MonthFebruary 2007

New Freedom of Information regulations: a waste of money on their face

One of the topics that I feel strongly about (even though I’ve only used FOI very briefly) is Freedom of Information – and in particular the FOI Act. And now the government’s stupid idea of effectively lowering the ceiling of enquiries that can be made by putting a higher price on civil servants’ time.

But the charity Public Concern at Work has calculated that bringing in those changes will cost at least £12 million:

Using figures published by the Government which suggest that it costs officials between £1 and £2 to read a single page, the charity calculates that it will cost £7.2m for one official in each of the 100,000 public bodies to read the new rules and guidance restricting FOI requests and a further £5m for them to think about them.

Their response to the suggested new regulations is worth a read:

In particular, when looking at the benefits it is important to recognise that freedom of information requests bring real and substantial savings to the public purse. This is because they deter waste, inefficiency and fraud across the public sector. One example from the wider public sector mentioned in Don Touhig’s Commons debate on 7 February was the Yorkshire Post’s story about a shower for the Chief Constable that cost £28,000

Great stuff. Perhaps an FOI request to find out who came up with the new regulations and whether they did a cost-effectiveness study on it?

And I like the cut of PCAW’s jib. I wonder if they’d look at the case for freeing our data?

More on PKRSER, aka Partygaming, and the credit card data it wants – and where you got scammed

A very interesting collection of information building up now about credit card frauds carried out using PKRSER.COM – aka Partygaming. (Some background on my earlier post about PKRSER; the comments are cogent too.) Just for info: PKRSER.COM is the payment side of Partygaming, an online gambling site.

But first, enjoy this graph of Partygaming’s share price, from the London Stock Exchange, for the past year (the orange line is a continuous moving average):

Sorry it’s so big, but I can’t seem to resize it. Anyhow, wonderful dip in the share price last September; another one, less visible, the other day on the realisation that PG had withdrawn from France, reckoned to be at most 5% of its market. (This is the page with the details, which you can play with – it’s rather neat, and pleasing to find LSE doing such good stuff.)However, Britain – and scammers using British credit cards on it – is still a working market. So where are the details of those credit cards that are scammed and used there collected?

For instance, if someone clones your credit card at a petrol station, is that enough?

I emailed PG’s support to ask what credit card details they require from people creating an account. They responded:

Card number
Card Expiration date
CVV2/Security card code
Card type
First name
Last name
Address registered on card
Postal code

Now, a petrol station cloner could get the card number, security code and perhaps name(s). But they’ll not be able to get the address and postcode (unless the scammers are even more sophisticated than we thought, and have people inside the credit card companies who can get them the address details from the card.)

Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s not petrol stations. The only place you’ll be giving out those details are… er, pretty much any credit card transaction you do when you’re not there. On the phone? You get asked the security code, and your address and so on. (Though you only get asked the name on the card. But of course you’re usually giving your full name so something can be sent to you..)

Sorry not to be more hopeful. The problem is that “card-not-present” transactions now demand so many details that they can easily be grabbed.

Even so, I do think PRKSER – Partygaming – could do more to identify the hands where the complained-about cards get used, and identify patterns of illegal behaviour. In the meantime, we’ll just have to watch that share price keep dropping.

How to be consistently wrong: think like Paul Thurrott on topics like DRM

For a while back there I thought that Paul Thurrottt was gaining a clue, but I have to say that of late he’s become increasingly disconnected from the way that the world works. Take this recent posting on his blog (one that doesn’t invite comments, but that’s a format too), entitled Another View on Apple’s International iTunes Controversy:

I think it’s fair to say that no one ‘likes’ DRM. It’s also equally fair to say that no major content creators (music, TV, movie, books, whatever) would release digital versions of their wares without DRM, because of piracy fears. Working within the reality of this constraint, I’ve always felt that the ‘best’ (i.e. least restrictive) DRM scheme would win in an open market, but that’s not what’s happened: FairPlay is restricted only to iTunes and the iPod and shuts out competition.

First, it’s rubbish to say that no major content creator would release digital versions without DRM. As has been pointed out, the music companies do this every day: it’s called the CD. And the indie labels do it through eMusic: you can download Coldplay’s first two albums on eMusic, in MP3 format – no protection. The indie labels make up about one-third of the music business by artist. (But the big four have the distribution – often of the indie labels. That’s why indies like digital downloads: cuts out a middleman.)

