Saturday, August 19, 2006

Now you see the bones of our (the geeks) evil plot. We're going to automate everything and rule the world!

Taking The Journalists Out Of Journalism

from the replaced dept

Stories about different jobs being replaced by computers have been a favorite for journalists over the years -- now it's some of those journalists being replaced by computers. The Thomson Financial news service says that it will expand the use of computers to write automated stories, mainly on things like earnings reports, which it can churn out as quickly as 0.3 seconds. These sorts of stories are the stock and trade of financial newswires, with speed and accuracy the two most important elements, so there's no reason a computer shouldn't be used to quickly digest a company's earnings report, compare the results to the previous year's, then spit out a quick story -- which typically follows a rigid format, even when written by a human. And, of course, it's cheaper than employing a small army of human writers, but Thomson says speed is the only consideration here (though surely the cost savings don't hurt), and that the system will free up reporters for more thought-intensive tasks, which is how these types of project should be approached: using technology to automate menial tasks to allow human resources to be allocated to other tasks computers can't handle. [Like fetching coffee for us geeks. Bob] Thomson says it's been working on different types of software to write different types of stories, making us wonder how long before they release their summer rerun program, freeing up their writers for a nice mid-year break.

Is this the start of a new government initiative? Will all businesses have to become terrorist watchdogs? What happens if a programmer simplifies things and just flags everyone with a middle-eastern name? (“Your name is written in Arabic, therefore...”) Certainly looks like the kind of thing an Identity Thief could make use of...

PayPal freezes out British user in 'terror' list snafu

By Chris Williams ( Published Friday 18th August 2006 14:58 GMT

PayPal has frozen Brit Mohammed Hassan's account and banned him from using the service if he refuses to fax the company a raft of personal information.

The online payments service told him his name is "similar to or a match to" a name on the US government's anti-terror assets freezing list.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN) is operated by the US Treasury and designed to prevent money laundering and funding of illegal organisations.

The SDN list is here ( (.pdf). It contains hundreds of names, including Osama Bin Laden and a Tunisian named Mohamed Hassan.

Register reader Mohammed received the following email last week:

Access to your PayPal account has been denied because your name is similar to or a match to an entry on the Office of Foreign Assets Control Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list. We are required to further verify your identity. In order to regain access to your account, please provide the following documentation:

1. A copy of government-issued photograph identification (i.e. passport, driver's license).

2. A copy of a utility bill verifying your address

3. A copy of a document verifying your date and place of birth.

Please fax the information to +1 303-395-2802, Attention: Compliance. The documents may also be mailed to the following address:

PayPal, Attention: Compliance P.O. Box 45950 Omaha, NE 68145, United States

Please provide the requested information within the next 30 days. If this information is not received within the next 30 days, your PayPal account will be closed.

We contacted PayPal with a series of questions. They confirmed that in Mohammed Hassan's case, his account will be closed unless he faxes his passport to them - action he told us he is not willing to take on priniciple. Unlike banks, PayPal does not require identity verification to set up an account. [“Unless we want to discriminate against your kind.” Bob]

PayPal refused to provide any details of how many customers the bans are affecting, or whether the policy had led to any genuine terrorist assets being seized.

Mohammed works for the UK government, in a job which requires security clearance. He said: "I am not a terrorist or a criminal. How the hell can PayPal link me to that name on the SDN list, is it because my name is Arabic? Or is it because PayPal are just plain stupid?"

We love our customers, but not enough to warn them.

Dell, Sony discussed battery problem 10 months ago

Sony made changes to minimize the problem but did not recall suspect batteries because it wasn't clear that they were dangerous [i.e. No one had died? Bob]

By Paul F. Roberts August 18, 2006

Dell and Sony knew about and discussed manufacturing problems with Sony-made Lithium-Ion batteries as long as ten months ago, but held off on issuing a recall until those flaws were clearly linked to catastrophic failures causing those batteries to catch fire, a Sony Electronics spokesman said Friday.

... Dell is reported to have known about incidents of laptops overheating, albeit in small numbers, for years. It and CPSC recalled 22,000 laptop batteries in December, 2005, because of overheating problems. Metal particle contamination was the cause behind that recall, as well, said Scott Wolfson, a CPSC spokesman.

... Catastrophic failures of the Li-ion batteries, though rare, can be "very dramatic," Doughty said. "You get a lot of fireworks."

