Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Thanks, not for me, I've got agoraphobia

It's been almost a year and a half now, but I can still remember that buying a twin screen PC brought the biggest productivity jump since I acquired a computer with a hard disk in it.

So it's fun to see that you can now buy ready-made solutions from guys who take the multi-screen idea to the extreme. ZenView offers anything from twin screens, portrait or landscape, up to this 6-fold 24" monster with a combined 5760x2400 resolution. That's almost 14 megapixels.

Even among supergeeks this is not for the faint hearted. It takes a desk that can accomodate the small car you just sold to afford the $12k price tag. Which won't be enough, as you need a serious PC with 3 PCI Express slots holding high-end graphics cards as well.

On second thought, maybe my next upgrade will just be a triple screen solution...

Engrish: fondle me admiringly

Long time no Engrish in this blog, so here goes: Haier's newest MP3 phone, also known as their 'Love-at-first-sight handset'. We are invited to fondle it admiringly, presumably while listening to love songs.

Surprisingly poetic! Via Aving China.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Anatomy of a phishing attempt

Phishing happens a lot, but you don't often get to witness an almost-succesful attempt from nearby. The following things happened to a dear friend of mine, who received an official-looking email from Amazon.com asking her to review her payment details.

The receiver of the email initially fell for it, which is understandable given the sophistication of the attempt. She even went as far as to fill in all her payment details such as credit card number AND security code (!), PIN number for ATM card, etc. Fortunately, she got suspicious soon after that. On closer scrutiny the fraud was detected, and she was able to alert the credit card company and the bank before her accounts were raided.

Couldn't happen to you? See for yourself!

Step 1: There's an email in your inbox from 'Amazon Payments':

After clicking the link, you land on a fake Amazon.com webpage...

...with an 'amazonaccess.cn' URL, incidentally. Since when is the Amazon Payments Department located in China? But it's easy to overlook, especially since the address structure does include an 'amazon.com' part. Subtle!

Things are made easy for you. Your email address has been pre-filled...

...and also the radio button that says 'Yes, I have a password'!

But now for the serious business. What we want, of course, are the credit card details...

...including your 4-digit credit card security code, and your ATM PIN code! This should raise even bigger red flags than the amazonaccess.cn address.

At this point, the victim might become suspicious and tries to verify by clicking the 'Your Account' tab...

...and guess what? You're directed to the real Amzon.com account page!

The same happens if you try to verify by clicking on 'Account Settings' in the card data entry page...

..except that now all of a sudden your account is a 'Seller Account'. Small mistake by the phishers!

The criminals even foresaw that some suspicious minds would try to log in as a New Customer...

...but we can't have that, of course. After all, one wants to know which credit card and ATM details go with whose name and email address, isn't it? Please try again, dear victim!

Finally, back to the email itself. The criminals have thought of everything - they've even built in a three-day time slot for themselves in which they can plunder your accounts at their leisure. Politely asking for '72 hours for the case to be investigated' should do the trick. It's called 'social engineering'...

The victim in this case was lucky. She became suspicious and took action before any harm was done. But this little step-by-step makes clear how clever and conniving these phishing scams are set up.

Until Bill Gates or one of his competitors make true on their promises of better security tools and identity protection in the near future (see "Getting there but don't hold your breath") there's only one remedy: stay vigilant.

Privacy is in the eye of the beholder

S'pore Police pictures privacy

Yesterday we wrote about the Tammy Nyp sex video, and the apparent lack of regard of Singaporean citizens for their own privacy.

But it's not only the general population who lack privacy awareness in Singapore. It's the marketing community too, as this newspaper commentary from a Singaporean lawyer shows.

The writer especially criticizes the habit of Singaporean companies to have their customers routinely fill in their IC numbers (Singapore's Social Security numbers) on promotional coupons and response forms. If the promotion is a contest and a prize is awarded, the winners' ICs are even published in newspapers ad!

Compare this peculiar habit to the fact that in the US even an inadvertent release of a consumer's SSN is seen as a serious privacy breach, and you see how extreme the difference in privacy awareness between the two populations is. And we haven't even started on Europe.