Next, why should there be any particular driver to which DRM scheme wins, except by which company becomes the most widely adopted? Consumers don’t pick and choose between DRM systems (if they did, they’d not buy DVDs, which defeat easy copying and have region codes built in). They don’t say “Oh, I’ve heard such good things about Window Media Audio’s subscription service.” They consider the usability of the product. The iPod succeeded because it was, is a better device than its rivals. It applied very little DRM – and arguably more than other similar devices (remember, you can’t copy music between computers from an iPod). People don’t notice DRM until it bites them. Then, I’d say, they retreat from it.

Curiously, Microsoft’s more open system, which involves vast numbers of hardware makers and service providers, has fallen by the wayside. That’s the reason we’re having this debate now: Apple has essentially won the DRM wars, for now at least, and its dominant position is causing interoperability concerns, as it should.

I never understand this bit about “interoperability concerns”. You want to play music bought from the iTunes store on a non-Apple player? Download it, burn it to CD, re-encode it, load it on your non-iPod using whatever means it has to interface with your PC. I mean, WTHI is this rubbish? And what’s this trash too about “Microsoft’s more open system”? It’s not reached the Mac – no way can I subscribe to Napster. I can though get Fairplay on the Mac and Windows. How then is Microsoft *more* open? Apple’s stuff is available to a lot more potential consumers than Microsoft’s.

It’s also worth noting that DRM does make some interesting scenarios possible, including subscription services. No, subscription services haven’t taken off in a big way, but I bet they would if you could get such a thing on the iPod. However, FairPlay isn’t sophisticated enough to support such a thing (which Steve Jobs essentially admitted in his recent manifesto).

I’m not sure if he did “admit” this. Certainly there’s been no sign of FairPlay supporting subscriptions. But then if you look at Napster – up for sale since September, still no appparent suitors – there’s little sign of people wanting them either.

..So how do we fix all this? By simply doing that one thing I’ve been pushing for since FairPlay first reared its ugly head: Open up the iPod so that it works with other services, and open up iTunes so that it works with other devices.

I’m intrigued: what on earth would be Apple’s incentive to do this? If independent music labels can release their music without DRM for download, and the big music companies sell theirs without DRM (on CD), where’s the interoperability problem? Seriously, where is it? If most people are listening to stuff they’ve ripped from their CDs, what is the interoperability problem? AAC – in which iTunes by default encodes songs – is perfectly easy to license. Why don’t more digital music players use it?

The ‘how’ of this process is completely uninteresting to the consumers who will benefit from this move. That it will just work is really all anyone is asking for. I want a choice of music, TV, and movie services. And I want a choice of devices. Today, I’d pick Apple for much of that. In a truly competitive marketplace, however, that would be a choice and not a requirement. The needs of individuals should always trump the needs of corporations, and that can easily happen within the confines of the law, common sense, and the reality of the marketplace.”

See, this is where one has to worry that Mr Thurrott has lost touch with reality, marketplace-based or otherwise. You already can choose lots of music, TV and movie services. There are plenty in the UK, for example. Channel 4 has a TV service. American TV companies offer them. They use Windows DRM. Is that enough choice for you?

As for “the needs of individual should always trump the needs of corporations” – exactly what law do you intend to pass to make this utter fantasy come true?

Serious: he’s becoming more stupid by the day. I’d worry, but I have other stuff to do.

Wizzo.. I am a commentisfreer

Ah, delightful. I’ve written about Fuzzy Zoeller’s attempt to find and sue the person who libelled him on the Wikipedia page about him.

I think he’d do better spending the money funding Wikipedia’s slightly mad administrative machine, which needs more people helping it out, rather than daft publicity and sideswipes from lawsuits.

But his quest – which I think will ultimately fail – does show how celebrity truth is now too fluid to be l

eft to us mortals. Celebrities have to learn that if they want people to know the truth about them, they’re better off making it up themselves.

