The Why of Spam…

Not the delicious and non-nutritious tinned pork product, but the unsolicited email.

Spam has a long history:

“On May 3, 1978, the Internet witnessed a glorious and not particularly welcome birth: The first ever spam email. Gary Thuerk, a marketer for the Digital Equipment Corporation, blasted out his message to 400 of the 2600 people on ARPAnet, the DARPA-funded so-called “first Internet.””

It’s almost 40 years old and older than the public Internet.  But why does it still continue.  After all, for there to be any sense to sending mails out – even automatically – someone, somewhere, must make some money or get some sort of payback from it.  This requires someone to open the spam and either act on it – i.e. buy something form it, visit a website, etc. – or be acted upon by the spam – e.g. it’s carrying malware which puts trojan horse and virus software on their PC and probably gives them athlete’s foot at the same time.

I have a ‘throwaway’ email account that I use when I don’t want to give my main email address.  It’s on my own domain, so any anti-spam protection I apply to it is purely up to me.  And for the sake of entertainment and education I’ve applied the absolute minimum anti-spam filtering that my hosting service will allow.  I check the account occasionally, primarily to see whether there’s anything ‘doing the rounds’ that might look realistic enough to fool some of my freelance clients in to accidentally getting themselves in to deep water.

For your entertainment today, therefore, I present a few subject lines.  Who with at least a few working brain-cells could ersist the following :

  • 7 second fat flush trick
  • Stirling Generator – Big Electricity bans media cover on Stirling Generator plans
  • Kirsten Cote – re. your invoice
  • Charwin Mortgages – consider hundreds of remortgage deals
  • Hibbert, Sasha – Overdue Invoice
  • Yes Option – read this legendary story

and so on.  I now know that in the fevered world of conspiracy nutters there is now ‘Big Electricity’ who’re trying to stop you getting free electricity from inefficient generator sets or getting electricity from the air for free (Ben Franklin tried that, guys…)  As for free energy – well, I’m with Homer Simpson…this house obeys the laws of thermodynamics!

I hope that one day ‘Big Cupcake’ will emerge, crushing us all under demands that we must purchase more and more cupcakes so that our diabetes will need drugs prepared by ‘Big Pharma’ in factories powered by ‘Big Electricity’.

I have quite a few invoices that either I haven’t paid or someone wants to pay and can’t.  The details are, of course, in the attached zip file…

Who opens this sort of crap? Does anyone believe it? Or are there people out there with the cognitive capability of a mung-bean who believe this bollocks?

The amount of spam sent keeps rising – take a look here at this report from Kapersky Labs.  Spams on the back of world events, treatments for ailments that ‘Big Pharma’ are keeping from us (usually pointing to sites run by someone who makes ‘Doctor Nick’ from The Simpsons look like the winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine.

I’m not looking to provide any answers here, but am genuinely interested in how it is that potentially:

“Spam is still a big business. Unsolicited junk mail accounts for 86 percent of the world’s e-mail traffic, with about 400 billion spam messages sent a day, according to Talos, a digital threat research division of Cisco Systems.”

And this isn’t including the hand-crafted stuff deliberately designed with a particular person in mind as an attempt to hack their systems.  This is the ‘blanket bombing’ stuff.

The spammers make money from the sellers of snake oil.  The snake oil salesmen must feel it worthwhile to give spammers money. Who are the morons who give money to the snake oil salesmen? The only thing I can think of is that things are so, so desperate in the world now that people will believe any and all crap they see ‘on the Internet’ no matter how outlandish and no matter who from.

We’re getting dumber by the day.




The obligatory Facebook IPO post….or…Hey! Zuckerberg! You’re my bitch!

Well, despite the state of the world economy, Facebook finally managed it’s IPO today and ended the day at roughly the same level as it launched at, having had a high point of about $42 and a start point of $38.  Now, when I were a lad we did IPOs differently – take the VA Linux IPO in the 1990s – a first day increase of nearly 700% on the starting price…..

But the world is different today, and the markets are older – although given recent behaviours not any wiser.   The Facebook IPO was never going to be a show-stopper of the type we saw in the first dot-com boom, no matter how people hyped it up.  But, even Linked In, that had it’s IPO more recently, opened at $45 and closed at around $90 on the first day. So what happened to facebook, and why should we care?

To start with, the opening price was, in my opinion, incredibly high for a company that simply peddles user generated content, games access, in game currencies, personal data access and adverts.  And that’s why we should care, because ultimately the value of Facebook will depend upon how advertisers and data crunchers value that content and the 900 million users of Facebook, and whether those users will keep playing the Facebook game.

