withdrawing to a discreet but accessible distance. Butlers passed bearing flutes of champagne; customers carrying men’s purses perused glossy brochures with names like “Managing Your Family’s Wealth So You Can Have Trouble-free Weekends in Your Phuket Condo With An Office Secretary” or something.

Offputting, but I was happy to get some my hands on some cash. Until I realised I had forgot my PIN. No problem, one of the staff said, and led me around more corners to a bank of eager customer advisor executives, or something, all with perfect teeth and wide smiles. They happily gave me cash and balances, none of it requiring any proof of identity on my part. I got to suck a sweet while they did. The three bouncers led me outside as if I was the King of Siam collecting tribute.

I was happy with all the deference and genuflecting, but it made me realise that premium service isn’t really about premium service; it means paying through the nose not to be troubled by impertinent little serfs asking me for proof of identity when I want to move millions of dollars around/see my jewelry collection in a bank vault/pass through immigration. It’s actually about dismantling security, not about enhancing it.

It’s a simple equation: Companies charge more fees to these kinds of people, providing what looks like a Rolls Royce service. People love getting star treatment, assuming that fake veneer and snow-white smiles equate quality. Of course all it really means is that the basic service — in this case the ATM machine — has been moved off to a remote corner for the unwashed who refuse to pay for the premium service. But more importantly, the actual quality that should be a feature of the improved service is severely compromised, if not entirely absent, since the implicit agreement is that customers won’t be asked for proof of identity. That may seem like an advantage to the customer, but if someone had stolen my wallet they would have been able to empty my account without breaking a sweat. They might even have been offered a shoulder massage while the staff counted the money.

There must be a name for this skewed security thinking. And it must apply to all sorts of services.

Me? I’m downgrading my account and rejoining the plebs. It’s safer there: They won’t let me in the branch without flashing my ID card.

The Autorespond Trap

I’ve written before about the general dodginess of “away notification emails” automatically set up to respond to incoming emails. Such messages usually go along the lines of:

I will be out of the office from 12/08/2006 to 13/08/2006 hunting gazelle in the Liposuction Basin.

For urgent matters, pl contact Ms Elbowgrinder/ Mr Headstrong at Tel 689023 during office hours.

Why are these a bad idea? Well, you’re basically broadcasting to anyone who sends you an email that you’re

  • on vacation, and therefore leaving a presumably empty house
  • details of when they won’t be around
  • giving large amounts of useful information to identity thieves or social engineers wanting to steal your password
  • clogging up people’s inboxes with more information than they are likely to need (if they don’t know you’re on holiday you’re probably not that close).

Anyway, I couldn’t help but be amused by a recent announcement on a security mailing list (which shall remain nameless; I don’t want to compromise security further) which prompted more than 30 autorespond messages informing senders that the recipients were on holiday/maternity leave/trips/the moon. Leaving aside the security lapse that allowed such messages to go to all recipients of the mailing list, I was surprised that these people, all of them apparently in the security field and in government, were broadcasting their movements and absence from the office. Who’s to stop someone from using this information to call up their secretary/stand-in and socially engineering their way into some lucrative information? My advice: Don’t use these autoresponds unless you don’t mind telling all and sundry about your movements.

Oh, the original mailing list email that prompted this deluge of autoresponds was one announcing details of an upcoming information security & hacking conference. No, I’m not going to say which.

Finding Liberation Online

Further to my earlier post about Lina Yoon’s piece on Korean ‘blogging’, here’s a taster to convince you to take out a subscription to, or go out and buy a copy of today’s AWSJ: – Finding Liberation Online 

SEOUL — In the real world, Kim Min Jung is an introverted secretary who finds it difficult talking to people she doesn’t know. When speaking, she often covers her face with her hands. On the Internet, though, the 28-year-old is no shrinking violet. On her personal Web site, Ms. Kim entertains about 1,200 visitors a day with plot summaries and witty commentaries on TV shows and movies. Online, she says, “I feel more confident expressing myself.”

In South Korea, centuries of patriarchal Confucian tradition have taught women to be deferential and reserved. But the country is also one of the most technologically advanced in the world, creating opportunities for women to freely express themselves in ways not yet seen in many other Asian societies. One of the most popular online avenues for women is Cyworld, an Internet community used by 14 million people — a little over one-quarter of the population of South Korea — that’s set to launch in the U.S. and other parts of Asia later in the year.

It’s just a short piece but does a great job looking at a very interesting phenomenon that may or may not take off elsewhere. Here’s some more detail on Ms. Kim that we had to cut for space:

For Ms. Kim, the secretary, expressing herself verbally remains difficult, but she finds herself becoming more popular in the office, with co-workers sending her ideas for her site.

Now, for a monthly fee of $30,000 to $40,000, companies are creating their own minihomepies to connect with younger female consumers. AmorePacific, a maker of beauty and skincare products in South Korea, started one for LaNeige Girl, a cosmetic line aimed at women aged 18 to 22. AmorePacific marketing executive An Yoo Shin says the site attracted 400,000 simultaneous viewers one day last year after a promotion offered anyone visiting the site at 5 p.m. a free background image of the LaNeige Girl character.

Now go and buy the paper.

Did A Computer Virus Bring Down The Soviet Union?

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

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

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

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