One has to feel a little sympathy for this collision of the auld game and the new technology; searching for “Fuzzy Zoeller blog” turns up precisely one result, which isn’t a blog by bubbling, approachable ol’ Fuzzy).

Zoeller is upset that the online encyclopaedia that pretty much anyone can vandalise – sorry, edit – for some time contained comments wrongly, oh so wrongly, claiming that he abused drugs, alcohol and his family. You can tell he’s a golfer – some actors would bearing such fibs as a badge of honour.

But not Zoeller. Of course, things have changed since he was born in 1951, a time when (if the Wikipedia page I’m reading is right) dinosaurs presented the evening news and a race of underground hobbits four foot tall was discovered in Antigua. (It may have updated since then.)

Yeah, pitch in. Ooh, it’s like writing for The Register again, which is a compliment, by the way.

The family that blogs together.. keeps the debate going

Hurrah for Zoidberg! My wife, the award-winning author Jojo Moyes (hey, go there to find out what the award is) has begun a blog.

And it’s got off to a rather good start (I’m not obliged to say this, but I thought it has) with a question – which anyone’s welcome to answer over there – which is this: why don’t books pages, particularly in quality papers, review as many books, especially the ones that will actually *sell* in huge numbers, as the music pages of those same papers do?

As she says,

Bill Scott-Kerr, publisher at Transworld (and eighth most powerful person in British publishing), once offered me these words of consolation: “Look at any of the books featured on those pages,” he said, “and be comforted by the fact that 90 per cent of them will sell no more than 1500 copies.”

Bill’s a friend of hers.. I think the lit eds might want to start reading.

Cash machine card skimming: the simple way you can avoid it

It’s not even a technological solution. But with the number of cash machines having skimmers and cameras fitted to them by crims, here’s a simple method – on a par with entering the wrong password first time you go to a site from a link in an email, to check whether it’s bona fide – to not get skimmed:

Don’t use cash machines.

So how do I get cash, you wonder?

Simple. Cashback, at the supermarket. It’s free (generally), secure and you can be about as sure as you can that your PIN isn’t being copied.

I’m scared of taps. Bath taps. Not for myself..

The other day we got one of our regular visitors from the Emmeline Centre at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, to see how child3 is doing with his cochlear implant. We gathered in a room and child3 started showing off his favourite book, which is one of the Dorling Kindersley ones – “My First Word Board Book” (because it’s first words, and it’s got board pages, and it’s, um, a book).

Opening spread: two kids, one full-face. “Where’s his eyes?” I ask from behind him, as I do whenever we read this book (which is often: at least once a day). Child3 points to the eyes in the photo. “Where’s your eyes?” He points to his own. “Oyyyes!” he says.

“Where’s his mouth?” He points to the mouth. “Where’s your mouth?” He points to his. “Mowww..”

At this point I offer to make the Emmeline person some tea and ask what she’d like to do in this session.

“Well, he’s pretty much done everything and more that I wanted to test in the first two minutes,” she replies, a bit nonplussed. Apparently distinguishing between one-syllable words – “eyes”, “mouth” – is a key test which they weren’t expecting to do until, say, a year after switch-on. And he’s doing it here after six months. Two thumbs up on that one.

The fact is that child3 is making terrific progress. Which is so scary too. I get worried every time he’s in the bath, when of course he’s deaf again, that he’s going to slip and whack his head, with that so-valuable implant and processor and contact, on one of the taps. They stick out in that pretending-not-to-be-interested way, and they’re at just the right height. It’s scary, really scary.

But then again there are plenty of good, interesting things coming up. For one, the next “tuning” session (when they basically twiddle the graphic equaliser in his ear) will introduce the Advanced Bionics Auria Harmony system, which rather than the 16 channels he presently gets (that is, in theory he can distinguish 16 different tones – if I’m understanding this correctly) will offer 120. It’s like moving from a Stylophone to a grand piano. (Stylophone picture courtesy of PME Records – thanks guys. Pay them a visit – they’re intriguing.)

I really hope it works. It would be so nice to give our Emmeline person less to do.

Though then again there’s always the question of “should we think about a second (bilateral) implant?” Though apparently the best time for that is within three months of the first. So that horse has gone.. But even so, it all remains to be done.