Why did Facebook go public?  Traditionally, companies go public when they need a market in which to sell shares in the company to investors in order to raise money, typically for expansion, moving new products to market, etc.  In recent years – especially in tech industries – the IPO has been seen as a means by which the people involved with the startup can flog their shares and get rich quick, and I’m afraid that’s what I see happening here.

The big question is – how is Facebook worth $100 billion dollars?  That’s more than Ford and more than Macdonalds.  Last year Facebook returned a profit of a billion dollars on revenue of 3.7 billion dollars, which isn’t bad going.  Ford had revenues of over $100 billion, and profits of over $6 billion in 2010, having reduced it’s debt by $12 billion in the same year.  Not bad either. But Ford only has a market capitalisation of $38 billion.  So, that market capitalisation of Ford of 38 billions is related to a profit of $6 billions.  Now, whilst you can’t compare Internet and non-Internet stocks, if I were to apply the same rules I’d start thinking that Facebook should, on those proportions, be floated at no more than $6 or $7 billion.

Let’s be fairer and take Google as our reference point.  It’s Internet stock, after all.  Current Market Capitalisation of $197 billion, revenue of $40 billion and income of $10 billion.  Applying some ratios again, Google seem to have a profit of about 25% of revenues, and a Market Cap. of around 5* revenue.  Now, Facebook has profits which are not that far off of the same ratio as Google – 1/3.7*100 = 27%, so if we apply the 5* rule we get 5*3.7 billion – let’s be generous and say $20 billions.

So, Joe’s rough and ready calculations say that Facebook should have sold at $20 billions.  Now, I’m not a stockbroker – in fact, I’m not brilliant with money at all, but this seems….logical.  The difference between Google and Facebook, of course,  is the magic words ‘Social Media’.  After all, Social is the future, according to the pundits, so it must be logical that the Facebook valuation reflects something of the massive profits that people expect to make from Social Media in future.  Yes?

Right…let’s look at Linked IN.  Recentish float, social media company, not so many users, blah, blah.  Market capitalisation of $10 billion dollars (no missing zero), Revenue about $670 million, profits about $17 million.  Oooer.  So Social isn’t necessarily the magic word.

So what could that magic ingredient be?  What do analysts think makes Facebook worth so much?  Do me a favour.  If, like me, you’re a Facebook user, walk to the bathroom, look in the mirror.  Say Hi.  You’re looking at 1/900 millionth of Facebook’s secret sauce. Those investors are putting a lot of money in to the hope that we will continue spending money that can, in some way, be associated with our use of Facebook.  Now, I’ve not spent a dime through any Facebook related advert, game or doohickey in the 4 or so years I’ve been on there.  I rate every advert that pops up in my Timeline (except for the ones from Charities and non-profits) as offensive.  How we use facebook from here on in will make or break a lot of fortunes.

If you want something to put a smile on your face today, remember that 1/900 millionth of Mark Zuckerberg’s arse is yours.  Collectively, Zuckerberg is our bitch.


Google Drive…to get your stuff.

I’ve always had the attitude that any company that has to remind it’s staff to ‘Do No Evil’ is either employing the wrong sort of people or is trying hard to hide the fact that they might not be paragons of virtue.

This week my increasingly hardcore anti-Google attitude was turned up another notch by the Terms and Conditions on their new ‘Google Drive’ product. Google Drive is Google’s answer to products like ‘Dropbox’ – look at it as an online hard disc that you can use for storing copies of your files, swapping files with other people, etc.  In teh Terms and Conditions, Google rightly state that they respect your intellectual property rights, and that the rights to the data you upload stay with you.  So far, so good.  They also then say:

 “When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide licence to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes that we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

Whoa, dude!  From this it would appear that by uploading your stuff to the Googleplex, you’re providing them with source material for anything they wish to derive from the stuff you commit.  Sort of like Facebook, but without poking…  And Microsoft have a simnilar clause in their equivalent online Cloud storage service T&Cs.

The difference is that Microsoft and Facebook get ‘pulled’ fairly regularly for abuse of privacy, attitudes towards standard, Intellectual Property and Patent enforcement, what have you.  But Google still seem to be the Teflon boys of the modern IT landscape.  I have to say that I now regard Google as a bigger threat to my privacy and to the general health of the information landscape than Facebook or Microsoft.  Why?

