Tuesday, December 30, 2003

And to wish you all a happy new year, my picture of the year is:


Email hoax targets Bank of England
The usual story: email purporting to come from the bank asks you to either divulge personal details, or to download software to 'protect' you - and then you find your account emptied.

But why are users so gullible? If a letter pretending to be from your bank came through the letterbox, telling you to replace your door lock with a new one which they'd kindly enclosed, along with the key to it, wouldn't you be a little suspicious? Of course you would. So it's interesting that users are so trusting on the web (if they follow these instructions) and yet so cautious - the reason we're given for slow growth of e-commerce. Clearly there's a mixture of people out there, savvy and not so. Let's hope that we all show the right amount of caution and don't get cuaght out, or tied into too restrictive practices.

If you want to avoid such practices as much as possible, some practical help.

  • use an ISP that has spam filtering built in on its servers - this will protect you from the most common stuff and save you money as much of the rubbish will be taken out in advance
  • if you use Windows XP, turn on the persoanl firewall (default settings for it are usually fine)
  • use and keep updated virus protection software

These will address general spam, but not scams. To reduce those, consider setting up a new email address for personal mail and giving it to your friends only, and encourage them to do the same. Never put this on a newsgroup or send a message to anyone outside your usual circle on this address, and ask them not to add it to their address books but to type it in or reply to an earlier message each time. By keeping it out of the address book and off the publically viewable part of the web, you can have relatively unspammed, secure communications with your friends and family, and converse with the wider world on your more public (and more heavily attacked) address.

And never take anything for certain that purports to be official. The web is supposed to be anarcharic anyway, so we shouldn't take too much notice of officialdom :-)

RSS to change the face of the web?
RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is an XML format designed to allow the sharing of information between websites. An RSS feed provides headlines, brief descriptions and links to the original material in a standard format, which RSS readers can display.

So why is it important? Well, it's currently used by providers to extend the reach of their material - the BBC have many tens of RSS feeds available, and they are not alone - technical publications such as VUNet and others use it heavily too. The rise of blogging has fuelled this, allowing bloggers to make their thoughts more accessible to all.

But I think a sea-change is on the horizon - readers are becoming more powerful, and more importantly, integrated into websites, and screen scraping is becoming more advanced. This can lead, in a very short timescale, to web applications that allow people to construct their own websites containing fragements of anyone else's. Anyone, because we can quite easily scrape or make an RSS feed from any HTML.

This is important in two senses. Firstly, and most fundamentally, we have split the web atom - previously atomic units were web pages - once you'd got them you could analyse them into text and graphics, but you generally dealt in whole pages. Now our atomic unit is much smaller - we can construct things out of fragments of pages. And this makes a second difference - consumers can look only at what they want to, can miss adverts and poor material out; producres have to think smaller scale and making their stuff work on segmented as well as page levels. Copyright will become a big issue (and the law may well need altering), our shorter attnetion spans better catered for, and pretty layouts will take a backseat compared to content.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

The Beagle is Henman in space

Thanks to William Langley of the Telegraph (28th Dec) for this wonderful headline, and the neat capture of the British public's perception of the issue. But what about the scientists (like me) who have seen their funding diminish, and projects like this soak up a lot of money that would have gone to other useful causes?

We should be thankful, that's what. Primarily, this project addresses some of the key questions science has to face - are we alone, is there life on Mars, was there ever life on Mars, can we see evidence of non-carbon based lifeforms, and so on. For £50m, it's a question we can't afford not to ask. If man's aspirations can't stretch that far, then we are pretty doomed.

Secondly, they have done a great job on a limited budget and with what seem to be ridiculous and politically motivated constraints.

Thirdly, there is a little bit of a lack of vision in the rest of the UK science community. For example, if you were to ask a lot of computer scientists what they'd spend £50m on, you'd not get inspiring answers (Big Questions for the Future of HCI yields Little Outcome) - except maybe for part of the AI/neural network community that really want to understand human emotions, though process and so on. Sure, a lot are jumping on the bandwagon of 'Grand Challenges', which actually demeans science and makes it more like a television makeover programme than a structured, interesting, beneficial and worhtwhile endeavour, but there are very few who actually have any decent visions.

We shouldn't be too fulsome in our praise. Most schoolkids know how to design parachutes so that Action Man still works after being thrown out of a three story building and plumments into the ground. The cost of a few continously transmitting beacons that lasted for the descent and first few hours on the planet should not have made much dent in £50m...