Maybe it's time for that privacy awareness campaign, Singapore?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Singapore's tech-savvy youth learns about the Law of Unintended Consequences

OK, I admit it: I can't escape it. Half the blogosphere is publishing like madmen about the Tammy Nyp video, judging by the fact that Tammy still holds places #1, 2,3 and 5 on the Technorati search term ranking. Malaysian roadside vendors are even reselling Tammy's video for higher prices than Hollywood blockbusters.

But a lot more interesting is the picture that emerges of a youth subculture that has no problem at all with registering the most intimate details of their private lives in order to enjoy or share them later on, without realizing the danger of unauthorized access. It's a sign that developments in personal electronics outpace the awareness of its users, especially were potential consequences for their privacy are concerned.

It's not a complete coincidence that this is happening in Singapore, an affluent and technologically advanced society whose citizens also happens to be one of the least privacy aware populations on Earth. I've already heard the first cries for privacy legislation in the Merlion City-state. But this affair shows that a large-scale and long-term personal privacy awareness campaign should be the first order of business for the Government, rather than hastily issuing rules impeding innovative use of technology.

Singapore's youths, it turns out, are more entrepreneurial than their parents think. It's important to stimulate technology-inspired creativeness and entrepreneurship, rather than suppress it for fear of unintended consequences.

There are morons, there are criminal morons, and there's Deloitte

Having just finished my previous post about corporate America losing control over more than 53 million records annually (see " Every minute a sucker is born, with a one in two chance of being robbed of his identity"), I'm shaking my head about an ever bigger degree of utter stupidity.

This time it's an auditor from Deloitte&Touche, and the number of compromised records may be small but the criminal carelessness is not. Turns out, the moron left an unencrypted backup disk in an airplane seat pocket, containing privacy-sensitive information of more than 9000 of McAfee's employees and ex-employees.

Unencrypted? Just left it? Yes, together with a couple of music CDs. Ah well, sh* happens, doesn't it?

There are several reasons to hang audit company Deloitte&Touche from the highest tree for this. First, the incident occurred on December 15th, 2005 but Deloitte didn't seem to think it important enough to report until three weeks later, on January 8th.

Secondly, even now Deloitte doesn't have the decency to provide the public information about the incident. All of the above information was provided by a McAfee spokesbot while Deloitte made sure its public relations people were kept out of reach.

And thirdly, it was Deloitte's decision not to encrypt the data, a decision in direct breach of their client's policies. After all, McAfee is an IT security company.

A nice example how one turns 'moronic' into 'criminally moronic'.

Every minute a sucker is born, with a one in two chance of being robbed of his identity

Privacy activist Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC, ot to confuse with People's Republic of China) has done justice to its name by attempting a complete chronology of personal data breaches over the last year or so.

They find a staggering 53.4 million compromised personal records in 12 months' time. That's an average 100 per minute, which gives a whole new meaning to the saying 'every minute a sucker is born.'

It's probably also the tip of the iceberg. PRC chooses as a starting point February 15th, 2005, when credit information provider ChoicePoint reported that criminal hackers accessed 145,000 (later increased to 160,000) of its consumer records. ChoicePoint was only forced to disclose the incident because there were Californian residents among the victims, who are covered by the State of California's 2003 disclosure law (see "Next time you break into our database, could you please leave the Californians alone?")

The bulk of privacy breaches in PRC's chronology is caused by hackers forcing access to databases of financial services providers such as credit card companies, and financial information providers like ChoicePoint. Apparently criminal hackers intending identity theft or wanting to raid credit card accounts constitute the biggest danger. By far the largest breach was CardSystems' June 16th, 2005, disclosure that hackers compromised the security of no fewer than 40 million credit card holders, mostly MasterCard and Visa.

In the ChoicePoint affair 800 out of 160,000 breaches led to financial loss. If that's a benchmark, more than a quarter million Americans were robbed last year as a result of database holders' carelessness.

That's one identity theft robbery every two minutes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The end of email marketing in China?

It had to happen. And as it turns out, China's the first. In a crackdown on spam, Beijing's Ministry of Information Industry (MII) has passed a regulation on e-mail and SMS text services that outlaws, among other things, unsolicited mails.