Google own increasingly large amounts of the search landscape; like ‘Hoover’ they are a brand that has become a verb.  People tend to Google rather than Search the Internet; businesses have been known to fail when Google modify their search algorithms. The data that we pass through Google – even when we’re not logged in – can still be logged against our IP address and passed on to the US Government (as well as being used within Google itself for various purposes). Despite this I still use Google – because there is not yet an equivalent that is as good.  Microsoft Bing is getting there, but has a way to go, and I guess that that is how many people who are uncomfortable about Google but still use them feel.

There’s an old saying saying along the lines of ‘If you’re not paying for the service, you’re being sold.’  Maybe it’s time for the unthinkable – a paid for search provider. I’d be very tempted to pay for a good search service that was curated enough to remove the crap, whilst not threatening my privacy or intellectual property.  A new frontier for entrepreneurs?


Left to Apple, 2014 could be like 1984…revisited…

Those of us of a certain age in IT will remember Apple’s famous TV advert for the groundbreaking ‘Macintosh’ computer back in 1984.  The advert, here on You Tube, portrayed how the Mac would free computer users from the grasp of the evil Corporate Computer giants (such as IBM and Microsoft) and did a lot to help Apple’s image as the ‘good (albeit expensive) guys’ in the computer world, providing computers that were fun to use, cool and trendy.

Macs were always hard to write software for, compared to the PC.  But the ease of use and availability of high quality software for media use, combined with a large number of users who might be regarded as ‘opinion formers’ – writers, authors, musicians and other media players – ensured that the Mac would survive.  In recent years the iPod, iPhone and iPad have created new markets for Apple products – indeed, I have an iPad on loan at the moment and I really enjoy it, despite my original qualms about the iPad.  But Apple kit has become increasingly ‘walled garden’.  I first explored this in this Blog post:, expressing concern about the way in which Apple were controlling what you viewed and accessed with the iPad.

So, what’s new? Why am I back here?

Take a look at this Patent.  The stated purpose is to allow the owners of concert or conference venues to turn off the cameras of any devices in the venue that are using technology that is described in the Patent.  You might wonder why someone in the digital camera / video business would want to put circuitry in their cameras that would allow them to be remotely disabled.  Well,  if you’re a media publisher, then you might be very interested indeed in being able to prevent people filming concerts and such that you might actually have the rights for.  At this level – that of Digital Rights Management – then it’s a useful technology – especially if, like Apple, you make money by selling media, or if you think that governments, encouraged by media companies, may consider beefing up DRM laws to protect more forms of media.

The patent relies on infra-red light to disable (or change the function of) the cameras.  Wireless signals would have range issues or might even be disabled by the simple expedient of the user of the camera simply disabling WiFi. As far as I can see, the patent works by using Infra Red light coming in through the camera lens – there might be a way to filter this, but I’m not entirely sure – probably suitable IR filters would dim and distort the colour of the image beyond usability.

Whilst the DRM issue of recording performances has been the overt driving force behind this patent, I’m more worried about how it might be used to disable the camera at demonstrations, civil unrest, etc.  Capturing footage such as that seen in the UK Student Demonstrations, the UK G20 evidence about the death of a passer by and all the footage from Egypt and Greece might no longer be possible for users of cameras fitted with such technology.  All the authorities would have to do is ‘paint’ areas of the scene they don’t want filming with a suitable IR signal and that’s that – apart from any ‘old tech’ that doesn’t have this patent incorporated.  This would be a simple step – the technology to paint with IR could be as simple as a battery of high intensity infra-red LEDs emitting the required coded signals.  One can imagine the situation – the authorities wish to violently break up a demonstration, they turn the infra-red emitters on, the phone cameras go dark, the kickings start.

Apple seem to have come a long way since their ‘freedom from authoritarian power’ beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s.  The revolution will not be televised; certainly not with Apple kit, anyway.

Wikileaks – ‘Heat’ magazine for the Political classes?

Hear me out on this one.

I’ve been a political animal for over half my life; for me it came with the turf of being working class boy, avoids going down the pit by going to university, comes home and sees the five pits that I could see from my bedroom window as a kid closed down within a few years.  I was active in ‘Old Labour’ – Chair of Ward, vice Chair of Constituency, District Labour Party, etc. before quitting in disgust at the direction New Labour was taking the party.  Since 1995 my politics have been with a small ‘p’ – they’ve been about community building – bottom up helping people create their own solutions, a little writing, a little online community building, whatever.

So, you might be surprised to read this item, in which I am going to argue that many of the ‘big leaks’ of US Military and Diplomatic Information from Wikileaks have been ultimately pointless, organisationally egotistical and distracting from the issues at hand.  The lack of US security, the possibility that some of the information is ‘black propaganda’ and the personal life of Mr Assange are matters for another day and probably another writer.

