An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net and technology news
by Alan Lenton
I see the Swedish Pirate Party won a seat in the European Elections - something to do with the outrage over the outcome of the high profile trial, I suspect. Suggestions abound that the judge in the case was a representative of the big media companies and have been hotly denied, but clearly a lot of people weren't convinced.
Happy birthday Unix - 40 years old this summer, it seems to have outlasted virtually all other operating systems, except Windows, which is just an upstart Johnny Come Lately. You know something? I don't think it's going to go away soon. I reckon it's good for at least another 40 years in one incarnation or another!
Whether I'll still be writing Winding Down after 40 years is another matter.
Two reports just produced this week indicate that social networking may not be all that the twits would have us believe.
First an investigation by the New York Times indicates that most blogs have only one entry, and then they are abandoned. Technorati, who run a search engine tracking something like 133 million blogs, reported in 2008 that only 7.4 million had been updated in the previous four months. For those who can't do maths in their head, that means 95% of blogs are abandoned! So much for the net democratising publication, and allowing people to make money by blogging.
Ah ha! You may think - but those 95% have all gone to Twitter - less words = less work. Think again, my friend. A researcher at Harvard Business School has just finished examining some 300,000 Twitter accounts. (I feel really sorry for him. It must have been soul destroying drudgery.) It seems that a mere 10% of users (the real twits) account for 90% of the postings. In addition, a recent analysis by Nielsen suggests that 60% of sign ups never come back! Actually, it's even worse. According to a report from HotSpot, 54.9% of Twitter's 4.5 million accounts never actually posted anything.
Don't be surprised if you start to see a slump in the perceived values of some of the social networking sites in the coming months. I suspect the wise ones were the founders who sold up to the big companies before now.
A week ago, the UK's Guardian newspaper ran a piece about the estimated 7 million people in the UK illegally downloading music via file sharing. The piece contained the usual rubbish extrapolating how much was 'lost' as a result of this - 12 billion UK pounds (about US$20 billion) for one unnamed file sharing network (presumably Pirate Bay).
This was taken up online in the Guardian's blog area this week where it was pointed out that the decline in conventional music sales that is being attributed to 'piracy' actually coincides with a rise in alternative leisure activities - in particular games. It's an interesting point. But to take the issue further, there is only a limited amount of leisure money to spend, and there are now more choices for leisure spending.
There is also the fact that there is a contradiction between listening to music and playing modern video game, which provide aural as well as visual clues to what is going on. Add to that the fact that leisure spending is the first thing that's cut back in a recession - ask the travel companies if you don't believe me - and you have a clear explanation for the decline in music sales over the last year or so, maybe even longer.
Frankly I've never met anyone who would have bought every piece of downloaded music they have listened to, if they had been unable to download it. On the other hand, I've met plenty of people who have gone out and bought the CD of a piece of music they downloaded and liked. The same goes for movies. Yes there may be a small number of people who download stuff 'for free' as a matter of principle, but the majority of downloaders use it as a method of filtering out the crud, so they only buy stuff they like.
Which, of course, is hitting a business plan that relies on people buying the 95% of dross pumped out by the big four media companies. No wonder they don't want people to be able to try their product before buying!
Apart from all the posturing by the French and the Brazilians over the Air France 447 Airbus crash, there is one aspect that has not really had an airing. It is the question of who ultimately controls the plane. There are two completely different philosophies at work here.
The key question is what happens when something goes seriously wrong?
The decision is a trade off. On the one hand, we have the computer's inherently superfast reflexes and access to information. On the other we have the ingenuity and experience of a human pilot. You can't have both - you have to decide which is going to control the plane in an emergency. Ironically, the choices made by the manufacturers are a direct reflection of the different philosophies in their respective continents.
Airbus, being European based, is inclined to go for the first option. Boeing has taken a clear stand for the second - the pilot has the ultimate authority. I know which I prefer - the second option any day. But the facts don't back me up. The truth is that both Airbus and Boeing have a very similar safety record! I confess to being irrational over this (though at least I recognize it), but I'd still rather fly in a Boeing than an Airbus...
So, you thought you were beating the malware odds by using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer? Think again. Firefox just issued a patch which fixed no less than nine security holes - four of them classed as critical. If you use Firefox, you should now be on version 3.0.11.
I mentioned last week in the Microsoft round up that a recent security patch added code as a plug-in to Firefox, something which I thought was very sneaky and had security implications. I had a letter from reader David Nelson. (See, someone other than me does read Winding Down!)
The letter is substantially longer than my original two paragraphs, and deals with a number of issues, but the gist of it is that while he agrees with me that it was a sneaky thing to do, it is not in fact the security threat that I implied. He also points out that the disabling of the uninstall button is an artifact of Firefox, not a dastardly plot by Microsoft.
If David would like to drop me a line authorizing it, I will put the full text of his letter and my original piece on my web site and include the URL in the next issue. In the mean time I'm happy to be corrected on this issue - there are plenty of things Microsoft deserves to be called on, without picking on issues which are not their fault.
