Monday, August 27, 2012

What should be free and what should I expect to pay for

One of the strange things about internet culture is the fact that people expect to pay for leisure materials such as music, movies and games - but they are very reluctant to pay for tools that they use to run their business.

The entertainment industry has been very vigilant in trying to ensure that people continue to expect to pay for their music. In Ireland the recording industry association managed to persuade artists to stop allowing their music be used on the free CDs distributed with Sunday newspapers. Although the newspapers were paying royalties, the association feared that the fact that the consumer was not explicitly paying for the music would create an expectation that music should be free.

In fact they were so successful in pushing the idea that music must be paid for, that many people are reluctant to download music from sites like the Free Music Archive because they fear that there must be  something dodgy about a site that allows free music downloads. Until recently there was a Russian company which undercut iTunes by offering tracks for 39 cents each rather than 99 cents - consumers who would never dream of pirating music were reassured by the fact that they had paid for the tracks, but it seems that the company was not passing on any royalties and simply pocketed all the money.

The market for office productivity tools is significantly different. You might expect that people would be willing to pay for these since they are typically used only in a business context, but the fact that some of the leading suites of productivity tools like Libre Office are available for free download leads consumers to expect that they don't need to pay for such products. I don't normally feel sorry for Microsoft, but it is very unlucky for them that not only do they loose market share to open source competitors, but the fact that these are available free of charge apparently makes people feel less guilty about pirating copies of Microsoft Office.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A sad day for sport

Like many other people all over the world I was shocked to hear that Lance Armstrong is admitting defeat in his battle to prove that he has not breached the rules in relation to the use of drugs in cycling. I am not totally naive and so I would not be shocked to read that someone had definite proof that Lance Armstrong was using drugs. However, one feature of Lance's life to date is that he has been determined to continue battling even when the odds seems to be stacked against him and so it surprising that he is giving up on  this battle.

In his life, Lance has faced a long series of battles:
  • He was born to a teenage single-mother. Although he has great praise for the way his mother raised him, it can't have been a very easy life. His mother did have a few boyfriends and subsequently got married, but none of these proved to be a positive father figure for Lance.
  • When Lance initially took up cycling it was not a very well known sport in his native Texas and very few people were even aware that the Tour de France was taking place. This also meant that English speakers were not so common on the tour at that time and apparently not particularly welcomed by the representatives of the more established cycling nations.
  • Lance was struck with testicular cancer in his mid-20s. Initially the prognosis was not positive and the disease was expected to be fatal. However, he made a recovery and amazed everyone when eventually returned to the sport and performed even better than before.
  • As Lance became the most successful competitor ever in the Tour de France it was not surprising that many other competitors regarded him as the one to beat. Lance relished adversity and continued battling when many other people would have retired gracefully and enjoyed the fruits of his success.
Lance has been hounded for many years by allegations of drug use, mainly because people are reluctant to believe that someone could perform so strongly without artificial aids. This is similar to the way the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin was treated. The evidence of her drug use was eventually quite strong, but initially the suspicions were only based upon her results. It is becoming ridiculous if athletes can't perform too well for fear of facing accusations.

I think that the time has come to examine the fundamentals of the rules about drug use in sport. In many ways the debate on drug use in sport is similar to the debate on professionalism a few years ago. At that time amateur sportsmen seemed noble, but with the benefit of hindsight it looks like an elitist system that gave an unfair advantage to upper class athletes who could afford to take time off work to train.

I know that the analogy is not perfect, because drug use is dangerous. No athlete will die because he/she gets paid too much, but as we have sadly found out, it is entirely possible for athletes to kill themselves by over indulging in performance enhancing drugs. However, the rules should be adapted to focus on athlete safety rather than on the complete elimination of performance enhancing drugs.

Lance has plenty of experience of dealing with dangerous drugs. As he stated in his excellent autobiography many of the chemotherapy drugs used to fight his testicular cancer were a much more dangerous than EPO (he commented on the fact that the nurses injecting the drugs into his vein wore protective gear to ensure that none of the drugs accidentally spashed onto their skin).