Going back to the first time that Wikileaks hit the headlines, the release of papers showing that there had probably been war crimes in Iraq perpetrated by Allied troops, that torture took place and other stories associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was undeniably valuable and the sort of traditional ‘investigative journalism’ that we might expect from the Fourth Estate.  These were relevant and important leaks in any number of ways – wrongdoing by US and UK citizens, possible war crimes, lies in Government about the prosecution of a war – possible further indications that the wars themselves were illegal.  They removed the last shreds of the idea that these were ‘just’ wars being legally and effectively prosecuted. 

Now, the October/November 2010 release.  More of the same to some degree, with added diplomatic cables – what embassy staff said about world leaders, stuff like that.  And stuff going back 20 or 30 years.  Here’s where I start having misgivings – the Diplomatic leaks.

Diplomacy has been defined as the art of saying ‘What a nice doggy, here doggy, have a biscuit, cute doggy…whilst looking around for a large rock with which to hit said dog.’   A great deal of diplomatic traffic is ‘private’ – a concept that many people in Wikileaks and who believe that ‘all information wants to be free’ have problems with.  Does it benefit anyone in the world to find out that British sailors were released from Iranian detention after possible involvement by the Pope?  Or that a US Diplomat regards the British Government as having slight paranoia about the so-called ‘Special Relationship’?  I’m not sure it does – to me it genuinely appears to be gossip on a par with that published in Heat about the status of the marriages of people in the public eye – but I’m sure that it gave the chattering classes a great deal of vicarious pleasure by apparently letting them in to what CS Lewis called ‘The Inner Circle’ – a group of people who know something that most other people don’t…  But ultimately, I’m reminded of the story from World War II surrounding ‘Enigma’ intelligence.  Messages were decrypted that often gave lots of useless personal details about German officers – like one chap constantly complaining about gout.  Whilst it was amusing it was also pointless to the allies, and potentially dangerous to the Enigma decoding project, as were it to get back to the enemy that the allies were having a good laugh at the General’s throbbing toe, it would soon lead to a review of policy and procedure that might shut down the Enigma source for good.

There are other diplomatic leaks that should be kept secret – simply because they deal with ‘work in progress’.  Diplomacy is not a spectator sport.  Those of us of a certain age can remember that the Camp David agreement was greatly facilitated by ‘back channel’ diplomacy where people could speak to each other in secret without knowledge of these meetings, which would have probably scuppered political careers at the very least, getting out until after the event.  This sort of ‘get lots of data, apply no self-censorship, dump the lot on the Internet’ approach from Wikileaks will undoubtedly make any diplomats think twice about what they say in such situations in future.

Wikileaks themselves have admitted that their approach to releasing documents without review or ‘redacting’ (blacking out text, for you and me) could mean that the site would ‘one day have blood on it’s hands’.  To say that and still persist in the same publication method is arrogant and ego-driven.  Amnesty International have already raised the issue of redaction of the names of Afghan civilian workers from released documents – i.e. people helping the Coalition forces in Afghanistan who’re now at risk of death (as are their families) because of the leaked documents.  There is also information about techniques and equipment used to tackle ‘roadside bombs’ in the leaked documents.  Whilst it’s likely that anyone with reasonable technical knowledge could work a lot of this stuff out, there is no point in making the task easier.  I am forced to wonder how much blood will be spilt on the backs of these two stories alone?  Afghan civilian and bomb disposal officer?  Feeling queasy yet, Wikileakers?  People on the liberal left quite rightly decry the waste of life of these wars; I’m not hearing the same voices decrying the waste of life caused by the release of documents by Wikileaks.

And the whole Wikileaks business has been a massive distraction here in the UK.  Whilst a fair number of mainstream media outlets have been publishing leaked Wikileaks documents, running stories on them, and then most recently getting in on the personal stuff about the Wikileaks founder, Britain has had a number of student protests and ‘bottom up’ political protests that have received either biased or no coverage at all.  To people in Britain, Wikileaks will have :

  • Academic / prurient interest for journalists, the chattering classes and teh wannabe ‘heroes of open data’.
  • Serious interest if you’re serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, or have family or friends there, from teh point of view  of your own life or the lives of others being put in greater jeopardy by the data released.
  • Political impact (probably negative) in terms of diplomatic negotiations
  • Very little impact at all on the vast majority of people in the UK.

