Feb 26, 2009

She's just not that into you

A new Indiana University study finds that some women are extremely good at faking it.

By "it" we mean interest in a man. They flirt with him, and yet they are thinking: "I wish this guy would just leave me alone. I can't stand the sight of him."

For the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, 54 university students were asked to watch speed-dating sessions recorded in Germany, then were asked how each party felt toward the other. None of the observers spoke German, forcing them to judge the daters by body language and vocal tone.

Turns out the observers were pretty good at judging how the men felt but almost uniformly terrible at figuring out what some of the women were thinking.

Specifically, some women seemed to be saying, "I'm interested," and yet they were not, according to what they later reported.

"Both genders had trouble reading what the women were doing," said Skyler Place, a psychology doctoral student at Indiana who co-wrote the study.

Place said there is some evolutionary rationale for the behaviour. Women have a lot more riding on picking the right guy, because a bad choice could mean having that man's baby. So women could be acting coy to get men to open up more, thus revealing anything that could make him a bad choice, Place said.

It's also possible American college students just aren't good at reading the body language and inflections of German women.

Maybe the real question is: How do you say, "Look, I'm just not that into you" in German?


Feb 25, 2009

Why Clay Shirky should take over the writing of the Digital Britain report

I'm still reeling from having to read the word porridge of the interim report on Digital Britain, handed down yesterday by (Lord) Stephen Carter. What a mish-mash of quangos, incomplete thinking, and bars set so low you can walk over them. 2 megabit per second connections for all by 2012? When people in South Korean cities today think things are bad if their speed drops to 30Mbps? A "rights agency" funded by content providers and ISPs (ie, in the end, us) that will come together to dream up a way to "enable technical copyright-support solutions that work for both consumers and content creators"?

I have never, ever heard of a quango writing a piece of code, nor even spotting the best stuff. (Generally, it's quite the opposite: hello, English NHS record computerisation.) Getting the "right" DRM is an intractable problem. You'll never reach the end: the only DRM that really works for consumers is none; the only DRM that really works for content producers is either zero or lots. But not all content producers agree with zero DRM. There is no single solution, and the Rights Agency will simply burn up our money failing to find it.

What's more concerning is the Carter approach to "net neutrality". That, you'll recall, is the proposition that a network operator should not discriminate against data packets purely on the basis of where they originate. Thus packets with video or sound should, as they pass over the network, be treated in the same way as other video or sound packets (they tend to get priority over plain old text); data packets should not be held up purely because of where they started.

Simple enough: that means that a video site can be anywhere and, bandwidth along the path allowing, its content will reach you just as fast as from somewhere nearby. (That's not quite true of course because your ISP will have video cacheing strategies for frequently accessed content.)

Carter, however, suggests that net neutrality is a waste of the chance to squeeze some money from customers. (That's us – you know, the people funding that Rights Agency above.)

The Government has yet to see a case for legislation in favour of net neutrality. In consequence, unless Ofcom find network operators or ISPs to have Significant Market Power and justify intervention on competition grounds, traffic management will not be prevented.

"Will not be prevented." Neat double negative from the world of Sir Humphrey. In other words, ISPs will be allowed to demand money from sites aiming to stream content to you.

Step back a moment. Let's try to see if this can make sense. Let's argue the case against net neutrality.

ISPs are struggling with ever-narrower margins. Organisations like the BBC come up with products like the iPlayer, which consume huge amounts of bandwidth. How are the network companies (BT Openreach, Virgin Media) to fund high-speed networks able to cope with 100Mbps? The money has to come either from other operations, such as phone line rentals, or from ISPs paying for bandwidth.

This is where you hit a chicken-and-egg problem. Who's going to install the high-speed fibre? BT Openreach or Virgin. Who's going to pay for it? BTOR or VM. How will they pay for it? By charging ISPs (including BT Retail et al). How will the ISPs pay for it? By charging their customers and/or the providers of bandwidth-hungry services.

Will customers pay for it? Unlikely – it's really expensive putting in fibre. Like £5bn expensive, minimum. Will subscribers pay? Unlikely.

