Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Beware of online scams

I have had the dubious expertise of selling a lot of stuff via Craigslist, both here in St. Louis and also in Los Angeles. Over the past couple of years, I have come across some interesting scam artists who are fairly easy to spot. But today's email arrived with a new exploit.

Usually, we are selling furniture. My wife is an interior decorator, and we have been through a few decorating changes. Now, when you sell a bed or some other large piece, you are not going to get too many people from out of town who are interested, unless they are moving into town. So the first tip off that something is amiss is when someone from overseas responds to the ad and says that they will pay for it sight unseen, matching your price. This violates three principles right off the bat:

 People like to negotiate prices, no matter how good a deal you are giving them. Anyone who is paying your price is suspect right there.
 People want to kick the tires and make sure that your item exists. Doesn't matter what it is, but especially for furniture, because no photo can do any piece justice.
 Craigslist is hyper-local. Someone from out of town is suspect.

The legit customer is also going to want to think about his impending purchase, even for a few hours. And they will also pay cash, if you ask. (And you should demand cash, just because checks are so easily forged. Remember Frank Abagnale?) The con men are going to try to send you some kind of check, and mention that right off the bat in their initial email.

So my wife and I have developed our own parsing filter for these email responses, to separate the real offers from the fakers. All well and good, until we began advertising our apartment for rent this week. Today's email brought the following:

I am highly impressed with the information in the listing. I don't have any question at the moment. I wanna go ahead in renting the place from you. I'll be the only person in the property. I work as a Researcher for my company (GLOBAL LINK) and I am coming to the area to carry out some research. They will be responsible for the first month rent and security deposit. I wish to sign the lease agreement in person and will be signing a year lease as soon as i get to the States. I'll be moving to the States on March the 30th and i want the lease to start same date because I will be moving into the property directly. Kindly get the ad off from all listing because am taking the property for sure.
In the main time, I will like to secure the property asap so that i can attend to other important things for my move to the Country.
In order to proceed with payment, I will need the following information so that we can continue from there.
Kindly get back to me with the above information and in case of any query, please contact me on my phone number 0044XXXXXXX. Await your response asap.

A few things struck me about this email. First, why is he so eager? Second, why would someone from the UK (based on his phone number) in a financial services firm, move to St. Louis? Granted, we are becoming a bigger banking center with Wachovia buying JD Edwards, but still. Third, why is he using kindly so much? There is nothing kind about this, it is a business transaction. Fourth, the ALL CAPS is another tip-off. Fifth, the email came from Yahoo.com, rather than a corporate email account. Finally, why ask to remove the ad from Craigslist? Something didn't add up.

A quick check online found the managing director of GlobalLink.com in the UK, and about an hour later he was kindly replying with the fact that the gent didn't exist in his office. So case closed. But I just wonder how many people are less suspicious, or who don't check out their potential buyers, fall into his trap?

Craigslist is a great site, and we have sold lots of stuff over the years on it. And they do a fairly good job of warning you about the con artists. But this just shows you that the bad guys are getting smarter all the time, which means you have to, too.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The technology behind Springfield's Lincoln Museum

I am one of those inveterate museum goers. Often on a business trip I will take some time to stop by a favorite gallery or seek out a new one. And so, when I had a chance to write an article for the New York Times about the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., I jumped at the chance.

Alas, the story was cut from the paper at the last minute, but I thought I would share with you some of my experiences. What was interesting about the place, which has been open for about three years, is how it combines Vegas glitz and geeky gadgets to bring the scholarship of Lincoln's life and the Civil War years into a modern context.

I spent about three hours there on a day that was turning into one of those Midwestern snow squalls, and it was fun to tour the place with their IT manager and see how they built some of the attractions. They have a wide variety of tech in place, from the ordinary such as theatrical lighting to the unusual with very advanced digital holographic projectors. It is far cry from a dusty collection of artifacts in glass cases, and the museum designers have succeeded at bringing many parts of the Lincoln story quite literally to life.

There are dozens of video projectors used throughout the place, including playing key roles in two theaters that run short programs – one is about Lincoln's life, the other talks about library research where a live actor lip-synchs to the script and is part of a very snazzy special effect. The contrast of old and new stagecraft is fascinating, particularly when the actor told me that the technique used in his show dates back to Lincoln's time, when they used gas lamps instead of electric lights and fiber optics.

Underneath each seat in one theater are special Butt Kicker speakers that respond to the rifle fire and cannon blasts on the soundtrack, creating vibrations that make these scenes very realistic. What the designers told me is how computer-controlled video programming is being used as another theatrical lighting instrument, and is changing the way they work. All of the video is digitized and plays from terabytes of hard disk storage. All of the systems have sophisticated error-checking routines and emails the technical staff when something goes wrong.

One of the more interesting videos is a short four-minute film that shows a map of the US and the entire Civil War. You see the constantly shifting front line between North and South, the number of casualties, and the major battles taking place. It is a powerful reminder of how devastating that war was.