That’s not to say people are not interested and concerned about leaks that deal with wrongdoing at a personal, governmental or corporate level. That’s what organisations like Wikileaks SHOULD be doing, but with a degree of care, and not with teh arrogance and narcissism that they currently display.

But things like the Student Protests and the protests against unpaid tax made against High Street shops and businesses such as BHS, Vodafone and Top Shop are relevant to people on  day to day basis – they will be paying for that unpaid tax, their children will be paying more for education.  Their children are getting their heads broken (literally) by Police batons.  And these stories are only getting out to the public slowly and with great effort. 

Wikileaks is a distraction to these stories and activities that are more relevant to the British people.  But, I guess they’re not as sexy as things with ‘CLASSIFIED’ written on them that smell, ever so slightly, of spilt blood.  

Like I said, ‘Heat’ magazine for the Political classes,  political porn for the poseurs.

A case of censorship and wrongful imprisonment?

This has absolutely nothing to do with Wikileaks.

Or maybe it does.

All stories like this have two sides, and it’s inevitable that we only get to see one side of it – and perhaps therein lies the Wikileaks link – it would be so nice to see both sides of this story so that the ‘truth will out’ as they say.  The story revolves around a young man called Steven Neary who suffers from an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.  The story is detailed here – ‘The Orwellian Present – Never Mind the Future’ – and it is a very sad tale.  I know from experience that the behaviours of people on the Autistic Spectrum can vary between baffling, frightening and infuriating.  Folks dealing with such people as Steven need a lot of patience and support – unlike the situation here where, through a minor illness on the part of Steven’s carer, resulted in Steven being imprisoned against his will and the will of his father ‘for his own good’.

Whether Steven will be released back to his father’s care is still a mystery.   The situation has existed for several months now – since last winter – and has received some media coverage but in my opinoon nowhere near as much as should be given to such a case.

The ‘rendition process’ that Steven has gone through is as effective at depriving him of his freedom as any that may be read of in Wikileaks.  Kafka’s Trial springs to mind to deal with the process – Steven did little wrong; his behaviour was deemed ‘bad’ by professional carers and they considered him unmanageable:

Now the Positive Behaviour Unit is a mighty politically correct place. Tap someone on the shoulder to attract their attention, and they don’t think ‘that is how Stephen has always attracted my attention since he was a child’ – they say – ‘he touched me, that is an assault’ and promptly record it in their daily log…..

When Stephen’s Father went to collect him after three days, they had logged many such ‘assaults’ – and announced that they were retaining Stephen for ‘assessment’. No! His Father couldn’t take him home.

Now, some of you may think that this is Sectioning – nope, it’s not.  It’s another piece of fun legislation bought in for our protection by those fun loving liberals called New Labour in 2005 – – basically, it’s designed to lock people up for their own protection.

And, if you should try and get back to your own home, where you are loved and cared for, you’re in trouble because you’re showing that you need locking up for your own protection because you’re trying to take yourself to a place where you don’t need ‘protecting’.

Kafkaesque process, followed by Orwellian Doublethink and, eventually, probably becoming an un-person as you disappear form view with only your family to care about the problem.  And if you have no family?  Doesn’t bear thinking about.

Many of us in the IT profession exhibit traits of behaviour on the Autistic Spectrum – it’s almost a given that engineers, mathematicians, programmers, etc. will be there.  I wonder whether any of our own lapses of ‘socially correct’ behaviour could get us there?

Steven’s behaviour appeared normal for someone scared and wanting to go home; the behavioural issues that got him in to the Positive Behaviour Unit are much less of a problem than the behaviour we see in our city streets every Friday night.

So, why aren’t our liberal  bleeding hearts who’re having palpitations about Wikileaks and Mr Assange engaging in similar lobbying for this man?  After all, he’s detained agaisnt his will, and additionally has had no warrant for arrest issued against him.  Why isn’t the case being published by the newspapers so gallantly printing the equivalent of HELLO style gossip for the political classes?

Possibly because the chattering classes who get their kicks from reading the secret squirrel stuff on Wikileaks recognise that Neary has been incarcerated by their own kind, under laws put in place by folks just like them. 

I actually believe that little of what comes out of Wikileaks is of day to day (or even long term) relevance to the population as a whole.  Anyone with a brain knows that this sort of thing is happening; it’s nothing new.  People get vicarious thrills by feeling that they’re ‘in the loop’ whilst they may actually being fed ‘secrets’ and lies and be unable to tell the difference. 