Quote of the event has to be Ian Praine, of Astrium, who said "Isn't gravity wonderful - at least we know it's on the surface now!" (from the Beagle weblog). I suspect he didn't quite mean it to be such a strong statement. Too much gravity, I fear.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Wireless digital photography?

The new Canon 300D digital camera has a USB port - so I guess I can add a USB-wireless adaptor, a network access point, and then point and shoot and download my images to my pc without any further effort.

Wouldn't that be cool? There is an add-on adaptor for the pro Nikon that does that, but if we write some software to read the USB device as a file, then it's all done for us...

What are you waiting for?

The title above is perhaps one of BTs most annoying advertising campaigns ever, the simple response is "You! If you'd upgrade the exchange, then maybe I could actually get broadband". For a company that has shown a massive reluctance to take the braodband bull by the horns, tries to fob people off with low grade midband or ISDN for as long as possible, and only slowly rolls out ADSL across the country, it's galling to see them trying to put the blame back onto the public for the slow appearance of broadband.

But maybe there's a bigger problem waiting to hit all of us. With MS only making available patches over the internet and users requiring ridiculous numbers of them and hence huge quantities of data, there is a clear assumption that everyone is on broadband and so can work this way. When even a new computer requires MBs of patching, it's clear that we have a lot of insecure, unpatched systems connected to the internet. These machines get worms and viruses, act as unintentional mail relays, and generally contribute to the unhealthy nature of the web - and it's not the users fault.

We should not have to download patches, updates and updates to patches to make a NEW machine up to date. It's simply not on.


Saturday, December 20, 2003

Catching paedophiles or spying on the public?
Interesting to see that this story has come to light - it has been the case for a while now that search engines are monitoring and recording what you search for, though it's not been public knowledge. The police think it's great as sites they have set up will come up when certain words are entered into search engines, and then they can catch suspected paedophiles. The general public may have a wider issue, as it is clear that, without their knowledge or permission, the search engine companies have been colluding to push their details onto a third party.

It may seem fine to catch paedophiles - but what if you're a medic looking up certain things on the web - you could easily get there by mistake. And what if it's not just limited to child porn sites, but to anything the police, or anyone else, thinks you shouldn't see? I'm not condoning child porn - far from it - but we need to see and understand what technology is being used for if it is not to shoot itself in the foot. The RF id tag debate shows this only too well.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Too close to home?
After the Soham murder trial and guilty verdict, the press are feeding public calls for 'more to be done' to protect the innocent - and why not? Yet we have to balance this call with a practical and a personal perspective - not every discussion the Police have can be committed to computer, and so not every suspicion, thought or allegation about people will be captured. And nor should it. The law is unclear on this anyway - see the BBC story on this. There is a privacy issue, and a sense issue. Privacy, because we should have aright to measure of protection within our personal lives. Sense, because why should unfounded and unproven allegations that may come from mischevious sources as well as valid ones have the ability to wreck lives with little or no comeback. And sense, because the police have not enough resources as it is, let alone be asked to put all information on record straight away. And because we do not have the computer systems and algorithms to effectively cross-check and match all the information, even if it were there.

I work with children, I've had my police check done. I also work with a lot of other colleagues who work with children, who've had their checks done - and we ensure that we all know where the boundaries are and that we don't cross them. And it can be hard. If you're a late teens, suntanned windsurfing instructor, and one of your pupils comes on to you, you may find it hard to say no. Especially when they're 18 or 19 and in summer love. But professionalism, the awareness of your peers, and the system in which you work all play a part. Now, whilst I'm no longer late teens, it has happened to me, and still happens (and, I'll bet on it, will continue to happen!) but we cannot expect that any new system of police checks is the only answer. We all share an ongoing responsibility; we need official checks to moderate the people who have relatively free access to children, and we need to look at the systems that we all operate within to check that those systems have ongoing peer checks and balances built in.

But most children are harmed by family members, or people they know, not strangers at all. Perhaps we should check on all them first, as that is where the greatest danger lies?


Wednesday, December 17, 2003

All change...
The observant amongst you will notice that the title for this blog has changed - it was originally produced to support the HCI course in Computer Science, but has expanded both its scope and its audience - so the title and subtitle have changed to reflect this, and it'll continue to present its sometime quirky, sometimes funny, often relevant and occasionally profound comments on all issues interactive.

The Dark House on the web

Radio 4's interactive drama is available on the web; at 12 stages in the presentation, you can interact with it to change the perspective the story is told from.