I know it is a radical idea, but we would have a fair playing field if athletes were allowed to use safe doses of certain performance enhancing drugs under carefully controlled conditions.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Is Julian Assange a hero?

In recent times Julian Assange has been making headlines all over the world. Many people (including Julian) would like us to believe that we have a choice between supporting him and all of his actions or supporting the actions of the US secret service and their allies. However, the reality is a little bit more complex than that.

I feel sorry for Julian. But the reason I feel sorry for him is mostly because of his dysfunctional upbringing rather than because he has been unfortunate enough to become a target for reactionary forces within the US military and their allies.

First let me state clearly that I think it is a good thing that the wikileaks site has uncovered many unsavoury actions undertaken by the western powers during their so called war on terror. This is clearly a situation where the response to the alleged threat of terrorism was in many instances much worse than what it was supposed to be preventing.

However, the credit for making this information public must go to Bradley Manning, the brave soldier who made the information public and not to Julian Assange whose only role was to design the process which was supposed to assure Bradley and similar whistle-blowers of anonymity. In fact the process which Julian designed failed  badly in this case and a a result Bradley Manning is currently held in solitary confinement due to the failure to protect his identity and has no prospect of ever addressing the world's media though the window of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Julian is currently facing extradition from UK to Sweden to face charges that have nothing at all to do with his involvement with WikiLeaks. It is true that the laws on sexual assault in Sweden are much more favourable to the victim than in the UK, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In any case, I am sure that he would get a fair trial in Sweden if he returned there. He claims that he fears that the Swedish government might turn him over to the Americans, but in fact that UK government would be much more likely to do that than the Swedes.

I think that part of Julian's problems are that he has an inflated view of his own importance. The current outpouring of sympathy for his position is only making this situation worse.

Update on SPAM Comments

I notice that the number of SPAM comments being left on my blog has reduced dramatically since I introduced the CAPTCHA test. However, the problem has not gone away completely which tends to confirm my suspicion that the attack is being launched by a semi-automated process. I think that a fully automated process would not be able to breach the CAPTCHA system, but a recent comment (which was automatically detected as SPAM) is a brilliant example of why it must be an automated system:

This blog is wonderful. You are clearly and expert in %PAGE_TITLE%. I have shared this post with all of  my colleagues ...

This could be a boost to my ego because I am proud to boast about my expertise in a wide range of subjects, but %PAGE_TITLE% is not one of the areas that I claim expertise.

Since the CAPTCHA is not being totally effective in blocking the SPAM, I will disable it. Instead I will force users to register for an account in order to leave a comment. In addition I have enabled a rule whereby comments have to be approved before becoming visible on old posts (most genuine comments are left fairly soon after the post is initially published).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Improving the accuracy of the GPS in Your phone

The GPS device in your phone is normally very accurate. However. like all computer devices when it messes up it can often do so in a spectacular way (e.g., I once went running around Galway at a moderate pace and then found out that my phone thought I had been swimming around the Irish Sea at a world record speed)

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is an amazingly complex piece of technology, so I suppose it should not be surprising that it occasionally fails. However, there are a few things that you can do to to increase the accuracy of your GPS readings:
  1. The software that interprets the GPS and other signals required to determine your location is very complex. The technology involved is constantly being updated. Therefore, if you are experiencing poor performance it is a good idea to update the operating system software and/or buy a new phone.
  2. The preferences on your phone should include "Use Wireless Networks" and "Use Sensor Aiding" - you should be sure to enable both of these options. On Android devices this will be under the "Settings\Location and Security" menu item, I am not sure where the equivalent setting is on an iPhone, but I assume it is named something similar. If you enable these it means that your phone can use several other clues to help decide where it is located even if there are not enough GPS satellites clearly visible in the sky.
  3. Don't start running until you have a good GPS signal. It might take a minute or two for your phone to lock onto the GPS satellites properly, if you are moving around while this process is happening you make it more difficult for the phone to guess its position. The RunKeeper app even has a useful feature whereby it will warn you if you try to start tracking a run without having already locked onto the GPS system. If your favourite app doesn't have this feature then it is probably worth installing a specialised application such as GPS status to check.
  4. Change your privacy settings to allow Google/Apple collect data from your phone. This is a clear case where you need to trade off privacy versus a benefit for yourself. The way that the "Use Wireless Networks" feature works is that hopefully Google or Apple has a record of the locations of the WiFi points that are currently visible to your phone and since the range of a WiFi network is not very large, it can quickly narrow down the possible locations where you might be. However, if nobody has shared this information for the area where you are running, the feature won't work. I personally don't think this information is very private because anyone walking past your front door can collect the same information, but I know many people feel differently. In any case, it is in your own interests to help map the location of  WiFi points in your neighbourhood especially if you are going to be regularly exercising in the same place. If you are really worried about privacy, then enable it for a few runs along your normal route before turning it off again.
I hope this information helps. If not, remember Google is your friend and a quick search of some of the forums related to your brand of phone will probably provide you with plenty of other useful tips.