The new regulation, reports the People's Daily Online, also bans all e-mail 'spreading junk information, rumours, erotic content, fraud or viruses.' Providing commercial email services will under the new rules be subject to a licence. Violators will see their licence revoked, and can face warnings or fines.

China is one of the world's largest sources of spam. Although the majority of spam is aimed at the US market, many spam servers are located in China. According to MII, that quotes only domestic figures, last year 50 billion emails were sent and received in China, of 30 billion were spam.

Although it seems unfair that legitimate unsolicited commercial email falls victim to the new prohibition along with all the illegitimate stuff, this is illustrative of a danger that was hanging over the market for a long time. Governments do not always make a distinction, and legitimate marketers are in jeopardy of being swept off their feet along with the spammers and scamsters.

It's also highly doubtful if the new rules, which take effect March 30th, will have any effect on international spam originating in China.

Brain damage caused by content, not by phones

Turns out that mobile phones are bad for your health after all. Only it's not brain damage from holding a microwave generator close to your ear, as many suspected. It's repetitive strain damage to your wrist and thumb.

A British survey showed a year-on-year increase of 38% in this type of injury, and 3.8 million new cases every year. Small surprise, considering the results of another UK survey, this one by Virgin Mobile: 12% send around 20 text messages a day, 10% even more, up to 100. From personal experience: most Asian countries will find themselves in the same league.

The worldwide number of text messages passed the 1 trillion mark in 2005. The resulting industry generates an estimated $35 billion in revenues, putting the emerging blogosphere to shame.

And while we're at it, some more fun with statistics: all this is done by 2 billion mobile phone users, who apparently send on average 1.5 messages per day. And the current world speed record is held by a Singaporean girl, who managed to send the text 'The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human.' in 43.24 seconds.

Which brings us back to the subject of brain damage, I guess.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"There's gold in them thar blogs"

Interesting post on ZDNet's EmergingTech Blog, where Roland Piquepaille tries to estimate the size of the blogosphere economy.

Mr Piquepaille arrives at somewhere in the quarter of a billion range. He uses a poll by Darren Rowse to guess that one out of ten million bloggers makes $120 per year, adds 'the money made by Google and others', and concludes it's still a relatively insignificant inustry.

But Technorati, as of writing this post, tracks 28.3 million blogs with another 100,000 or so joining every day. That puts the total closer to $1 billion, with a triple-digit annual growth rate.

Who said blogs were small?

US Congressional hot air to combat censorship

Last week's Congressional hearing on US companies' aiding and abetting human rights violations in China (see China enters 21st century; new Gang of Four dragged before US Congress got its not wholly unexpected sequel.

The Chairman of the Committee, a chap going by the slightly ominous name of Mr Smith, has now proposed a new piece of legislation, the Global Online Freedom Act. The act would restrict the ability of internet companies to censor their websites and search results, and force them disclose any filtering, if applied. In other words, it would render most of the current Gang of Four's activities in China (Cisco, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo) illegal, and put them at odds with the Chinese authorities.

Smith's proposed law would also call for global standards, of course to be monitored by an Office of Global Internet Freedom (which would immediately engage in a turf war with the US State Department's newly announced Global Internet Freedom Task Force).

Although most of this amounts to the usual meaningless political grandstanding (would the coined names be any clue?), the idea of establishing global standards for ethical behaviour in such thorny issues as how to comply with censorship is not bad.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation seems to agree, but proposes a Code of Conduct instead. The internet community itself however, most notably the blogosphere gives Mr Smith the cold shoulder. Threadwatch calls the idea "at best arrogant, pompous and hypocritical".

The may be, but at least we have a public discussion now. In future the Googles and Yahoos of this world will be forced to consider their actions carefully, lest reputations get damaged, or "Don't Be Evil" mottos become obsolete and need to be gradually replaced by Ten Things.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sports marketers teaching Stalin a lesson

Quickly, who poses a greater danger to Freedom of Speech? Are these
a) Chinese censors;
b) religious fanatics; or
c) sports marketers?

It's starting to look like the latter. First there was the blogging prohibition for Olympic athletes in Turin. And if this blatant example of censoring people who want to express their once-in-a-lifetime-experiences is not enough, there's now the impending scourge of anti-ambush marketing.