The original radio broadcast received over two thousand votes - which is pretty good for a ground-breaking interactive radio drama, but if we assume that those that interacted with it did so on 1/3 of the possible choice points, we have about 800 people participating. But, since radio is quite a passive medium (as commented on earlier) this is still a reasonable showing for first time out.

Will it catch on? who knows.

Was it worth doing? Certainly - the BBC should be at the front of new initiatives and doing it has to be at least as important as broadcasting it.

Interestingly, it could be that the real future for this approach is in blended media, since the experience over the internet is much more varied and fresher than a simple reply of the original - this could give the production a much longer shelf-life than a conventional broadcast.

Eyetracking study shows how people ignore adverts on webpages


Nice summary here of a study using eyetracking to record where people look when they use web pages... the findings are highly relevant to web design and advertising strategies.


Monday, December 15, 2003


Why are faxes still so popular when surely it's easier to just send an email?


There are some interesting answers to this question here, with a significant point about the admissibility in court of faxed but not emailed documents. The rise of fax gateway sites also gets a mention - part of the ongoing popularity of fax machines is apparently due to the fact that now you don't have to worry about the other person actually having a fax machine - there is software that will pick it up and email it to you. And of course the ultimate extreme is that neither person need have a fax machine - most modems come with fax software so you can send your document straight from your screen to someone elses.


But what really caught my eye was the 'subtle' reason given for the continuing popularity of faxes: the blurring between faxes and emails. Is faxing one of those technologies that has woven itself into our lives so successfully that it might never get un-woven? I'm not so sure about all of this, but that's mainly because I've never had much luck with fax machines, either real or virtual...


PowerPoint makes you stupid [New York Times - free registration req'd]


A worrying piece in the New York Times about how poorly constructed PowerPoint slides may have contributed to the recent shuttle disaster. The argument is that the now defacto requirement to reduce all information to about 40 words of text, or 12 elements in a chart, so that it will fit on a PowerPoint slide, means that we are losing a lot of important stuff along the way...


oddly enough, Microsoft disagrees.


Friday, December 12, 2003

BBC - Radio 4 - Woman's Hour - Victorian Scrapbooks
Interesting discussion on Victorian commonplace books. There is a current, modern equivalent - and you're reading it - the blog. A blog is a web log, a published record of the thoughts, ideas and issues relevant to an individual. Blogs tend to be updated with varying frequencies, with active ones being done once or more a day.

Commonplace books are a way of recording personally relevant information, probably not categorised except by date encountered, and where first-hand information and comment on other stuff is better than comment on comment on comment on news - much like a blog. Commonplace books refer to information in the real world, whereas blogs often refer to other web sites, adding comment and views. Similar issues around first-hand and second-hand knowledge apply - to blog from another site directly is great - to point to another blog that in turn talks about a different topic is less good, and so on. Some blogs have guest authors, whilst others are highly personal. Being on the web, they are published - sort of. They are at least accessible, but in the mass of internet information they are effectively lost and private, unless one is specifically looking.

Further work builds on blogs to track the spread of ideas through the internet community, and to determine the topics that people are actually taking about. There is a natural bias towards technology, but it's not the case that only techies write blogs.

Amazing how old ideas are re-invented, rediscovered, and reappear in new forms, isn't it?!

Internet Explorer Vulnerability

Ah, the joys of the internet and Microsoft. A number of things are interesting about this

  • Why do users constantly fall for this type of scam? Answer: because there are still a lot of internet users who are not savvy to the ways of the Internet world. However, they would be rightly suspicious if some anonymous person purporting to be from their bank rang them up and asked for their account details and PIN codes - so why assume that a bank will email you and ask for the same things. Solution: if it's urgent, the bank will write. See also the ZDNet news story on Bank scams. As one of our TA's (Mark Roberts) succinctly puts it
    If you ever go to a secure site you should (until MS patch the problem) go to the file menu and click on Properties. In the Address field you will see the full address listed. If you see a @ character with anything after it then your are being tricked. In general, you shouldn't follow any links to banking or other secure sites. Get them bookmarked and you won't be at risk from following a dodgy link.