Techies following this story might be interested in the following URLs:
Crooks in the UK hit on an interesting way to get money out of a bunch of other people's credit cards that they just happened to have to hand. The first thing they did was to record a couple of songs, which they gave to an online company. The (perfectly legit) company then put them onto iTunes and Amazon to be sold. So far so good. They then used their 1,500 stolen US and UK credit cards to buy the songs thousands of times. Purchases, in fact, to the tune of around US$750,000, for which they pulled in some US$300,000 in royalties!
The perps were apprehended by the UK police's newly formed e-crime unit, their first big coup. There were, apparently, ten people involved in the scam, scattered around the UK.
I wonder what the songs were like?
One of the big UK hosting providers reported that attackers had wiped out around 100,000 web sites from its servers earlier this week. The attackers were, apparently, able to gain root access to the servers by exploiting a bug in the widely used HyperVM virtualisation software. (Note for non-techies - virtualisation is a technique that allows powerful machines to appear as multiple machines all running different operating systems and application software. You can run it on less powerful machines, but they'll probably graunch to a halt if you try it.)
HyperVM is made by an Indian company called LXLabs, which wasn't returning calls when the story first broke. However, it was later revealed that the boss of LXLabs had been found hanged in his Bangalore house after a late night drinking session. Police believe it was a suicide.
In the meantime, the ISP affected, Vaserv.com, has been scrambling to fix the vulnerability, and restore a hundred thousand web sites from the backups. I can't say I envy them. At the same time other users of HyperVM are desperately trying to fix the problems themselves, given the disarray that LXLabs is now in.
I never met anyone who didn't loath anti-virus companies, so it is with great pleasure that I'd like to tell you that Symantic and McAfee have been nailed for automatically renewing customers' subscriptions without the customers' authority. It's going to cost them a cool US$375,000 payment to New York, and presumably, they have to pay back the customers as well.
The investigation discovered that the information about the automatic renewals was hidden away at the bottom of long web pages, or in the fine print of license agreements. Nice work on the part of the New York Attorney General's Office. Now let's see if the UK's consumer protection authorities can be equally efficient.
Who do you think uses iPhones? Teenagers? Twenty somthings? Wrong! The biggest single group, - 36% - is between the ages of 35 and 54. The 25-34 group weighs in at 29%, while 13% are between 18 and 24. Really surprising is the fact that over 55s comprise 17% of users.
And here's some more figures: 40% have household income of mere than US$100K, 98% use data services, 88% use the phone on the Internet, and 75% download applications. Those figures (for the US) are way above the general averages.
OK, that's enough numbers for one day! Click on the URL to see a pie chart of the age figures.
I see that the periodic table - remember your school chemistry - has just acquired a new element, the heaviest yet found. It doesn't have a name yet - it's just referred to as 'element 112'. It was actually discovered twelve years ago in Germany, but until very recently other scientists elsewhere were unable to replicate the experiment.
It's pretty unstable stuff, it only exists for a fraction of a second before decaying into other elements. You can make it, if you happen to have a linear accelerator laying around, by firing charged zinc atoms into a lead target. Good luck, they've only succeeded in making four of these atoms so far!
And the name? Well the scientists who discovered the stuff have been asked to come up with a name in the next six months. Answers on a postcard to...
US readers might like to look at an interesting take on the debate about who is going to lead on cyber security in the US, and whether it should be the NSA or not. The Examiner has an article by US Army and CIA veteran Stephen Lee, arguing that the NSA is ill suited to the job.
Lee argues that the NSA is "...a secretive, hidebound culture incapable of keeping up with innovation, or even working with industry..." and provides an interesting take on the NSA. He is particularly scathing about its record on outsourcing its work to defence contractors, with all the security implications that implies. He also fingers the cavalier attitude of the NSA towards domestic activities and civil liberties.
It's an interesting read, but remember that Lee is ex-CIA, and there never has been any love lost between the different components of the US (or any other country's) security apparatus.
Not exactly a toy, but I thought you might like to know that the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware, have just produced a brew based on a chemical analysis of traces of a neolithic beverage, found in Jiahu in Northern China. The batch will be ready for sampling later this month, so keep an eye out for it - it's called Chateau Jiahu. Incidentally, the Scientific American article features a totally gratuitous picture of a well endowed beer wench...
Scanner: Other Stories
Artists get their own channels in Clear Channel deal
Pirate Party wins EU parliament seat
Unix turns 40: The past, present and future of a revolutionary OS
Scanner glitch blamed for election miscounts
Lawyers plan class-action to reclaim "$100M+" RIAA "stole"
French court savages "three-strikes" law, tosses it out
Thanks to readers Barb, Fi and Lois, and to Slashdot's daily newsletter for drawing my attention to material used in this issue.
Please send suggestions for stories to firstname.lastname@example.org and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Spamato spam filter...
14 June 2009
Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist. His web site is at http://www.ibgames.net/alan.
Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html.