But the BBC says it shouldn't have to pay ISPs. (At least, its then-director of future media and technology, Ashley Highfield, said so last April.) Google (which, don't forget, owns YouTube) has lobbied repeatedly for net neutrality; it doesn't want to pay ISPs either. Google especially will resist any political imprecations. If it starts paying in the UK, every network infrastructure company in every country will start standing by YouTube's internet pipe holding a chainsaw and raising their eyebrows meaningfully.

Who's left to pay for the high-speed links, then? Businesses that want high-speed videoconferencing? I can't see a business case for widespread installation of fibre to the office out of some companies. That's really, really unlikely to happen.

What I'm amazed by, generally, is that Carter is happy to put his name to this report. It's full of nonsense.

But there's a sliver of hope. This isn't the final report; it's an interim one. There's still time, if we get the right person to write the final one.

Watching Clay Shirky discussing it last night on BBC Newsnight (watch it via the BBC's iPlayer - enjoying the irony, of course - until February 6th; the item appears at about 19'40"), and pointing out that you don't really understand the impact of these connectivity systems until people start to use them socially (one person using Facebook? Pointless. Millions and millions? Essential) I had a sudden realisation: he's the person to get to do it. Shirky is smart: in 1995, when most of us didn't have much idea about the internet, he wrote a fantastically insightful piece called "The price of information has fallen and it can't get up". If more – in fact, any – newspaper barons had read that, they might not be laying people off by the hundred now.

Shirky could cut through the thickets. He sees that you can't dictate technologies; you have to go with what people are doing. Dictating fixed-line broadband when 20% of people have given up having a fixed line (as the report acknowledges) is just retro. Hand it over, Lord Carter. Let Shirky at the keyboard.

There is a precedent for getting someone who actually knows about an internet topic to write a government report. The Power of Information review, about the usefulness of social media and the web for central and local government and civil servants, was written by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg. Then it's up to the government to implement it.

Well, there's still time. Shirky's phone number must be somewhere around. In fact, he's coming to the UK next week to give a lecture. Perhaps Lord Carter could take him aside and whisper in his ear. It might be the smartest thing he ever does.

Google users hit by mail outage

Business and consumer users of Google's popular e-mail service were hit by an outage on Tuesday.

The service went offline at 0930 GMT with Google saying it was "working hard to resolve this problem".

Professional users of Google mail are covered by a service level agreement that promises to be 99.9% operational in any calendar month.

More than 113 million people use Google mail worldwide, according to comScore.

In a statement, Google said "a number of users" were having problems with Google Mail.

"We know how important GMail is to our users so we take this very seriously," it added.

Google directed people to its mail support page for further status updates.

According to comScore, Google has the world's third most popular web mail service behind Hotmail with 283 million users and Yahoo with 274 million e-mail users.

Professional suite

More than a million business around the world use Google's professional suite of applications, including e-mail. Google itself relies on the service and press spokespeople for the firm were unable to e-mail journalists with statements regarding the problem.

The "premier edition" of the Apps service costs $50 (£34) per user for a year.

According to Google, its e-mail service suffered an average of 10 to 15 minutes of downtime per month in 2008.

The last outage of note was in August 2008 when users were unable to use Google Mail for "a couple of hours".

After the incident Todd Jackson, product manager for Google Mail, said in a blog post: "We're conducting a full review of what went wrong and moving quickly to update our internal systems and procedures accordingly."

Feb 24, 2009

The shape of phones to come

Not to be outdone, mobile makers are taking the best of the iPhone and adding bells and whistles.

We've seen what will quite likely be your next mobile phone. It's got a touchscreen display so you can dial numbers, flick through your address book and check everything from email to the weather with a nonchalant swipe of your finger.

That screen is large enough to browse the web to check your favourite sites, update your Facebook page or catch up on videos downloaded from the internet - tasks made easier thanks to high-speed mobile networks which run faster than many home broadband connections.

Your next phone also has a direct link to an online software store - a gallery packed with thousands of tiny yet useful add-on programs, many free and most costing about $5 - to load up your mobile with games, restaurant guides, online banking and more.

The phone even ties in with online services such as photo galleries, your calendar and address book.

We can make this prediction not because we have a crystal ball but because we've been to the Mobile World Congress techfest which is held each year in Barcelona.