Another video-intensive exhibit is an interpretation of the 1860 election that was filmed in Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" studios in Washington, D.C. The exhibit shows various TV monitors as if the visitor is in the studio's control room, and the video clips and commercials are from the perspective of the four candidates running for office and their particular positions. This room alone uses three video servers and has 11 different TV monitors and runs under the control of a Windows NT PC. Yes, a version of Windows that isn't even sold anymore is at the heart of this wonderful room. (Another PC runs DOS, too.)

The lighting and even temperature of the various rooms are all under computer control all in the goal of providing the best visitor experience. The computers take into account the existing ambient lighting based on time of day and sun position, and one room that shows the deathbed of one of Lincoln's sons is several degrees cooler than the adjoining rooms, all to make it a bit more eerie.

Still, some artifacts are required to complement the technology. An antique stove that is part of an exhibit on what the White House kitchen of the 1860s looked like was purchased on eBay, and replicas of Lincoln's famous documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address are in other rooms. And as a reminder of the contrast between Lincoln's legacy and his time in office, one room of the museum is devoted to a series of reproductions of political cartoons of the time, showing how unpopular Lincoln was during his presidency.

It is a great place, and well worth the visit if you ever have the chance. What I liked about the museum was how it combines the best of technology with ordinary museum practice to tell some great stories, and to teach people a little bit more about Honest Abe.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Should you backup your blog?

Today we are getting hammered with about half a foot of snow, so it is a good time to curl up in my office with some concentrated time to do my backups.

Earlier in the week, when it was still above freezing, I was working with some friends who have a small development shop here in town. I was helping them figure out their own backup strategy. They are smart folks, doing some cool things with computers, and have plenty of technical expertise when it comes to writing code and understanding how PCs work. What was surprising was how long our conversation took to understand their requirements, figure out what products they wanted to continue to use, and chart a course that would cover their data assets with enough redundancy but still be something that they would actually use on a regular basis.

When you think about it, backups are still far too hard. You need basic anti-virus/anti-spyware/personal firewall protection on each machine. You have to create bootable images, in case your drive goes south or gets corrupted with something that that collection of products doesn’t catch. You want a shared network data repository and backups offside of this information, in case a meteor hits your office (or a tornado, more likely around these parts). You want a spare laptop in case someone’s tanks or gets stolen. When you add up all these elements, backups could be a full-time job.

I have a rather complex backup routine that I use for my own data protection, and there isn’t anyone else in my office (most of the time) and most of my data resides on one computer. So I fully anticipated that it would be a lot more complex for my friends who have multiple computers. The hard part is to make it easy enough so that they could be motivated to follow through on a regular basis.

I will admit that my own backups are a chore that I don’t enjoy doing and only motivate myself to do it because I recall the consequences of an office fire many years (in my building, luckily both I and my office were untouched) or a stolen laptop from the trunk of my car in a Seattle shopping center. And as I was describing my own processes to my friends, I realized that there is still one place that I don’t have adequate backups. Actually, two places, and both because I use Web resources for creating some of my corporate mission-critical content: my Wordpress blog and my Gmail address book. In the very unlikely situation that either of these companies go out of business or remove my data accidentally, I am totally toast.

Actually, part of my Gmail contacts did disappear for a little while last summer while the Google Guys were working on some update or something. For a day or so, I lost the use of the contact groups to organize my peeps. I could still see the individual contacts, but none of the group membership structure.

I realized then (and now) that there is no easy way to replicate this group structure, even if I do an export to a CSV of my entire contact list: all I get from doing that is just the contacts without any group memberships. After the disappearing group lists, I spent a few hours taking screenshots of each group list, realizing that I probably would never do that again and it was far too painful to be useful, but I did feel that I did something to prevent it from happening again. I was right: those screenshots were a one-time deal. I still don't have a solution. Google, please get this fixed soon.

But the Strominator.com Wordpress blog is more troubling, because there are lots of links and lots of content that I have created over the years and if that goes away, I don’t have much recourse and don’t even want to think about re-creating that stuff. So what to do?

One thought I had was to cross-post all my blog entries on another free blogging service, such as on Blogger or LiveJournal. It would be nice if one of them would be able to import an XML file or RSS feed and replicate the entire Strominator blog automatically, but alas that isn’t possible. None of the services will import the comments on my Wordpress site – which could be a benefit for those of you that want to start with a clean slate. None of them will import the static pages of content that I have created, which are essentially links to my published archive. I guess I could cut and paste the HTML and save it as a local file on my desktop, but that seems so 1990s.

Multiply.com does have the ability to import blog entries from a bunch of different blogging services (including Blogger and LiveJournal), but not Wordpress. Too bad.

Sigh. So I will have to go back and copy and paste my posts, which is a tedious process considering that I have several hundred posts on the darn thing. I did replicate last year's just to see what it took, and I guess from now going forward I will cross-post for backup's sake. But which service should I use?