Ambush marketing is the nightmare for organizers of sports events, who stand to gain millions or even billions from sponsoring income. Ambush marketers are non-sponsors who literally steal the show by using the events for their own promotional purposes, for instance by doling out massive numbers of branded goodies to fans outside the stadiums.

'Anti-ambush marketing' (sounds suspiciously similar to war against terror) has become a fixture in preparations for Olympic and other giant sports events, as can be seen on the websites ofBOCOG, the organizing committee for Beijing 2008, and FIFA, the organizer of the World Soccer Championship 2006, respectively. FIFA even reserves the right to deny ticket holders the right of access to the stadiums if there are too many of them wearing or carrying non-sponsors' stuff.

And it's getting worse. The London Olympics 2012 lobby has now succeeded in getting a version of the London Olympics Bill in Parliament that contains paragraphs that would even embarrass the most jaded Chinese censors. If the organizers get their way there will be a ban on the public use of words like "games", "2012", "gold", "silver" and "bronze", and even "London" and "Summer".

Or to be more precise (there's always the risk that lawyers read this), if you use any of these words and the organizers accuse you of terror attacks ambush marketing, you'll be guilty until proven innocent.

In marketing jargon we call this 'pulling a Guantanamo.' Even worse, in combination with banning innocent citizens from blogging, we have a very worrying trend on our hands.

Someone should put a stop to this kind of development. Sports marketing is in jeopardy of getting a worse reputation than Stalin. At least he allowed people to use the word 'Summer.'

Beijing's first Specialty Penis Restaurant

China's Powers That Be may be picky as far as the menu of words that may be used in public is concerned; but on restaurant menus anything goes.

A horse's penis, scorpions or beetles on a stick, ox testicles, you name it, restaurants or even street vendors will serve it. Still, a restaurant completely specializing in penis is a novelty.

Guolizhuang, located on Beijing's elegant West Lake, brings together every known dish containing either an animal's penis, its testicals, or both. For prices starting at RMB200 ($25) you can savour specialities like "Head crowned with a Jade Bracelet" (from Xinjiang horses) or "Dragon in the Flame of Desire" (yak). The top dish, Canadian Seal Penis, requires ordering in advance. Be prepared to shell out RMB3,000.

In China, you are what you eat, they say. Wonder what that makes the restaurant's patrons?

When was the last time you bought sneakers?

Speaking for myself, it's been quite a while. And apparently, a lot has happened since, judging by the following sales blurb for the Air Jordan XXI:
"The Nike Air Jordan XXI has a full-grain leather upper, an advanced venting system and heat dissipation technology, Dual-depth DNA traction pattern and IPS (Independent Podular Suspension) with interchangeable cushioning technology that can be tuned for either full impact protection or maximum responsiveness."
Should you still be undeterred (unlike me), here's the info.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Soon coming to a PC near you: Her Majesty's Secret Rootkit

A visit to the Windows Vista homepage reveals the Vista payoff: 'Bringing clarity to your world.'

Not only clarity: security too, it seems. Microsoft claims that Vista is engineered to be the most secure version of Windows yet. Although I can already hear chuckling, apparently this is giving the British Government itches, even to the extent that, according to a Home Office spokesbot, "The Home Office has already been in touch with Microsoft concerning this matter and is working closely with them."

Corpus delicti is a Vista feature called BitLocker Drive Encryption which, if used competently, will make it fiendishly difficult for intruders, including nosy government agents, to dig up information from your PC. The 'solution', according to British security experts, would be a 'back door key', a secret code in possession of the authorities only, never to be leaked to outsiders, that bypasses the user's encryption.

Yeah, right. Sounds like it would be a good idea if the House Committee on International Relations would widen the scope of its enquiries into US internet companies' cooperation with foreign governments' human rights violations to America's allies as well.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

China enters 21st century; new Gang of Four dragged before US Congress

And finally it happened. After some dragging of feet, feigning ignorance, and pretending busy agendas, the Internet Gang of Four (Cisco, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo) found themselves sitting in front of a Congressional Committee taking them to task for cooperating with human rights violations in China.

It was a ritual for four spokesbots and a howling herd of Congressional grandstanders. The House Representatives blew hot air, the Gang of Four's representatives set up fans to cool it down.