Freedom of speech and expression is not something new; journalists have been dying and being improsoned to tell the truth for as long as there have been newspapers, and we should be grateful that people are willing to take the risks.  But for most people the issues that most affect their day to day lives aren’t whether the US Ambassador to Great Britain thinks that our government are a bunch of paranoids.  What matters is how our own national and local government beaurocracies are impacting on our day to day lives and removing the few freedoms that New Labour left us with.

Don’t allow the sparkly baubles from Wikileaks to distract you from the fact that freedom starts with being able to live in your own home without fear of wrongful or arbitrary arrest or imprisonment.  The legislation that Neary is detained under sounds awfully like the old laws of Soviet Psychiatry – if you disagreed with the Soviet Government you were clearly barking mad and so needed locking up for your own good.’

As you go through your day today, might I suggest that you take a look at your own behavioural ticks and foibles, and wonder whether any of them are enough to get you in trouble.

Google’s ‘mistake’ maps all UK WiFi networks…

Some weeks ago, a story broke about Google recording data about WiFi networks when they were wandering around taking family snapshots with their now infamous fleet of ‘Streetview’ cars.  At the time, Google claimed that the information gathered was ‘accidental’ – that rang a few bells with quite a few techies.  It’s alike me wandering the streets of Sheffield taking photographs and at the same time ‘accidentally’ running war dialling software so that I can log any WiFi activity in the area.  There’s no ‘accidental’ link between digital imaging and WiFi networks, so what the heck were Google up to?

I intended to blog at the time, but life decided to intervene and so I didn’t do the post…which is a shame because of what’s reported here.  Google have mapped every WiFi network that was detectable on the routes taken by their StreetView cars.  In other words, if your house or office was photographed by Google, they also grabbed bits of data about your WiFi network, if you have one – MAC address, SSID, Channel in use.  OK, it may seem that this is pretty much ‘small fry’ in terms of data and privacy, but let’s just take a wider look.

  • First of all, Google have breached Data Protection Legislation in virtually every country in which they’ve done this; you’re not supposed to gather information up willy-nilly in this manner.
  • Secondly, Google have shows the same sort of respect (or lack of same) for privacy that Facebook have been accused of.  In fact, I’d argue that Google’s crimes against privacy are probably worse than Facebook.  With Facebook I had a choice to use their site to share my data.  Google just whizz along, photograph my property and grab my data whether I like it or not.
  • Gathering and storing this data isn’t a by-product of any photographic process; the equipment and process to record and store this data must have been installed deliberatley in the Google Streetview vehicles.  Now, no-one does this sort of thing for laughs – so we have to assume that Google carried out an action that cost money, was against Data protection legislation and that they might have suspected would upset people for a particular reason.
  • And they actually patented the techniques / technology used.  The last one’s a bit of a give away….

What could that reason be?

That, my friends, is the 64 dollar question.  Google have ended up with the most comprehensive map of WiFi coverage in the UK that’s ever been compiled.  Now, much of that capacity isn’t publicly accessible – i.e. it belongs to folks like me and thee – but it did start me thinking about what a gung-ho, conquer the universe by next Thursday company like Google might do.

What about….

  1. Gathering data on the different types of router / network in use in domestic and business environments to sell to marketing companies working for hardware manufacturers?
  2. Spotting ‘dark areas’ in towns where there is no public WiFi – where Google could fill a need, perhaps?
  3. Gathering information as to WiFi networks in towns that Google might approach to sell advertising to?
  4. Testing their technology – a dry run to see what they could get, the attitude of the relavant authorities, etc.?
  5. Testing the possibilities for WiFi network usage by vehicles?
  6. Checking WiFi security settings on the behalf of ‘other oragnisations’ to see how much effort someone would need to carry out a comprehensive mobile monitoring exercise for WiFi?  A little like the TV Detector vans?

Anyone else got any bright ideas?

Politically Correctly Dead

This story is desperately, tragically sad on a number of levels, and also makes me pretty angry.  Read the story – unless you’ve had a very sheltered life (oh, working in the public sector or the hallowed halls of academe or parts of the media)  then it’s almost certain that you’ll have come across  similar situations over the years.  A couple of friends – one white and one from another ethnic background – engage in banter in which each takes the mickey out of the other’s background or ethnicity.  I’ve certainly been there – I’ve had my religion described as a ‘lifestyle choice, not a real religion’ and been described as a ‘white bastard’ and in turn have suggested that we don’t upset one of my friends as he had a rucksack and wasn’t afraid to use it (immediately after the 7/7 bombings here in the UK).

