Thursday, August 27, 2009

Technology good ...

I am, I freely admit, a gadget nerd. I’ve never had much interest in cars, still less in power tools (which many men seem to find enthralling). No, it is smaller computer gadgetry which  fascinates me. My first personal computer was the Sinclair ZX80, almost 30 years ago, which had 1k of RAM and whose screen went blank when you touched a key. Now I am the proud owner of a Mac, and it is also the smaller devices such as cameras, audio recorders, MP3 players and hand-held computers (especially my iPhone) which excite and interest me. I’d have to add also that while I may take an interest in all sorts of technology, what I really value is technology that is useful. I like software which claims to organise my life, and speeds up the tasks I have to perform. I have very little interest in computer games, but something which can make my life easier (at least in theory) is something I would want to acquire.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that I have a SatNav, and value it highly. It’s not just the fact that it can help me find a new and unfamiliar destination that is useful. It is also its ability to navigate me round road  blocks and traffic hold ups and the inevitable missed turns.
But recently something weird has happened.

On three recent journeys, to places I know, but where the routes are not very familiar, my SatNav has taken me by a scenic, but circuitious (and occasionally alarming) route. On a journey from Congleton to Prestbury in Cheshire, then from Stoke-on-Trent to Macclesfield, and most recently from Bangor to Penmaenmawr in North Wales, the SatNav has given me a preferred “Fastest” route, which has taken me away from dual carriageways and A Roads, up steep hills, down single track lanes, and - most recently - through a fast flowing ford (which was not indicated on the monitor). In every case I did indeed ‘reach my destination’ and the route did not seem to much longer (in time) than the A-road routes, which seem to have been preferred for the return journey. However, as two of the journeys were in the dark, down unlit country roads, I have been - to put it mildly - a little concerned.

Now I should make it quite that in all cases I did specify ‘fastest’ and not ‘shortest’ route, which might (otherwise) have explained the scenic choices. Further, I know very well that early into the journey I could have asked the machine to recalculate an alternative route when the preferred one seemed a little odd. Or I could even have trusted my own judgement rather than slavishly obeying the little voice inside the box and the pictures on screen.

But what lesson should I draw from these exciting journeys? I wonder, first, why these wonderful pieces of software, if they can include information about speed cameras, cannot also allow me to prefer routes with street lighting (or even do this for me automatically after the hours of darkness). I also wonder whether it is such a good idea buy the newly released TomTom for my iPhone, which is quite expensive and which I do not really need, but seemed an exciting addition to the computer in my pocket. I am also musing upon the homiletic possibilities of these recent journeys, along the lines of comparing life to a journey etc - mm … a more interesting illustration than the message itself, so perhaps not especially promising.

No. If there is any moral to the story it has to be along different lines. It should not simply draw comparisons, or propose software updates. A much better lesson for me would be this: “Technology good, Humans better”.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Email hoaxes, and the merits of BCC:

Everybody knows about computer viruses - but does anyone know about email hoaxes? It would seem not. Almost every week I seem to get one of these annoying messages, sent to me with some urgency and sometimes with alarming warnings.

The classic message is a virus warning which ‘has just been issued by Microsoft/McAfee’ or whoever. Sometimes the warning is about a virus email - recent ones I’ve received have been about emails from Hallmark and (very popular this) one purporting to show pictures of Osama bin Laden hanged. These emails - it is claimed - will, if opened, destroy my “C: drive” (Clever, that - as a mac user I haven’t got one). Sometimes they warn about a virus infection I might already have, and describe how to delete the offending file (with a teddy bear icon) from my windows system - a file which, incidentally, I would need, if I had a windows system. Sometimes the hoax email is less alarming and more alluring: for example the one about a free Nokia laptop, if I just forward this email to eight other people. (Nokia don’t make laptops, at least not yet). And then there are the ones with warnings of a more general kind, such as one from ‘the London ambulance service’ warning that if a car flashes you late at night do not flash back, as this is taken as an invitation to malevolence by the driver of the other car. Another warns about people getting into the back of your car at the petrol station. This is perhaps my favourite email hoax, simply because the message first appeared in the middle ages - mutatis mutandi - long before email. Some of these messages have to my mind a certain distastefulness to them - such as the one I received about a missing girl: what the message did not say was that the girl had gone missing many years earlier, in the United States, and that her suspected abducter and abuser had committed suicide. And, oh yes, the photos in the email were of a different girl. Sometimes however, the messages may be considered inspiring or amusing, depending on your tastes: powerpoints of cute animals, or inspirational scenery, or in a most recent case, a ‘miraculous’ picture of Pope John Paul II, taken after he was shot in 1980.

Now all these messages are clearly documented as hoaxes in one way or another, or at least greatly inaccurate in important details. Just googling some text from them reveals them as such.

These messages are actually quite easy to spot, and most have three striking characteristics:

1. They contain vague information, some of an alarming kind, especially when it comes to time scale - using words like ‘recently’, ‘yesterday’ - and the nature of the threat: ‘destroy your C: drive’.

2. They often claim an authority, but never precisely, and never refer directly to the authority, in other words they are always second hand messages. Whether it is ‘Microsoft’ or ‘the London Ambulance Service’ or even - in the case of the miraculous picture of John Paul II - a Vatican official, you will not find a link to an authoritative site or statement. Often, doing a search to the claimed source with some text from the email will reveal a statement denying the content of the message.