The missing tag is “firsttimeparent”

Let me make this clear: this is not baby3 doing this in the picture. (It’s Spaunsglo’s, whoever he is.)

Watch your toddlers...The tags on the picture are “sharpie [the type of pen being used], powerbook, kids, patience, love, kindness, don’t scream, don’t hit, child abuse, forgiveness, alcohol, poorparenting”. (The alcohol is for getting the marks off. Either that, or absorbing enough of it oneself will make the marks seem much less important. Hoorah!)

I don’t think it’s poor parenting – children of that age (21 months in his case) are absolute wonders at finding any unprotected writing implement and unprotected writing surface on which the implement will make an unremovable mark. Walls are of course a prime target.

What first time parents discover is that as their child gets older, all their own valuable/fragile/writable-on possessions gradually move up the walls, as though a sort of invisible tide were coming in. Either that, or they’re just flotsam with graffiti before the year’s out.

By the second child, all the stuff is already up there, though of course pens are always around. If you could only *train* them to find useful stuff. Why has nobody yet thought to put pens into lost keys? “Find the pen!”

More little birds on the Independent’s move from Macs to Windows – it’s XP

Some more from the South Quay bunker where The Independent is preparing to move, in April as I hear it, from 1999’s Mac OS9 to 2001’s Windows XP. (Well, perhaps you could argue it’s 2004’s XP SP2. I really hope, for their sake, it’s SP2. SP1 would be a disaster.) That’s seven years’ wait to move forward five years in OS.

Quoth the bird, or mole:

Quark and Copydesk, bound together with Atex’s Prestige content management system, running on XP – is OK, for what it’s worth. As in, it seems to work, slightly clunkily. I’m hating having to use XP, with all the right-clicking, and the guessing which of the three sets of menus on screen at any time might be the one to look for, the relearning every shortcut, and all the other just-not-as-nice-as-osx-ness. But it is, at last, not OS 9, and means we can use the internet and Word without falling over. I’d guess the reason they went with it is that apparently the Prestige back-end stuff is great. So it’s essentially the Lotus Notes argument all over again – we have to suffer a shitty front end so the IT boys get an easy life.

What with all the birds twittering, it’s getting like a Corinne Bailey Rae single around here. But one has to wonder about a few things.

1) have they really considered how much it’s going to cost in the long term? Windows does have a higher support cost, even if the computers used to be cheaper (but aren’t). They’ll either need extra support staff, or people will go unsupported upstairs in news and features. Hmm, I wonder, given the Indie’s reputation for cost-cutting, which it will be?

2) how much have they budgeted for retraining? There were going to be retraining costs whatever they did – moving to OSX and InDesign/InCopy has entailed a lot of training at The Guardian; moving to Windows is just as much of a change as moving to OSX, in its way. OSX bears little relation to OS9 apart from having something called “Finder”. I’d argue though that it’s easier to use because there are fewer things bothering you.

In the time I was there the Indie never trained anyone in anything, even though an hour teaching people how to use the Net efficiently (opening multiple windows in browsers, say) would have saved hours and hours.

3) how are they going to handle input from photographers, who almost all work on Macs and are increasingly moving to new formats?

4) will anyone get fired for choosing Windows when the first spyware/adware outbreak cripples the system close to deadline and costs the same amount in missed production timescales as was saved by buying QXP on XP rather than Adobe on OSX?

Oh, and the payoff from my little bird: “I’m told you all [at the Guardian] have gleaming iMacs. Bastards.”

How are would-be spammers registering on my WordPress blog if I’ve disabled registering?

Recognising that letting people “register” on one’s blog – which in some cases gives them privileges such as being able to write or post or comment – spammers have set up systems to automatically register on peoples’ blogs so they can spam them.

I don’t allow registration on this blog: I’ve turned it off, and also hacked the file that would let you register (it’s ..). [see below]

You shouldn’t be able to register, because I’ve hacked the file that processes the registration form’s output. Yet some spammers do manage to register – there were two “accepted” registrations yesterday. How’s it done, so I can block that hole?

Update: Durr, worked it out. I didn’t copy over the old register file, which would have blocked registrations, when I updated the blog a while ago. Thanks to all those who’ve proved that it does work. Link now killed. :-)