Ironic News International

Rupert Murdoch and his son & heir and employees are getting a bit stressed about the world-wide-web as a threat to their unfeasibly large income stream. For instance, in today’s Guardian,

Rupert Murdoch: ‘There’s no such thing as a free news story’
News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch tells US regulators that users will pay for news – and aggregation is theft

He is terrified that the net is killing his print titles – like the British newspaper, the Sun (:-) What a loss to the written word that would be, not) by offering free news. He is so convinced that people will happily pay for trash content that he’s been busy trying to get every one who will listen – including a federal trade commission – to support this idea. Which rather seems to contradict the whole concept of people’s willingness to pay. If that were true, wouldn’t people just happily pay. Surely, he’s not demanding preferential treatment? Isn’t the untrammelled market the perfect mechanism any more? Gosh, you shock and stun me, Mr Murdoch.

I think the “News International threatened by technological change” think qualifies as being “hoist by his own petard” (whatever a petard is.)

For those of you with an interest in ancient history, Murdoch was at the centre of a bitter labour dispute in the 1980s, based on his determination to break the print unions through the use of new computer technology.

Whosoever diggeth a pit, etc….

Byronic flights of fancy

Wow, “danger”, “perils” to children, “help – before it’s too late”. What a scary Times headline! I am already shaking with fear before I’ve read it. Won’t anyone think of the children, and so on?

What is this scary thing? Of course, it’s the internet.

Mind the gap: The perils of failing to keep pace with your child online
A dangerous gap has emerged between web-savvy kids and parents. Professor Tanya Byron has launched a new campaign to help — before it’s too late

Hmm. This is to mark the launch of a campaign, a “grassroots campaign” no less. (There’s a beautiful phrase in US politics for a campaign that pretends to be a genuine upsurge of democratic will but actually, well, isn’t. Oh yes, the word is “Astroturf”)

The campaign seems to involve asking kids if they can use any tech and getting very afraid when they say yes..

The campaign’s catalyst is Byron, known for her television programmes The House of Tiny Tearaways and Am I Normal?, as well as the author of the government-backed 2008 Byron Review Safer Children in a Digital World, which resulted in the creation of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety.

So, a tv child psychologist heads it. Hmm, why am I less than convinced by this whole thing? A tv child psychologist who also writes for the Times. And gets written about in the Times. Because, she’s also in the news today. (In the Times):

Ministers need to act swiftly on child safety, warns adviser

It’s Tanya, now known as “Gordon Brown’s adviser.”

Well who else could the government call on? Obviously, no amount of experience or qualifications or all-round peer-reviewed respect gained by any other child psychologist, or by any person who actually knows anything about the internet, could stand up against the fact that she’s got tv programmes.

(If you ever doubted that senior politicians are in thrall to the cult of celebrity at least as much as the people who read Heat (etc) magazines, Tanya is the living proof of your naivete.)

The busy Tanya is panicking about the UK not implementing some European directive on games classification. Or all of her recommendations, really. So she’s going from school to school asking questions, to support the idea that kids may know things about using the internet that their parents don’t. And that this is somehow inherently terrifying….

The games classification thing is typical of the kneejerk reactions of this “grassroots” campaign. For a start, it’s inherently counter-productive, in terms of their supposed goals. Would anything make a game more attractive to an early teenager than an 18 certificate?

Is there any evidence that playing pc or console games that are “too old for them” harms kids? Any evidence at all?

Is there any evidence whatsoever that parents are all in a strange population subgroup that failed to notice anything that happened over the last twenty years? Like the arrival of the Internet. How many adults do you know who don’t use computers or the net?

There’s a more internet and computer nonsense on the BBC today.

Tech addiction ‘harms learning’
Technology addiction among young people is having a disruptive effect on their learning, researchers have warned.

The study – Techno Addicts: Young Person Addiction to Technology – was carried out by researchers at Cranfield School of Management, Northampton Business School and academic consultancy AJM Associates.

(The AJM website mission statement says:
“Providing outstanding returns for investors along with excellent leadership in managing real estate projects is the AJM Associates mission.” I, for one, admire the conduct of educational research by profit-oriented real-estate companies and management schools….In your face, stuffy old educational academics. )

You can buy the study from Siigel Press for about $25. It’s on their “Bestseller” list. (Hardly surprising that it’s a best-seller. It got a free plug on the BBC, ffs)

The blurb talks up the shock value of this “bestseller”.