A quick summary of the meeting: the House Committee took a firm stand on the undesirability of collaborating with dictatorships. It especially lambasted the Gang of Four for not just passively complying with local rules but having an "active partnership with both the disinformation campaign and the secret police."

The Gang of Four in turn couldn't come up with anything new, reiterating previous excuses like "it's the lesser of two evils" (Google) and "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" (Yahoo). The only new argument came from Yahoo's General Counsel Michael Callahan, who claimed that "these issues are larger than any one company or any one industry." (The latter has been ruthlessly analyzed by John Paczowsky: But we're only giant, powerful tech companies ... how could we possibly make a difference? Say no more, John.)

Finally there was nothing else for the House Committee to conclude, other than the dutiful announcement of a draft bill containing operating restrictions like placing email servers outside China, and a possible code of conduct. We'll see.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Censorship in China, Part IV: Democracy is obscene

And finally, after lending our ears to Yahoo's version of Don't Be Evil, watching AOL trying to stay under the censors' radar, and listening to what their victims think of all that respectively, let's take a moment to listen what the censors themselves have to say.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao reminds us sternly of the Chinese Communist Party line: "Illegal internet content shall be stopped, including material that violates social morals." "This kind of goal is to protect the interests of the general population, so this kind of action is fair and reasonable."

Unfortunately Mr Liu fails to specify what kind of content Beijing wants stopped. Judging by the forbidden search words, "democracy" and "human rights" are among the things that 'violate social morale' in the Middle Kingdom. (Source: South China Morning Post, 15 Feb '06)

Censorship in China, Part III: The oppressed speak out

After looking at Yahoo's attempt at self-justification and seeing AOL get away with 600 hours free uncensored search, let's turn our attention to the other side of the medal: the people who have to live with it all.

Zhao Jing, also known by his pen name of Michael Anti, the blogger whose site was shut down by Microsoft after pressure from the Chinese authorities, had only one thing to say: "Actions speak louder than words. Nobody cares [about Yahoo's deflective statement], we just want real action."

Hear, hear. Let's hope the House Committee on International Relations figures out what kind of action to take.

Censorship in China, Part II: AOL Now with 600 Hours of Uncensored Search

While Yahoo were busy justifying their cooperation with Chinese censors and prosecutors, AOL opened their new Chinese portal, strangely enough still uncensored, as it seems.

I guess it won't take long until the new baby gets discovered by the censors. 600 Hours free, perhaps?

Censorship in China, Part I: Do You Yahoo? (Answer: No)

US internet companies with operations in China are getting a second chance at appearing before the US House Committee on International Relations, and public opinion is ensuring they're not going to miss it, like they did the first one.

Yahoo took a preemptive strike with a statement on their beliefs as a global internet company, basically saying "don't bother us with too many rules at home, we're busy enough complying with those of dictatorships abroad."

A bit too simple, if you ask me, but a nice discussion opener. Let's leave it at that.

Microsoft Personal Security Rel. 2: getting there but don't hold your breath

Bill Gates is in prophet mode again. And he's still showing a remarkable aptness for getting things wrong first time around, improving on it second time, and getting it right in third instance.

Case in question: today's announcement of the Virtual Information Wallet. Or Passport, as it was called a while ago.

We all have a desperate need for a consistent identity on the Internet, and to have it equally consistently protected against theft. But with ten thousand IDs and password combinations all over the place achieving both consistency and security is downright impossible.

Microsoft's Passport Network was fatally flawed because it left the user completely in the hands (and at the mercy) of Microsoft. Bill's new solution, codenamed InfoCard, promises people a tool over which they keep complete control themselves.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. InfoCard is still Bill's second attempt, and it's still vaporware. But we're definitely headed in the right direction.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Great Firewall Workarounds

Yesterday saw a great article in the Wall Street Journal about ways and means for Chinese citizens to circumvent China's Great Firewall. The article describes in detail the world of 'hacktivists', groups and individuals who dedicate time and resources to help Chinese surfers access blocked sites, or post information to the Web when own their site has been blocked. (Paid access)

Turns out, there's a whole lot of tools out there for the dedicated surfer, even the politically uninvolved one since the Great Firewall blocks more than only sensitive websites such as Falung Gong, blogging sites such as anything that ends with*.blogspot.com (but funny enough not Blogger.com itself), and news sites such as the venerable BBC. Apart from those the block also covers sites useful to innocent students just trying to do their homework, such as Wikipedia.