This is the mobile phone industry's annual pilgrimage but with the crowds, parties, glitz and glam of a world-class motor show.

Unlike what you'd expect from the Geneva or Tokyo motor show, however, there's little in the way of wacky far-out "concept" phones in Barcelona. That's especially the case this year, with the economic downturn making customers question the cost of moving from their current, if somewhat dated and worse-for-wear mobile, to the latest high-tech, high-touch handset.

Instead, the focus is on phones that can hit the shelves in 2009 packed with enough features, excitement and sheer shiny newness to help customers justify the upgrade.

And for 2009, that means phones which look and work like the iPhone - finger-friendly touchscreens, superb web browsing, music and video playback, even online application stores. The same recipe which made the iPhone a runaway success for Apple is set to be shared by phones running a cut-down mobile version of Windows.

Phones from giants such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung and LG. Even phones powered by Google's own Android operating system, the first wave of which arrived in Australia this month in the form of the HTC Dream. In short, everyone's aping Apple.

Microsoft, which faces a mobile rematch of the "Windows vs Mac" war, is gearing up for a new wave of Windows-powered phones due in the second half of this year.

Aisle be taking that seat please

AISLE or window seat? It's a common dilemma for travellers boarding long-haul flights, but research confirms the aisle will help prevent dangerous blood clots.

A review of in-flight health risks, published in The Lancet this week, also concluded business class seating was a waste of money for those hoping to reduce their risk of deep venous thrombosis (DVT) — clots that obstruct blood flow.

Author Mark Gendreau, of the Lahey Medical Centre in the United States, said immobilisation had been linked to 75 per cent of of DVT cases, which occurred mostly in people in non-aisle seats and those who travelled for more than eight hours.

But business class versus economy class travel had no effect on the incidence, he said.

The use of oral contraceptives increased the risk of developing a DVT by up to 14 times, and compression stockings had been proven to reduce the risk, the report said.

And if you have ever wondered about the person coughing and spluttering nearby, the risk of infection was mainly restricted to those within two rows of you.

Dr Gendreau said travellers needed to be aware of in-flight risks to their health, especially older people who might be travelling on planes that can fly for up to 20 hours.

Recent studies showed 18 per cent of passengers with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease suffered at least mild respiratory distress during a flight. The distress increased with flight time.

Feb 23, 2009

Business intelligence skips strategy: Gartner

Less than 10 percent of Aussie organisations with a business intelligence system have a wider BI strategy that deals with things like cultural and foundational data issues, according to Gartner.

Speaking to iTnews, the managing vice-president of Gartner's BI team, Ian Bertram, said that next week's BI summit in Sydney would focus on helping businesses address this discrepancy.

"Lots of people slap a tool in and say ‘we've done BI'," Bertram said.

"They've got all this technology. They understand the schematic diagram of how data flows but how many have actually got a BI strategy behind it?

"Things like governance, skills, and processes can't be fixed by throwing technology at them," he said.

Bertram said that many BI project failures aren't caused by the technology but by more basic issues such as lack of an executive sponsor in the business or establishing a BI competency centre with just technical users.

"Some organisations still don't have key executives in place," Bertram said.

"If your CEO doesn't value information as an asset how are you going to be able to justify getting additional funds for the system?"

Bertram acknowledged issues such as executive buy-in had been on the table for a number of years but also said the popularity of BI systems hadn't decreased in the last four years.

This has kept many of the same issues in the spotlight, he said.

In addition to focusing on these issues, the Summit will also include an awards evening on the first night.

Packaging giant Amcor is the main Australian contender in a field that also includes ICICI Bank and Singapore's Tetra Pak.

Feb 18, 2009

9 Dirty Tricks: Social Engineers' Favourite Pick-Up Lines

What the average guy might call a con is known in the security world as social engineering. Social engineering is the criminal art of scamming a person into doing something or divulging sensitive information. These days, there are thousands of ways for con artists to pull off their tricks (See: Social Engineering: Eight Common Tactics). Here we look at some of the most common lines these people are using to fool their victims..