Technology addiction amongst young people, particularly in terms of facilitating social networking, is having a disruptive effect on positive attitudes towards learning. Read the results of this collaborative study spearheaded by Cranfield School of Management, Northampton Business School and AJM Associates. While students expressed little concern of addiction, technology obsession is hindering spelling skills, encouraging plagiarism and disrupting classroom learning. Download this report to learn the full details and the disturbing impact technology is having on today’s youth.

Call me a pedant – despite my possible incipient adult-onset internet addiction – but “While students expressed little concern of addiction,” doesn’t seem like correct grammar to me.
And surely they don’t really mean to claim that technology addiction is “facilitating social networking”?

If it was only possible to channel the energy that goes into manufacturing internet scares and turn it to a useful purpose, we could all be driving round in hot-air powered vehicles and could stop worrying about global warming,

Otherwise, I think that – if you really want to protect your kids online – you actually talk to them.

Bloggery Madness

Aside

This backend of this blog is continuing its descent into madness. Following on from the problems where no posts would accept tags, this seems to have fixed itself while simultaneously stopping the blog posting anything but the most recent article on the home page. All of this has taken place without user intervention. It seems the glue, velco and staples holding the back end together have finally given up the ghost. Hopefully we will be able to find time this weekend to fix things. Sorry for any weirdness until then and during the “improvements.”

Sort of Back

After a month of seemingly endless problems, there is a sort of return to service now, albeit a short lived one.

Heather is still out for the count and it may be some time before she returns to blogging form. It is possible she will undergo surgery on Friday followed by several weeks bedrest, but fingers crossed everything is on the mend.

I have had none of the problems Heather has undergone, and simply have been without internet connection. I now have an internet connection, but will be going away on a long family holiday at the weekend, where I will be without it once more. Typical really.

On the subject of internet connections, life is now officially impossible without one.  A few years ago, I made a passing reference to how our society has become dependent on the internet, and things have not improved. [this is the long bit if you want to stop reading here]

Having recently moved house, I needed to go through all the things we take for granted – setting up utilities, arranging council tax, registering to vote, changing bank details etc. However with very few exceptions all of these wanted internet access to actually do anything. Some had normal phone numbers or addresses but, ironically, the only place you could find these out was online… What barking madness. Fortunately, McDOnalds provides free WiFi, but sitting in a busy public place typing away on my laptop is not good for personal security, so this was difficult at best.

Obviously, I wanted an internet service – how else could I blog for example – and I had done a lot of research before I moved, so I knew the one I wanted. The problem is that Virgin Media couldn’t even begin to confirm if their service would be available until my phone line was connected – this happened the day we moved in – so I couldn’t pre-arrange the ISP service.

Anyway, we move in and I eventually get to a WiFi point to register with virgin.  The registration process was smooth enough, although oddly they send all service updates (such as the day you get connected) to your email account. How this is supposed to help you get connected is beyond me. Then after explaining that it would take 14 days to get the service up and running (no, I have no idea why either), and what equipment they would send out to me, the virgin account creation pages came up with a huge warning saying there was a problem with my account and could I call customer services. Obediently I called and hit the worlds worst automated system. It took best part of 20 minutes to get through to a human who had no idea why I was calling when I didnt have an account. I explained everything the error message said (which was limited, to be fair), and he was still none the wiser. After another 10 mins of this, he eventually found my records and said there were no problems and I would be up and running in 14 days. He then, very patronisingly, told me it was all in the emails I had been sent. He wasn’t able to tell me how to read the emails without internet access though.

About a week later, I was back in McDonalds using the WiFi and I checked into the Virgin webmail service. The promised emails were non-existent, there were a few initial ones, but the one saying when it would all be up and running was missing. When I went to the user control panel, there was a huge message saying “there has been a problem setting up your account please call customer services.” Again, I did so. I went through all the hoops and got another bemused operator who had no idea why I was calling but promised my service would be up and running within 14 days (yes, this was about 7 days into the original 14 days).

Bizarrely, on the 10th day I got a package explaining how to connect and telling me my router would be shipped in time to connect. Back in McDonalds I followed the instructions to see what the status of the equipment order was only to be faced with a barrage of error messages and failed webpages. Inspires confidence, thats for sure.