Incidentally, I previously posted that I was switching back to using MyTracks instead of RunKeeper. However, I sometimes find that it is interesting to have both applications tracking my progress. Both applications have a tendency to occasionally crash for no reason, so having both applications recording your activity means you are fairly certain that you won't loose any data.

At the moment I have RunKeeper configured to announce periodic summary statistics in a female voice while MyTracks uses a male voice. The way I have them configured the two application normally announce at different times and because of the voice difference I know instantly which application I am hearing statistics from. Occasionally the two applications decide to announce statistics at exactly the same time which ends up sounding hilariously like a married couple arguing about whether or not the speed limit is being breached.

Update: 21-Aug
In the tips above I forgot to mention the obvious tip - try rebooting your phone. I sometimes find that my phone won't lock onto a GPS signal even if I can see the screen clearly and everything seems to be set up correctly. In these cases, turning the phone off and then back on again will often solve the problem.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hacking becomes mainstream in IBM

In a large company like IBM, not many employees have a chance to meet and interact directly with the CEO. However, the CEO will act as a role model for all employees about how the should behave and all executive communications are regularly examined carefully for clues to what is considered good behaviors.

In the book "Who says Elephants Can't Dance", Lou Gerstner described about how he was advised to start using email when he took over at IBM because apparently his predecessors got secretaries to read email on their behalf and this did not project a very good image for a leader of a high tech company. In the early 1990s reading email was considered to be leading edge. When Lou was replaced by Sam Palmisano in 2000 nobody questioned whether or not he was using email, because by then it was assumed that everyone would be. However, when Sam was recently replaced by Ginni Rometty the pendulum had swung so far that people have now started boasting about how little email they need to use.

Ginni doesn't look like a typical Hacker,
but appearances can decieve

In the short time that she has been in charge, Ginni has proven her tech credentials by becoming a highly visible user of social media communication tools. All of he quarterly employee messages are delivered on an IBM internal blog and she also regularly uses many of the tools provided by the IBM Connections product.

In a recent update posted to her blog she even went a step further and announced that she was going to hold a "Social Business Hackday" in which she expected participation from all of IBM's 400k+ employees. The exact format of this Hackday is still being decided, but what is clear now is that during a designated day in early September all employees will be expected to come up with a plan for how they can make better use of social media tools in their work. In addition it is expected that they will make concrete steps to implement this plan during the Hackay.

I think this is very significant for a number of reasons:

  1. The original Hackday events in IBM were launched without any formal management approval. I think the originators were afraid to ask for approval in case it might be refused. Over the years the reaction to any executive who found out about the events has been mostly positive. However, we have has some feedback that the word Hackday projects a negative image. I think that when the CEO publicly declares her support for the events we should not have any trouble convincing other IBM managers that they are a good idea.
  2. In IBM we have always been careful to ensure that participation in Hackdays was as diverse as possible and not restricted to just developers. For example we had prizes for the best hacked business plan and we also even had a semi serious prize for the best hack that didn't involve either Sametime or Connections (because these products are extremely popular subjects for Hackday projects). I think that the Social Business Hackday will increase the participation level even further.

Officially this will be an IBM internal event so I am not sure how/if it will be publicised outside of IBM. However, due to the nature of the event I am not sure that it makes sense to keep it secret (even if we could).