For those who can't afford (or have no access to) the WSJ archive, here's a list of of workarounds for those living in China and needing access to the real WWW, as opposed to the WWWACSI (World Wide Web As China Sees It):

Freegate (Mandarin only), a software tool that connects you to an ever-changing set of relay servers that allow you to access blocked sites 'from outside China', as if it where;
Ultra Reach, a company that provides tools similar to Freegate's, plus anti-filtering email services;
The Circumventor, a clever little tool that needs to be installed on a computer outside China, which then can be used as an access point for the rest of the Web;
Tor, a collection of tools that lets users publish web sites and other services without revealing the location of their sites;
Garden Networks (Mandarin only), a website with tips&tools like FreeSurf and UltraSurf;
Dynamic Internet Technology, the company that runs Freegate also has a useful website with lots of information how the censors work, among other things something that looks like a China's Great Firewall for Dummies presentation;
Adopt a Blog, a group of people who set up blogs on behalf of Chinese bloggers who are barred from setting up a blog of their own, posting stuff they receive via alternative channels.

Meanwhile, let's just hope that Google is right when they assume that their move into China with self-censored services helps to increase the amount of information available to Chinese surfers, rather than merely institutionalizing censorship and creating a viable business model for the Chinese censors.

I guess we haven't seen the last of this.

Latest fad in China: nude photo shoots for Valentine

Amazing to see how quickly Western celebrations are picked up by people in China. Valentine's Day seems to have hit the Middle Kingdom with a vengeance.

Chinese florists have hit the jackpot, and a Shanghai-based website www.51.com had to set up a special page for women seeking one-day boyfriends in order to cope with high demand. But the greatest boon is for photographic studios, who find customers prepared to shell out anything between $200 and $1000 for photo shoots to record their relationship. In line with long-time Chinese habits - wedding couples can be seen roaming cities for scenic spots in full drag, weeks before their weddings - sessions can be done in advance, as long as the photos can be picked up on Valentine's Day itself.

This year's Hot Tip for avid followers of fashion: nude portraits. According to Zhou Yanlin, the manager of Beijing's Qingniao photo studio, around 30% of couples opt for having their photo taken topless or in the nude. Others go to the place where they first met, or rent props that have special meaning in their relationships. Zhou Yanlin: "People now just see relationships as an experience." (Source: South China Morning Post)

Indeed they do. Still, the ready acceptance of an obscure Catholic Saint's martyrdom is all the more remarkable since China already has its own Valentine's Day. Qi Qiao Jie, the seventh eve of the seventh month, celebrates the ancient myth of the seventh daughter of the Emperor of Heaven, who fell in love with a cowherd.

This year's Daughter's Festival, as it is also called, will be on July 31st. Will St Valentine beat the Seventh Daughter?

60 Years ago: ENIAC, Moore's Law without the semiconductors

Another memorable day in the history of computing; today is the 60th birthday of ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator).

Regular readers of this blog will know that today's claim in News.com that ENIAC was the first electronic computer in the world is mistaken. That honorific title goes to the Colossus Mark I, officially installed in Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, UK on January 31st, 1944.

Still, ENIAC was a major achievement. It was also a precursor to Moore's Law, in that it more than doubled Colossus's capacity two years after its predecessor's construction.

To do that, ENIAC contained 17,468 vacuum tubes (against Colossus' 1500), along with 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million soldered joints. It covered 1,800 square feet of floor space, weighed 30 tons.

ENIAC consumed 160,000 Watts of electrical power, making the lights go dim in Philadelphia each time it was powered up. I guess the people of Philadelphia should count themselves lucky that ENIAC's operating systems wasn't Windows.

On October 2, 1955 ENIAC was shut down for the last time. It had cost $486,804.22 to build, going 8 times over its initial (US Army) budget. Some things never change.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Google has rights too, you know

It seems Google can't do much good lately.