Now, before anyone reading takes instant exception, I should point out that these comments were made in groups of people who love and respect each other, and who’ll almost certainly stay friends until the day they die.  It’s called bantering, having a joke, whatever you want to name it.  It’s happening between individuals who’ve known each other for years, who know exactly what the other people think of them and who also know that when the chips are down, they can call on these friends to help out.

And the bottom line is, that if it’s OK between these folks who’re directly concerned, and they’re not being a deliberate nuisance to anyone else, then it’s no other bugger’s business what X calls Y.  Especially when X and Y are laughing about it and each is giving as good as they get.  It’s called friendship.

It’s tragic that Mr Amor made a joke to his friend, who is black, and who took the joke in good heart, only to be reported by a work colleague.  And then Mr Amor shot himself.  No man should die because he told a politically incorrect joke.  And to be honest, no one should be grassing people up for making a humorous comment about the situation they were in, that the people immediately involved both found amusing.

No sensible person would suggest that jokes at other people’s expense are ever amusing; jokes about race, sexuality or religion told with the deliberate intention of hurting or offending should be dealt with appropriately.  Banter and chit chat between people who’re actually taking the jokes made about them in a good natured way, because they know the people telling them have good hearts, are not the thing, in any sensible world, that should be reported as an offence.

I don’t use the phrase Political Correctness very often on this blog – it’s an over-worked phrase, but today I needed to use it.  Just be careful out there, folks, there are likely to be sneaks listening in to make sure that the banter you and your workmates share together, and that offends no one, is ‘OK’.

It’s not new, of course.  Some years ago in one European country every workplace and block of flats had someone whose job it was to report on whether people they overheard were ‘toeing the party line’ when chatting.  It was East Germany, and the people concerned were agents of the Stasi – the secret police.  And prior to that were the hated ‘Blockleiters’ of Nazi Germany.

Totalitarianism starts small, with small minded people who hate the idea that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.  We need to start telling these people to keep their noses out of our business.

Social Search…waste of time?

I’m a big user of search engines.  Despite my grumblings and pontifications on here about Google, I still use them the most because they’re still the best out there.  I hope that Bing – despite the daft name – will one day come to challenge Google, but until then, I just Google.  It’s been interesting recently to see Tweets start appearing in search results, and I’ve commented in this blog on the topic.  The most recent work being done by Google that they feel will improve the search experience for us all is explored in this piece from the BBC, and I’m particularly interested in the comments made about ‘Social Search’.

First of all, what is Social Search? 

My definition of a true Social Search tool is one that would give weight to a number of different aspects when searching.  These would include:

  • The normal search criteria as entered in to any search engine that you care to use.
  • Your location, intelligently applied to any searches that might be expected to have a geographical aspect to them.
  • A weighting applied to favour the results based upon material that meets the criteria you’re searching on that may have been placed on the Internet by people or organisations within your personal or professional network.

To give an example – you do a search for restaurants.  The search engine makes a guess about your location based on previous searches, geocoding based on your IP address or, coming real soon, tagging provided with the search request specifying your location based on a GPS in the device that you’re using for the search.  The search engine then determines whether your ‘friends’ have done similar searches, whether they’ve done any reviews or blog posts about restaurants in the area, posted photos to Flickr, or are actually Tweeting FROM a restaurant as you search, whatever.  The results are then returned for you – and ideally would be tailored to your particular situation as understood by the search engine.

And this is roughly what the Google Social Search folks are looking at.

“….returns information posted by friends such as photos, blog posts and status updates on social networking sites.

It is currently only available in the US and will be coming to the rest of the world soon.

Maureen Heymans, technical lead at Google, said this kind of search means the information offered is personal to the user.

“When I’m looking for a restaurant, I’ll probably find a bunch of reviews from experts and it’s really useful information.

“But getting a review from a friend can be even better because I trust them and I know their tastes. Also I can contact them and ask for more information,” she said.

In future users’ social circles could provide them with the answers they seek, as long as individuals are prepared to make those connections public.”

Of course, the million (or multi-billion) dollar question is how far are people to go in terms of making their networks available to search engine companies in such a way that results can be cross referenced in this way.  Once upon a time I’d have said that folks wouldn’t, as they value their privacy, but today I’m not so sure.  Given that we have seen sites where people share details about credit card purchases, I’m not convinced that people value their privacy enough to not allow this sort of application to take off, at least amongst the ‘digital elites’.

Of course, hopefully it will be up to us whether we participate in using Social Search – I guess all of us who blog or Tweet will find our musings being used as ‘search fodder’ unless we opt out of making our contributions searchable.  Will I use Social Search?  If it’s at all possible to opt out, No.  And here’s why.