Having my own router (I am a closet geek), I tried to connect on Day 14 and magically the service was working. It was even surprisingly fast considering the location (and distance from exchange) and all the virgin account stuff was perfect. Oddly, on Day 15 of this fiasco, I got a letter saying my service had been activated the day before (and I would be billed from that date) and that my equipment would be shipped in time to use the connection. Unless they use TARDIS delivery, this seemed unlikely. The promised equipment finally arrived three days after the letter; while this was not important to me, if I had been relying on the virgin equipment, I would have paid for four days of service with no way to access the service. Minor issue, but on the scale of virgins customer base its pretty poor.

Anyhoo, ranting over now and I can carry on unboxing my belongings. Hopefully normal service will resume ASAP.

Spam Avalanche

I am not sure if it was a special event, but for some reason on 04 Feb 2009, this blog was innundated with spam comments.

Now, as any blogger will know blogs get spam comments. We get a fair few of which most (99.85% if you believe Akismet Stats) get caught by the anti-spam. It is, rightly or wrongly, one of the prices you pay for having a blog. It is slightly amusing that around a third of the spam comments are advertising spam-commenting systems but most are tediously repetetive. Every now and then Heather gets it into her head to read, and subsequently rant about, some of them but generally we are happy to ignore them.

However, on Wednesday we were flooded with spam comments. According to Akismet stats (which broadly mirror my recollections), we had 3.5 times as many spam comments as the previous peak (09 Jan 09) and a massive 16 times as many as the average spam comments. We had more spam in that 24 hour period than we’d had in the whole of August and September last year. Fortunately Akismet caught the lot, but it was bizarre. In the time it took to click on “delete all spam now” another 50-odd messages arrived. Equally odd, few were “normal” spam in which something was advertised, most were just strings of random letters and urls pointing to random letter domains. I really have no idea what the spammers hoped to achieve, unless it was an attempt to overwhelm Akismet worldwide…

Anyway, the main point is that the volume of spam meant there was no way we were going to read through it and see if any legit messages had been trapped. In the massively unlikely event that you had a message deleted, this is why.

If anyone knows why 4 Feb was World Spam Day please let me know.

Do you trust Google?

Everyone is scared about malware and hacking on the web. There is nothing wrong with this and there really is a genuine threat out there. People need to make sure that their browsing is as safe as possible. For most people, unless you are running a high volume internet banking transaction server this can be simply done by getting a good anti virus (AVG Free is cost effective) and a firewall (windows own, Zone Alarm or one on your router).

Despite this a lot of online organisations feel the need to join in and help out. Most modern browsers have built in “phishing filters” and will try to alert you when you click on what it thinks is an untoward link. This is all well and good and there are only minimal privacy implications.

Equally, search engines are doing the same thing now. When you google a search term, you get links with any potentially harmful ones highlighted. Just in case you ignore google’s advice, they have a blocking page pretty much ensuring you cant click through to malware from google. Again, this may seem all well and good but there are even more issues. For a start, it is down to google to decide what is, or isn’t malware. They may be correct 99% of the time, but what about the other 1%? It becomes the responsibility of the website owner to discover they have been flagged as “malware” by google and then jump through google’s hoops to clear their name. This is wrong.

More importantly, who is responsible when there is a problem with google? A sensible hacker could target google’s servers and create the illusion that certain companies are full of malware. It would take a brave person to ignore the warnings and keep going through to a site that is so heavily flagged on the search page.

Do you think this is unrealistic? Here is the results of a search I did today on www.google.co.uk – imaginatively I searched for “Google”:

Google Search results in Google Chrome

Google Search results in Google Chrome

The whole internet is infected with malware. Every link is flagged with the dire warning it may harm your computer. I am not alone in discovering this… (PCPlus simply suggests using another search engine for the afternoon, Neowin is more informative) Google isn’t hacked (this time), its just broken. The effect is the same though. Any attempt to search meets with this warning and googles intervention means you cant ignore it and click on. Well done Google – you have borked searching… Amazing.

This is (IMHO of course) the problem with allowing web services to have more and more control over our daily lives. It is bad enough that the most popular search engine on the internet suffers a glitch like this, but imagine if you were using Google to host your remote office systems – an outage can be crippling. Cloud computing may be in vogue, but it is fundamentally a bad idea. You can not delagate your responsibilities to unaccountable groups – you are responsible for making sure no malware gets on your PC, so why does google feel the need to intervene?

Googling your carbon footprint

I decided to have a cup of coffee rather than randomly searching Google for a few minutes. For the good of the planet.