Aside from the brouhaha over their move into China, Google can hardly launch any new product beta release without having all the world's privacy activists falling over them. Gmail, Google Desktop, GoogleTalk, the list is endless. Even Google Earth has drawn criticism because a number of governments felt that their privacy (governments call it National Security) was invaded by the newfound accessibility of satellite photos.

The latest victim is Google's Desktop 3.0. The Electronic Frontier Foundation took the lead, the rest followed. Corpus Delicti is the new feature that lets Desktop users search across more than one computer. To enable "Search Across Computers" Google has to upload an index of the machines to its servers.

The EFF points out that by doing this private information can become vulnerable to anyone with a subpoena or court order. This may be true but I think the EFF goes a step too far in protesting loudly against this. Users should be aware that SAC comes with privacy risks, but might very well choose to use the feature despite those risks.

Google should not be criticized for offering people possibilities that might do them harm when handled carelessly.

"We thought a brand on their forehead was less secure"

Another day, another threshold crossed. CityWatcher.com, a video surveillance company in Cincinnati, Ohio, has embedded radio chips in two of its employees.

Privacy watchdog CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) had the scoop, with a press release last Thursday, February 9th. The radio chips, originally made for medical purposes by VeriChip of Delray Beach, Florida, give access to CityWatcher's secure data centre. The rice grain-sized glass encapsulated chips are injected into the upper arm.

Ironically, only two weeks ago security researcher Jonathan Westhues showed how easy it is to clone this particular type of radio chip. So much for the extra security, then.

Although CityWatcher told the Financial Times (free registration required) this is only a test, the implication is that in future employees won't be able to access the data centre without such an implant, which means they won't be able to do their jobs. In effect this makes the injection compulsory.

Why does this remind me of branding slaves in medieval times?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Google Earth, the new frontier

The travel world is notoriously sluggish in picking up new developments.

If any product lends itself to selling online, it's travel. But even in this day and age anywhere in the world you can still walk into travel agencies where girls are sitting behind a counter, in a medieval setting surrounded by stacks of heavy paper brochures, a speaker phone blaring waiting queue sounds, and a PC stuck on one single reservation engine. The other day I ran into an agency with PCs that still worked under DOS.

Meanwhile the problem solves itself. Online sites flourish and by the summer of 2005 88% of consumers used the Internet to either research or purchase their travel, or both. In 2006 this number will easily exceed 90%.

Given this dramatic and growing percentage it's amazing that online sites in turn are slow on the uptake when new and dramatic opportunities present themselves. And that opportunity is is Google Earth.

I've been involved in the travel sector for quite a while and the one thing I remember in awe is the ease with which you can sell your product once you're in a position to show it to someone who wants to travel. Google Earth offers that opportunity.

And what an opportunity it is, offering visitors to your site real views of hotels and resorts, and even flight paths approaching your favourite destinations. Kudos to online travel magazine Travel+Leisure.com, who have started this trend by offering their selection of 500 favourite hotels as a Google Earth KMZ file on their site.

Meanwhile the rest of the online travel world do their best to compete on price and erode margins. Travel entrepreneurs, where art thou?

Minimal interface design: the All-Time Winner

Google has become famous by offering a minimal, really simple search interface. Apple's iPod also thanks its market dominance to its minimal design.

This is a trend: there's definitely a growing market out there for gadgets and services that offer a simple, uncluttered interface, serving a single purpose.

Time to dig up an appliance that offers the most simple interface thinkable: the Ambient Orb. It's a simple orb, lighted from the inside. It can glow in any colour across the spectrum. You link the globe to an indicator, maybe the Dow Jones index, or the weather, or whether someone you know is on Skype or GoogleTalk. The Ambient Orb can show only one index. Just link it up and it will glow according to that single purpose.

For design minimalists: it's still available at Amazon.com. Steve Jobs, eat your heart out.

Friday, February 10, 2006

"Human rights? But they- they're athletes!"

The Mohammed cartoon debate is raging all over the world. Muslim outrage sets embassies afire and Western governments are frantically trying to put oil on the waves without jeopardizing their stand on freedom of expression.

And in the midst of it all Japan forbids its Winter Olympics athletes to express their feelings, their opinions, their once-of-a-lifetime adventures, in blogs of their choice (The Japan Times Online; free registration required).

Freedom of expression has a looong way to go. I rest my case.