  • Why is it that Microsoft decided not to print the whole URL in the toolbar? I imagine that this was actually a conscious decision, and is very strange
  • The savvy internet users are now faced with an interesting dilemma - there is a much greater distrust of information appearing in their inboxes than there ever was, as scams proliferate. I'd be interested to try and study the amount of rubbish on the net compared to the good stuff and compare it to a few years ago. I bet it's a lot worse.
  • We need to fight back much more vigorously with the legal tools at our disposal, and the government needs to focus some resources on combatting fraud that is hitting the most vulnerable, and hitting them hard. Estimates are that Internet fraud cost the US citizens around £35million in 2002, and my view is that growth is likely to be similar for 2003, probably exceeding £100million.

What would you do if you were approached in the pub every evening and asked if you'd like to help pinch cars? You'd (hopefully) pass the information on the the police that people out there were plannnig crimes and expect some action from them. So why are we happy to simply tag the email as spam and delete it, often with a wry smile? It's a serious issue and deserves some proper attention. The law passed yesterday is a start - but a poor one.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

spam - Webopedia.com

From today, spamming is illegal. But only within the EU, and not to businesses. How weak and short-sighted is that? Unsolicited email has to be allowed, else you'll not get the benefits of the internet - if people can find your pages and know how to contact you but are not allowed to, there'd be a problem. But bulk emailing is much easier to define and the damage that spam does to the web, in terms of wasted resources and time, is so large that the occasional benefits of a minorly interesting drug or porn site or slimming pill are not worth the cost.

But the point of this blog is that I got a call at the stupidly early time of 0814 this morning (worse, I was awake) from BBC Raio West Midlands, asking why it's called Spam.

My answer comprised basically of "errr, ummmm" though I ventured that the most likely was from Monty Python, the Spam song. And Webopedia agrees, it seems. But if anyone's got a better idea, let me know.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Usability News - HCI2003: Big Questions for the Future of HCI yields Little Outcome

Oh so true. I was at this panel (and indeed, recognise some of the points highlighted as having my tone of voice) - but the biggest outcome was that there wasn't one. Not that we necessarily need a Grand Challenge - there is too much bandwaggoning on this concept already - but HCI lacks a coherence and a direction and an approach. It's partly that it cannot agree on it, but partly because it's working cross-discipline in a massive field with a multitude of approaches.

So it's quite relevant that many people are asking exactly what it is that they should be studying for the exam - even the wider community cannot agree on what HCI is and where it is going and what needs to be in there, so it's not suprising you have problems with the issue too!

(see also a talk I gave to an HCI educators workshop earlier this year).

Strange chatterings on Radio 4 this morning - old people are asking for computer games this Christmas, isn't that awful.

Assumption - games are solitary, repetitive, unthinking activities. The reality is much different, as I'm sure many of you know. Some are about speed of thumbs only, but many are problem-oriented, challenging worlds where motivation, awareness and intelligence (or cunning) are every bit as critical as reflexes. With networked games, it's not a solitary activity either - it's a pity they had no sensible person to give the other side of the coin.

However, it does identify a market that the games people have not yet tapped into. How about a quest in which Alan Titchmarsh has to run from a mad Charlie Dimmock, leaping over only herbacious shrubs, cutting his way through only non-native flora, whilst always trying to return to one spot near the reservoir where he can try to cut off the water supply and so destroy the source of the Dimmock's power.....

phpBB.com :: Creating Communities
The bulletin board system used to create the HCI board - I've spent the day doing a new installation for an online community. The members of the community are not really allowed to meet each other (for medical reasons) and so suffer from isolation issues. This is an attempt to provide them with a route to discussing their thoughts with others who are also in a similar position.

Nothing much new there in principle, though having ones run by hospitals for their patients is slighty different - the earlier ones have all been self-help groups. However, the interesting issues are in access control, privacy and so on. Posts are private - only registered members can see them - but there's a need for medical input to answer some of the issues and tackle some of the fallacies - so we need to do this in a manner that doesn't stop the patients from psting, doesn't stop their friends from replying, and givens them the confidence that the adults involved are different to their doctors and will not pass that information on.

Equally, there are strange people in society who like chatting up sick people, and so we need to manage public access to the space as well so that they cannot get vicarious pleasure in reading the material.

Now these are worked out and the system is customised appropriately, we'll run user trials for both usability and more importantly effectiveness. Does it do what we want it to, and make them feel more included and less alone?

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Usability News - Texting replaces Letter Writing for Difficult Social Situations, claims Research
The medium is the message! Different media are used for different things, and young people use them more appropriately - that's the other message in this article. And the second part of it, about dissociation from reality and ambivalence towards the intrusion of others into face to face social situations echos the scenario in When Present can mean Virtually Absent".

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