The Sunday Times reported that 2 Google searches have the the same carbon footprint as boiling water for a cup of tea. (I am hoping the same applies to coffee but I’m erring on the side of caution by forsaking half a dozen notional searches.)

These statistics aren’t completely convincing, being generated, as they were, by a guy who’s set up a website to sell a clean conscience to websites.

People want websites they visit to be eco-friendly. CO2Stats helps you attract and retain those visitors.
CO2Stats is the only service that automatically calculates your website’s total energy consumption, helps to make it more energy efficient, and then purchases audited renewable energy from wind and solar farms to neutralize its carbon footprint – all for a flat, affordable monthly fee. (from co2stats)

The estimated carbon footprint of your search varies wildly between

[Wissner-Gross’s] research indicates that viewing a simple web page generates about 0.02g of CO2 per second. This rises tenfold to about 0.2g of CO2 a second when viewing a website with complex images, animations or videos. (from the Sunday Times)

So, “stick to really dull webpages and don’t visit YouTube or sites that use Flash” sounds more immediately effective advice than buying spurious energy credits.

In any case, this turns out to be at the low-end of the carbon footprint estimates:

….. carbonfootprint.com, a British environmental consultancy, puts the CO2 emissions of a Google search at between 1g and 10g, depending on whether you have to start your PC or not. Simply running a PC generates between 40g and 80g per hour, he says. Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, estimates the carbon emissions of a Google search at 7g to 10g (assuming 15 minutes’ computer use).
Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch, Rewiring the World, has calculated that maintaining a character (known as an avatar) in the Second Life virtual reality game, requires 1,752 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That is almost as much used by the average Brazilian.

Wait, if using a PC at all emits ~60g an hour, ie, 1g a minute, doesn’t that mean you are saving 0.8g a minute by looking at complex websites?

And that bit about “depending on whether you have to switch your PC on” is really confusing. (When I work out how to use my PC without switching it on, I’ll post the information here.)

I am sure that computer use is mostly a waste of energy. I am sure that big powerful servers are even greedier than my PC.

However, I’m not convinced by the idea that you can buy your way out of responsibility for ecological damage. Paying to generate some less-polluting-energy doesn’t mean that the more-polluting-energy you used before suddenly disappears.

Congestion charges, aviation carbon taxes and so on. They all suggest that you won’t cause ecological damage if you can afford to pay for it. It’s like buying and selling medieval indulgences.

This would be great if the Earth was susceptible to bribery. I think these schemes are usually just ways for us to avoid taking any real steps to stop destroying the Earth. In some ways, they are worse than doing nothing, because they give us the illusion that we are taking serious steps to save the environment and that we can do this without any major inconveniences.

And they give the climate-change deniers some pretty obvious strawmen to direct their denying at. For example, here are some of the comments on the Times article:

When does this global warming hysteria end. It seems like all these die-hard environmentalists would like us all living in huts with no electricity, comforts, or heating. Especially considering this freezing winter (against all predictions), I’d like to see them go first.

Like a mouse climbing up the leg of an elephant with rape on its mind. Global warming at/isn’t going to happen

I call for a moratorium on publishing articles like this one. The amount of CO2 generated when my head starts to steam is much higher than a Google search. Multiply that by the millions of sane people who agree with me that GW is a crock and GW might actually come true.

(Replace the misused “sane people” with a more accurate “Americans” and you get the flavour of a lot of these comments. What is it about living the USA that makes some people unable to see beyond their own carports?)

The calculations are ridiculous and blatantly misleading.
But no surprise, it appears that this will be another cold year and the “environmentalists” are running up and down in a total panic that they failed to fully socialize the world while for a few years was a bit warmer.

And why should we care how much energy Google uses…because of the myth of Global Warming that is being forced down our throats.
2007 was the warmest year on record, no wait, we were wrong about that, the warmest year was 1945. Artic sea ice will be gone soon, no wait, we were wrong about that

It looks as if even people who are too monumentally stupid to see that a cold year doesn’t in itself invalidate climate change are still bright enough to see that these figures are a bit bogus.

Why give them ammunition? The idea of a “carbon footprint” as an individual moral issue, susceptible to individual guilt and contrition is just mistaken. It’s obviously good to do whatever we can as individuals, but it’s a social and political issue, which needs serious social and political solutions.
(end opinionated rant.)