Social networking scams

"I'm traveling in London and I've lost my wallet. Can you wire some money?" Social networking sites have opened a whole new door for social engineering scams, according to Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant with UK-based security firm Sophos. One of the latest involves the criminal posing as a Facebook "friend." They send a message or IM on Facebook claiming to be stuck in a foreign city and they say they need money.

"The claim is often that they were robbed while traveling and the person asks the Facebook friend to wire money so everything can be fixed," said Cluley.

One can never be certain the person they are talking to on Facebook is actually the real person, he noted. Criminals are stealing passwords, hacking accounts and posing as friends for financial gain.

"If a person has chosen a bad password, or had it stolen through malware, it is easy for a con to wear that cloak of trustability," said Cluley. "Once you have access to a person's account, you can see who their spouse is, where they went on holiday the last time. It is easy to pretend to be someone you are not."

"Someone has a secret crush on you! Download this application to find who it is!" Facebook has thousands of applications users can download. Superpoke is one example of a popular application many users download to enhance their Facebook experience. But many are not trustworthy, according to Cluley.

"It is impossible for Facebook to vet all of the applications people write," he said.

Sophos, which tracks cybercrime trends, is seeing Facebook applications that install adware, which cause pop-up ads to appear on a user's screen. The other danger, according to Cluley, is that installing many of these applications means you give a third-party access to your personal information on your profile.

"Even if they are legitimate, can you trust them to look after your data properly?" said Cluley. "A lot of these applications are really jokey. You don't really need those. People should consider carefully which ones they choose to accept.

Facebook addicts suffer data violation

Tens of thousands of Facebook users are protesting new policies that they say grant the social-networking site the ability to control their information forever, even after they cancel their accounts.

Facebook's new terms of use, updated February 4, largely went unnoticed until the popular consumer rights advocacy blog Consumerist.com pointed out the changes on Sunday.

That prompted a clarification from Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, although the new terms remain in force. Zuckerberg told users in a blog post on Monday that "on Facebook, people own their information and control who they share it with."

When someone shares a photo, a message or a status update telling friends what they are up to at the moment, they first need to grant Facebook a licence so the site can pass that information along to authorised friends, Zuckerberg said. Without the licence, he said, Facebook wouldn't be able to help people share information.

Feb 17, 2009

Genes to mend a broken heart

Sydney researchers have used gene therapy to experimentally transform skin cells into a novel type of muscle cell that could rejuvenate damaged hearts and correct abnormal heartbeats.

The multi-institution team, lead by Dr Eddy Kizana, of the Children's Medical Research Institute (CMRI), inserted two genes into dermal fibroblasts that transformed them into electrically excitable skeletal muscle cells.

But the transformed cells share the special ability of cardiac muscle cells to couple electrically with their neighbours and respond in unison to the electrical impulses that drive heartbeat.

Although the experiments were conducted in vitro, Dr Ian Alexander, head of gene-therapy research at CMRI, believes fibroblast cells present in cardiac muscle could be reprogrammed in situ, to repair damage caused by heart attacks, or to correct heart arrhythmias without an implanted pacemaker.

Kizana developed the gene-therapy technique during his PhD studies at CMRI. He is now doing postdoctoral research with world-leading molecular cardiologist Professor Eduardo Marvan at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to develop a large-animal model for the therapy.

Genes to mend a broken heart

Sydney researchers have used gene therapy to experimentally transform skin cells into a novel type of muscle cell that could rejuvenate damaged hearts and correct abnormal heartbeats.

The multi-institution team, lead by Dr Eddy Kizana, of the Children's Medical Research Institute (CMRI), inserted two genes into dermal fibroblasts that transformed them into electrically excitable skeletal muscle cells.

But the transformed cells share the special ability of cardiac muscle cells to couple electrically with their neighbours and respond in unison to the electrical impulses that drive heartbeat.

Although the experiments were conducted in vitro, Dr Ian Alexander, head of gene-therapy research at CMRI, believes fibroblast cells present in cardiac muscle could be reprogrammed in situ, to repair damage caused by heart attacks, or to correct heart arrhythmias without an implanted pacemaker.

Kizana developed the gene-therapy technique during his PhD studies at CMRI. He is now doing postdoctoral research with world-leading molecular cardiologist Professor Eduardo Marvan at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to develop a large-animal model for the therapy.