Because I doubt the results will be as relevant to me as Google and all the other potential providers of SOcial Search think they will be.  Let’s face it – these companies will not be doing it for nothing – some where along the way the ‘database of intentions’ will be being supplemented and modified based upon the searches carried out, and such information is a goldmine to marketers and advertisers.

But the relevance to me?  I’m yet to be convinced – and here’s why.

If I really want the opinions of my friends, family and occasional business contacts on what I eat, wear, watch or listen to then I’ll ask them directly.  Just because I know someone doesn’t mean that I share any similarity in viewpoint or preferences at all.  I have friends with very different interests – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Agnostics  and Atheists, people from the political left and right, party animals and stay at homes…the differentiation goes on.  This is because I pick my friends based on what they’re like as people – not necessarily because they share interests or beliefs.  As it happens, I’m occasionally quietly offended by what some of my online friends say – but that’s life.  We don’t always have to agree or share the same beliefs.  

Therefore, the idea of biasing my search results based on what people I know search for, prefer or comment on is potentially useless.  If I wish to know what my friends think or say – I’ll talk to them, email them or read their tweets / blogs / whatever directly. 

I feel there’s also a serious risk of ‘crystalisation’ of beliefs – a sort of friendship groupthink emerging.  Think of what it was like when you were 13 years old and spotty.  For many teenagers it matters to be ‘in with the in-crowd’; Social Search could contribute to the return of that sort of belief structure amongst peer groups.  By it’s nature, the people who will be ‘opinion leaders’ in your Social Search universe will be those friends who are most online and who share the most.  Their activities will hence bias the results returned in Social Search.  It might not be such a problem for them, though – people who have a high Social Search presence will undoubtedly come to the attention of advertisers and opinion formers who might wish to make use of that ‘reputation’.

One of the great advantages of good, old-fashioned, non-social search is taht you will occasionally be bowled a googly (pitched a curve ball for my transatlantic friends!) that might lead you off in to whole new areas of knowledge.  You may be prompted to try something new that NONE of your friends or colleagues have heard of.  Whilst these results will still be in the results, if they’re on the second page, how many of us will bother going there?  We’ll become fat and lazy and contented searchers.

So….I think I want to stay as an individual.  For now, I’ll happily turn my back on Social Search!

Facebook would like you to share even more….

There’s an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ in which Lisa sets out to determine whether a hamster or Bart is the more intelligent for a school science project.  She does this by applying electric shocks to the ‘subjects’ when they attempt to feed.  the hamster soon stops trying to eat the nuts that are attached to teh electrical wiring, while Bart just keeps on getting electric shocks whenever he tries to eat a slice of booby-trapped cake.

And so it seems with Facebook and privacy issues; no sooner than they navigate their way through one privacy crisis, then they end up with another problem of their own construction –this time involving a new plan to allow ‘trusted third party partners’ access to information about your Facebook account.  At the moment, when you go off to a site – like a game – that connects to Facebook via the ‘Facebook Connect’ application, you’re asked if you wish to give the site permission to access data from your Facebook account that the site needs to work.  This is usually the point at which I say ‘No’ and close the brwoser window, I should add.  The new arrangement will be that certain sites will be given special dispensation to bypass this process and use your Facebook ‘cookie’ on your PC to identify your Facebook account, then go off to Facebook and grab details about friends, etc. without you ever agreeing to it.

Of course, there will be the option available for us to Opt Out of this rather high-handed approach, and by reducing the amount of information that you make available in your profile with a privacy setting of ‘Everyone’ you’ll be able to restrict what data is presented anyway.  But it does appear that this, combined with the recent changes to default privacy settings that made ‘Everyone’ the standard (unless you change it), are pointing to an increasing interest form Facebook in working out ways of :

  1. Using your facebook login and data as a ‘passport’ on to other affiliated sites.
  2. Increasing the ‘stickiness’ of Facebook – not necessarily by keeping you on the Facebook site but by keeping information about your social activities with other Facebook users going back to the Facebook site.
  3. Increasing the ‘reach’ of Facebook accounts to make them more valuable for monetising.

It’s inevitable that Facebook will want to start making some real money from the vast amounts of personal data acquired on their users; if they increase the number of ‘selected partners’ significantly then the amount of data that can be collected about behaviours of Facebook users will be vastly increased – perhaps it’s time to start remembering that you are soon going to be paying for Farmville and other such activities one way or another; it may not be a subscription, but your personal data might start showing up in all sorts of places.