There are some things words can't express. For everything else...

... there's a T-shirt.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Personal Technology getting a little too personal

Walt Mossberg's Personal Technology column in the Wall Street Journal is easily one of the most famous and influential in its category.

Walt's reviews are famous for their thoroughness, and for their grumpiness if the subject matter is not user friendly enough (which is probably one of the reasons why Walt tends to favour products from a certain company located in Cupertino, Ca).

But the world is changing and software needs to be scrutinized not just on effectiveness and user friendliness any more, but also - and not in the least - for security aspects. Walt found this out the hard way when he reviewed a software package called Vizrea, which makes pictures on your PC or website viewable on your mobile phone, wherever you are (paid access - registration needed).

Turns out, Mr Mossberg took a few pictures of himself and his wife when trying out the product in his hotel room, and forgot to protect these from public access on the Vizrea site. What followed was predictable: Walt Mossberg is a public persona; private pictures, unspectacular as they may be, are news; and soon the pictures appeared all over the Internet.

This incident is quite significant, and not only for Walt himself. It's a perfect illustration how important privacy and data protection aspects have become for everything we do in a connected world.

Privacy is on its way to become the most important human right of the 21st century.

First computer finished after 184 years, with Lego

Who built the first computer and when did that happen?

Many say the honour goes to Charles Babbage, who reinvented and started to build a contraption called a Difference Engine. A Difference Engine could be programmed to calculate numerical tables, a task that at the time was done by people called 'computers'.

Although brilliant, Babbage had a great flaw: he had a habit of not finishing what he started. This applied to both his first Difference Engine, started in 1822, his Analytical Engine (1837 onwards) and his second Difference Engine (1847-1849).

Because he received large sums of money from the British Government for each of these, he ended up with a somewhat tarnished and definitely underrated reputation.

Still, he did groundbreaking work, as did his friend Ada Lovelace, who invented the idea of software in order to let the machine predict the outcome of horse races. Ms Lovelace, incidentally the daughter of the great poet Byron, thus became the world's first computer programmer.

Babbage's and Lovelace's efforts deserve to live on in our collective memory, and what better way to make this happen than building a Lego version of it?

The Italian Desk Job

It doesn't happen often that something catches your attention, and immediately a movie title springs to mind, complete with scenario, publicity campaign, merchandising, the lot.

But here it is: The Italian Desk Job, inspired by every school boy's dream: this Mini Cooper desk conversion.

Hollywood studios interested in developing a screenplay for this incredibly attractive The Italian Job II sequel are invited to post a comment. Trust me, you will be contacted immediately.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Correlation between Google's share price and average employee IQ supported by recent observations

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? This spelling error fest came up if you tried to go to blogger.com during a brief spell of maintenence an hour ago.

High marks for John Paczowski's foresight, about a year ago: "Google share price finally exceeds average employee IQ". Looks like we might have a new Moore's Law on our hands here.

A brief look at Google's current share price for the last two weeks or so seems to correspond with their current spelling conventions.

Does this chart reflect Google's current trend in average employee IQ? Certainly looks like Paczowski's Law holds. One thing is clear: Eric Schmidt's evil scale probably looks quite different.

Fight for privacy

This sums up most people's feelings about privacy, one could say.

Thanks David Farley and ibiblio

Monday, February 06, 2006

Strong US demand for 'no reefer' signs

Amsterdam is famous for quite a few things, and one of these is its tolerance for smoking marijuana.

Let me put it this way: the word 'coffee shop' has a completely different meaning in the Dutch capital, as many a tourist has found out. But even the famous Dutch tolerance has its limits, and so it happened that the Amsterdam neighbourhood council of De Baarsjes decided to ban toking around its centrally located Mercator Square. To this end a special street sign was designed and signposts were placed around the square.

Predictably, these were stolen before you could say the word 'reefer'. Understandably De Baarsjes got tired of this. But what to do?

If you can't beat'em, sell to them, they must have thought, and soon the idea was born to offer the popular signs for sale on the council's website.

And guess what? Overwhelming demand, three quarters of which turned out to come from the US. All ye Americans who crave reefer-free lawns: 90 Euros is around $110, but be prepared for a long waiting list.