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My planned mid-life crisis

I will have a significant birthday this year (I won't say what age I am, but I am approaching the half way mark in my bid to persuade the President to send me a congratulatory cheque). It is traditional for people of my age group to have a mid-life crisis where they try to make themselves feel younger by doing something normally associated with younger people.

I considered buying a flashy sports car, but I didn't think that would suit my personality. I also considered going out to late-night parties, but since I used to fall asleep at parties even when I was younger I ruled out that possibility. Eventually I decided that the right think for me to do was to participate in a Triathlon in Loughrea on 9th of September. I am reasonably confident that I can competea 5km run and a 20km cycle should not be a major challenge, but the 750m swim will be a major challenge for me.

A picture of me modeling my new Triathalon swimming Goggles
I did a few practice swims in the gym before deciding to sign up and since they went fairly well , I am now purchasing the necessary gear for the event.

The fact that my nephew is also planning to take part should be a major help to my preparations. I don't know if we will be able to emulate the teamwork shown by "Mrs Brownlee's Boys" but hopefully we can complete it without any disaster.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Recognising SPAM comments on blogs

Like anyone who has been using the Internet I have often received SPAM emails, but it was only recently I encountered SPAM comments on my blog. The content of SPAM comments on blogs is very different from the content of SPAM emails and so I didn't instantly recognise what was happening - luckily Google has more experience of such practices and they immediately removed the SPAM comments before I even got to look at it.

SPAM emails typically try to trick the receiver to part with some money and/or click on a link which will infect your computer with some malware. The content is not always offensive, but it is certainly embarrassing to read about some of the alleged services being offered. Very few people who read a SPAM email would confuse it with a genuine email, but of course if the spammers send out enough emails they will surely find someone foolish enough to be tricked.

When I first established this blog, I was given the choice of implementing a policy that all comments would have to be approved by me before becoming visible on the site. I decided not to implement this policy because I was not too worried about the type of comments that user would leave. Until recently, my confidence in human nature was repaid and none of the hundreds of comments left over the last few years were comments that I would not have approved if I was reviewing them.

Since the same word is used for SPAM emails and SPAM comments, I foolishly thought that the content would be similar. However I recently discovered that the content of SPAM comments is surprisingly different from email SPAM, because all the authors are trying to do is manipulate their Google page rank by posting a link to their site on your blog. As a result the SPAM comment will deliberately be crafted to look at first glance as close as possible to a real comment.

My knowledge of the topic this changed about a 2 weeks ago ago when I received notification about a few surprisingly complimentary comments left on my blog. These comments were praising the quality of my writing and although I was surprised at how gushing the praise was, I didn't initially suspect that anything untoward was happening (bloggers typically have an inflated self-image and so I suppose it is not surprising that blog authors will often accept such praise at face value). However, when the trickle of such comments grew larger my suspicions arose and I began to look a little closer.

None of the comments were duplicates of each other, but they all followed a pattern. The comments were gushing in praise about the quality of the blog, but they would refrain from specifying what exactly made the content interesting (presumably because the comments were being left by some semi-automated process that doesn't involve actually reading the content). The comments would all end up with a line like "you might also be interested to read my blog" and then they would provide a link to their own site (but of course genuine comments also frequently end with a line like that).

When this flood of comments started, I was on vacation without convenient access to the internet. Therefore, about a week had passed before I investigated and about 40 of these comments had been left. Luckily the Google Blogger platform was intelligent enough to catch all but 2 of these as SPAM without me having to do anything. When I then reviewed all the comments from the previous year and I found only one which was a previous incidence of the same pattern (my naive self was pleasantly suprised at the praise, but my new Jaundiced eye brought me down to earth). So clearly my blog has been added to some list of "easy targets" for comment SPAM.

A sample CAPTHA
In the meantime, the flow of SPAM comments continues to grow even more frequent. Although it is good that the blogger platform automatically categorises them as SPAM and hides them, it is still a nuisance that I can do without. Therefore I have been forced to implement a captcha system to slow the flood.

I personally hate captchas because I find them very difficult to complete (perhaps it is my fading eyesight). However, I think that I will need to leave this defence mechanism in place for a while until the spammers go away to softer targets.