Feb 15, 2009

Microsoft slaps $380,000 bounty on Conficker worm

Microsoft announced it has formed a technology industry posse and put a bounty of $US250,000 on the heads of those responsible for a vexing computer worm.

The nasty computer code known as "Conficker" or "Downadup" has been spreading quickly, wriggling into millions of computers worldwide and threatening to commandeer or crash systems.

Microsoft is working with computer security specialists and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to track down whoever unleashed Conficker.

"The best way to defeat potential botnets like Conficker/Downadup is by the security and domain name system communities working together," said ICANN chief Internet security advisor Greg Rattray.

Microsoft promised to pay 250,000 dollars for information that leads to the capture and conviction of the people that launched the malicious code on the Internet.

"We hope these efforts help to contain the threat posed by Conficker, as well as hold those who illegally launch malware accountable," said George Stathakopoulos, general manager of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Group.

Feb 11, 2009

"If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it."

How much does it cost to leave your TV on all day? What about turning your air conditioning 1 degree cooler? Which uses more power every month — your fridge or your dishwasher? Is your household more or less energy efficient than similar homes in your neighborhood?

Our lack of knowledge about our own energy usage is a huge problem, but also a huge opportunity for us all to save money and fight global warming by reducing our power usage. Studies show that access to your household's personal energy information is likely to save you between 5–15% on your monthly bill, and the potential impact of large numbers of people achieving similar efficiencies is even more exciting. For every six households that save 10% on electricity, for instance, we reduce carbon emissions as much as taking one conventional car off the road (see sources and calculation).

At Google we're committed to helping enable a future where access to personal energy information helps everyone make smarter energy choices. To get started, we're working on a tool called Google PowerMeter which will show consumers their electricity consumption in near real-time in a secure iGoogle Gadget. We think PowerMeter will offer more useful and actionable feedback than complicated monthly paper bills that provide little detail on consumption or how to save energy.

But Google PowerMeter is just a start; it will take lots of different groups working together to create what the world really needs: a path to smarter power.

Google gadget tracks your home electricity use

Google will use its software skills to help consumers track their home energy usage and thereby lower demand and the global warming emissions that come from producing electricity.

The move is part of Google's effort to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into renewable energy, electricity-grid upgrades and other measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The company has already invested in several fledgling solar, wind and geothermal companies, as well as two "smart grid" companies.

Smart grid describes a more efficient, less costly method of moving electricity along long-distance transmission lines to local power lines and end-users in homes and businesses.

On its official company blog, Google said it is developing a smart grid tool called Google PowerMeter that will show home energy consumption almost in real time on a user's computer

Feb 10, 2009

Microsoft AX goes GREEN

Microsoft is offering its Dynamics AX 2009 customers a free dashboard that will capture data on energy consumption from the underlying enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

Companies that have signed up to the voluntary Global Reporting Initiative will be able to track their progress on core environmental performance indicators identified by the standard, including on-premise fuel consumption and the carbon footprint of their power usage.

“In many cases, midsize organisations can’t retain dedicated consultants to audit their environmental performance,” said Kirill Tatarinov, Microsoft Business Solutions vice president.

“By integrating groundbreaking environmental performance management capabilities with Microsoft Dynamics AX, we are bringing that critical information directly to customers as part of their everyday business management."

Microsoft said the Environmental Sustainability Dashboard could be configured to a firm’s particular requirements.

Feb 2, 2009

Major Data Loss, Site Taken Offline

There was a meltdown at bookmark sharing website Ma.gnolia Friday morning. The service lost both its primary store of user data, as well as its backup. The site has been taken offline while the team tries to reconstruct its databases, though some users may never see their stored bookmarks again.

The failure appears to be catastrophic. The company can't say to what extent it will be able to restore any of its users' data. It also says the data failure was so extensive, repairing the loss will take "days, not hours."

In light of today's outage, many are questioning the reliability of web apps and web-based storage in general. Twitter in particular is full of users venting their suspicions.

"Cloud computing becomes fog when it goes down," says Todd Spragins in a Twitter post.

Another common thread: People are talking about bailing on Ma.gnolia in favor of competitor Delicious.