3.  They include a request - and this is the most important part - often very forcefully stated, to distribute the message to as many people as possible, even ‘everyone in your address book’.

There are other common features too, such as the use of very large fonts, and rather garish colours. The language used in these hoaxes is often very similar from hoax to hoax. Not unusually - as in the case of the Nokia ‘laptop’ and the petrol station intruder - there are earilier versions of the same hoax: the original Nokia ‘offer’ was for a mobile phone, and of course the mediaeval warning involved someone sneaking into the back of the owners cart.

Why do people fall for them? Partly because they exploit things they know to be true. Everyone knows - or should know - that attachments may be risky to open, and unsolicited emails sometimes hide viruses. Everyone also knows that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and we should all be aware of our personal safety. The message about the missing girl exploits the publicity surrounding Madeleine McCann. The messages prey upon people’s fears,  their good natures, and sometimes their greed, but it would be rash to suppose that it is only the unsophisticated who are taken in by them. Intelligent and educated people - even a senior priest in the Archdiocese of Birmingham - have sent these messages to me. I have received so many that I put a message at the base of my own emails to warn people about them.

But do they really matter? Yes, I think they do. For one thing they waste time and bandwidth. While the latter may not matter too much, the former does. People spend time sending them, receiving them, reading them, and acting upon them. They also stoke pre-existing fears and exploit their recipients. The messages may contain viruses themselves. Some claim that they actually cause greater costs to business than the viruses themselves. 

And there’s more - they are themselves viruses - because built into them is ability to spread. If each person who receives one sends them to just ten people, then by the time the message has been sent six times, it has been received by more than a million people.
And what is is that they do? When the senders send them out, they typically put all the email addresses into the To: and cc: fields. This means that if I receive one of these messages, my email address has already been sent to every other recipient too, and in a few days, a million people (who obviously I do not know) may have received an email address which I had hoped to retain for private correspondence only).

And perhaps, perhaps, here lies one of the purposes of these messages: if you can track them, you can collect the contents of the address books of millions of people - you can collect many thousands of email addresses, and also the addresses of their contacts. You can harvest email addresses for the purposes of spam, and then distribute the bots that infect many computers throughout the world. These are the bots that can be controlled to bring down servers and disrupt governments - and this particular part of the message is not alarmist: it has actually happened.

And this could all be stopped if people just followed two principles:

1) Never send messages to multiple recipients (who do not know another) using cc: If you must send them use bcc: (blind copy)

2) Delete any message that says ‘Send this everyone in your address book. Now.’

I think I might just write a hoax email to make people do just that.

Monday, August 17, 2009

On the first day of the week ...

I know I'm an old pedant, not the young revolutionary of 30 years ago, and rapidly becoming a Victor Meldrew ... but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

At Mass on Sunday I told the congregation that I will be on holiday 'next week' and that therefore there will be no weekday masses on those days. Now that is a very clear statement. Not 'this coming week' but 'next week'. Yet after mass several parishioners were asking how come times of mass and intentions were noted on the bulletin, when I'd said there would be no masses while I am away ... Confusion. For me as much as them. I'd obviously 'announced it wrong' as one person said to me.

But no. I'd announced it right. Sunday is the first day of the week. You don't have to be a religious believer to know that, though for Christians this is especially true. God rested from his creation on the seventh day, the sabbath, Saturday. He began his creation (old and new) on the first day of the week - Sunday. Yet the modern, secular world, whose work life is built around the weekend, consistently sees Monday as the first day of the week. Calendars and diaries very often continue this error - in fact how often do you see a printed diary which begins the week on a Sunday? Rarely, I guess. And I don't think Christians have tried very hard to counter these errors. No doubt Protestants have been not been uncomfortable with the idea that the Sabbath and Sunday both conclude the week. And we Catholics cannot really escape blame, as I guess our Saturday masses (me very guilty here) encourage the idea of Sunday as part of the Weekend. (In fact I think we routinely talk not of our Sunday Masses, but our Weekend masses - yes, I'm guilty of this too).

So I wonder how long it will be before translations of Scripture go along with these changes and are published saying "It was very early on Sunday and still dark ..." (John 20:1)?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

10 Commandments in Text ... the full story

10 4u
no1 b4 me
no omgs
no wrk on sun
m&d r cool
dnt kill
sx only w m8
dnt steal
no lies
dnt ogle ur bf's m8
nor ur bf's stuf

So, I was reading the Tablet - not the Tablets (ho ho, or as they say in txt lol), but the weekly catholic paper, which I know is not exactly universally popular with all my Catholic friends (but we'll leave that for the moment) and saw a version of the Ten Commandments in text speak.

I say 'a version' because they followed the Protestant rather than the Catholic numbering. Don't worry, the full text is the same, but for the first 1500 years of Christianity the commandments were always set out in the same way, until Luther and friends tried to change everything. The full Catholic (original) version - for those who wish to check it - can be found here.

So I thought - I bet they could be tweeted ... it took a few minutes of adapting, including getting the Catholic numbering, and squeezing them down to a little fewer than 140 characters (allowing a little space for all my admirers to RT - retweet - my plagiarism with my name at the top - oh Vanity of Vanities).

And here, above, you can see the result. Which I feel very smug about. This an offense against humility, of course, which while not explicitly included in the 10, is very much in their spirit.

So all in all a self-defeating exercise when I could have got a lot more work done.

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