One thought I had was to cross-post my old content on sites that have some social-networking patina so I can get some leverage and readership out of the effort. Scribd.com is one such site, but they are more geared towards uploading documents rather than straight HTML – I not only lose the comments but the embedded links with this service. Google's Blogger is probably not going away, but do I want to trust Yet Another Googlicious Service for my content? Not sure about that. And LiveJournal has an extra step to get posts to be dated properly.

So nothing is perfect. I welcome your thoughts as always. At least my words are preserved on a few places around the Internet.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

How to reach your social network

I am still a bit slammed from the time travel back from the land of Oz. In my midnight sleepless surfing, I have come across a brainstorm: there is no single 'killer app' for social networks. The trouble is that there is no single solution for maintaining one's electronic connections, mainly because different people require different communications methods. I guess I needed to travel thousands of miles around the world to realize something so simple.

Some of us are trying to conduct all of our social intercourse using one application. Jeff Pulver has moved over to Facebook and won't respond to emails any longer. Paul Gillin and I just did an interview with Laura Fitton on our TechPR War Stories podcasts (it will be posted later this week), and she swears by Twitter as her main communications tool. And others are champions of LinkedIn with thousands of contacts, or have to prune their Instant Messaging buddy lists to keep it from scrolling into eternity. These are still very much extreme cases.

I would venture to guess that most of you are like me and still using a bunch of different mechanisms, including phone and (gosh) fax, to stay in touch with our electronic 'hoods. Part of the reason for this is that we have different requirements that trade off immediacy (this is where the Twitter crowd likes to live) with depth and time to reflect on our correspondence. Another issue is that many of you don't use a single communications mechanism either, and can't force everyone in your network to convert to one system (although Pulver claims success with Facebook).

I've also seen what I call the natural evolution of social networks that has taken place over the past couple of years. This evolution happens like this: first you sign up with LinkedIn, because you are thinking of changing jobs and want to start updating your electronic resume. Then you begin to get involved with Facebook, and import your contacts into both and start to build your network of friends and business associates. In the meantime, you start to keep track of your emails, because eventually you will need to decide whether to maintain your identity with your current work email or to create a new personal Gmail or Yahoo email for people to continue to talk to you when you do change jobs.

But I digress. Getting back to the subject at hand, many people are still adjusting to the jump from phone to email as their main communications tool. And they aren't eager to make another sea change in their lives, which is why email still is the undisputed champion of how I interact with most of my audience, and one of the reasons why I still send out these missives via an email list to this very day.

Students of social networks should study the rise and fall of push technology to gain some perspective. Remember when push was going to change the way world communicated? It went from darling to despised in about two months; long enough to make the cover of Wired magazine and have me proclaim that I was going to convert Web Informant to a push-only version. (That lasted through about 20 issues, before I regained my senses and continued the email list that you are on now.)

I wrote this ten years ago in WI #101:

Push products had plenty of problems. They really didn't have the publishing tools at all. You often didn't know who your audience is, couldn't tell what software they used to view your content, and often preparing content took loads of time and was also a hit or miss proposition. Most of the products couldn't even tell you whether your readers actually received your content, let alone if they spent any time reading it. Try doing this with a print publisher or television producer and see how long you stay in business.

The same could be said for many of the social networking applications in use today. You can't use any of them as a publishing platform, although many of you are trying.

I also find that one's communication mechanism of choice depends on generational issues. Teens are still the biggest users of IM. 20-somethings text, then Facebook, then maybe IM (although my daughter tells me that IM is so over, daaad!). Email is almost never in the picture: when I need to send my daughter an email, I usually have to IM or call her about it. On one of my flights there were a bunch of teens traveling together and they were comparing the features of their phones. They sounded like IT managers talking about their computing strategies, only with a lot more "likes" inserted into the dialogue.

My 15-year old niece is a communications junkie, caught at the crossroads of many technologies. She is online with her best friend across town via video chat. She Skype's and IM's my daughter all the time. She has a Facebook page (that I am not allowed to frequent). She has been through several smart phones and run up huge texting bills. Email? I don't think she bothers to check it more than once in a blue moon.

The 30- and 40-somethings go for IM, then maybe email and texting from their phones. Some of them are picking up on Twitter, others on Facebook, but that is still new territory. Those of us 50-somethings are solid email users, for the most part, although a few of my generation still prefer phone calls and even have personal assistants to screen their calls too, those dinosaurs.

It has been a while since I got a cold phone call from a PR person – in fact, I am glad that my phone is mostly silent these days. That might change now that I am appearing more in the print Baseline magazine and that number is listed on the masthead, but I don't think so – most of the pitches I get still come via email, although some PR people are beginning to use IM and Facebook to send inquires my way. Bring them on, I say.

So my revelation is that social networks will continue to multiply and attempt to capture all these various dimensions of our normal social interaction. But no one system will be all things for everyone, now or forever. And that means that more of our electronic workday will be spent using a variety of tools to process all this information, just to stay in touch with our would-be friends.

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.