Your tax dollars at play. (Well, they obviously aren't working!)

Where's The Checkbox For 'New FBI Computer System Is So Bad I Plan To Go On A Crime Spree'?

from the nice-work dept

Back in 2004, we wrote about how hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent over the previous four years on a new computer system for the FBI that apparently didn't actually work and was useless at finding terrorists. After that was announced, it still took the FBI another seven months before announcing they were getting rid of the system. After that, it still took another year for them to agree to spend hundreds of millions on a new system that won't be ready until 2009 at the earliest. Is it any wonder that FBI employees who are working on the computer system already feel the need to hack the system just to get some work done?

If you're wondering how this all came to be, the Washington Post has now done an in-depth report on just how screwed up the process was for building the FBI's computer system. Basically, the FBI handed the project over to the government's favorite secretive tech supplier, SAIC. Rather than actively manage the process, they more or less let SAIC define what it should do. There's some disagreement over who made this decision, but it included having SAIC build a system from scratch -- rather than modify available off-the-shelf offerings (something the FBI insists it won't do this time). So, you have a government contractor given a multi-million computer project, little oversight and loosely defined objectives. SAIC did pretty much what you'd expect. They took a lot of money from the government (or, if you'd like, from the taxpayers), wrote lots of code, but didn't bother much to make sure it did what the FBI needed it to do. The best part of the article is the quote from a computer science professor who reviewed the system and noted the pure stupidity of trying to launch an entirely new computer system at once with no backup plan, rather than phase it in gradually: "A bunch of us were planning on committing a crime spree the day they switched over. If the new system didn't work, it would have just put the FBI out of business." Comforting, huh?

This is actually very clever. The Post gets new content (which it can pick and choose, yet they can still deny responsibility) and even more places to stick its ads.

What is the Sponsored Blogroll?

The Sponsored Blogroll is an index on the homepage that promotes bloggers who are participating in a partnership with the advertising team of WPNI. If you are a blogger or blog network looking to expand your readership and advertising, our Sponsored Blogroll program can be the boost you've been looking for.

Should the police be allowed to make secret arrests?

August 18, 2006

More Threats for Videotaping Police

This time in Massachusetts.

It's an odd case, with all sorts of strange twists and turns. But the gist of the case is that the state police and prosecutors are threatening a woman with crimnal sanctions for posting video of an arrest on her website. Not only that, but state prosecutors are apparently threatening other websites (actually, the website of the man arrested in the video) for merely linking to the video.

The case caught the attention of the Boston Phoenix, which gave the prosecutor and state police one of it's "Muzzle Awards" for suppressing free speech. The paper sums up what's at stake rather succinctly:

Since no one other than the State Police objects to the videos being posted, we must assume that it is they who believe their rights are somehow being violated. But how can that be? They are seen carrying out their public duties: arresting a citizen and temporarily depriving him of his freedom. Our right to keep tabs on how the police use that power is vital.

Again -- it should never, ever be illegal to record the actions of an on-duty police officer.

...and don't forget to look at it with a variety of browsers.

Online Font Tester

MatthewDoucette submitted by MatthewDoucette 16 hours 36 minutes ago (via )

Online font comparison tool.

Look at them now. Don't wait until you're on a deadline.

List of nifty tools for drawing diagrams, charts and flow-charts

Aug 18, 11:53 AM


Free Web-Tools

Free Software

Leading commercial products:


Get Back Your Lost Files: File Recovery Software

August 18, 2006 By Michael W. Muchmore

Of course, prevention (in this case read "backup") is the best medicine [Amen. Bob] when it comes to lost files, whether as a result of disk malfunctions or your mistakenly deleting them. But for those of us with less foresight, there's utility software that can save our skins when it comes disappeared files. Today, we investigate three leading software products that claim to be able to find and recover files you've deleted or lost to a bad disk drive or media:

Just another reminder to consider protecting your critical data.,1759,2002421,00.asp

Microsoft Office Under Siege

By Ryan Naraine August 13, 2006

News Analysis: Attackers and flaw finders are pounding away at Microsoft Office applications, discovering new ways to attack millions of Windows machines. Can Microsoft cope with the deluge of flaws?

What started as an amusing eBay listing of an Excel vulnerability for sale has developed into an all-out hacker assault on Microsoft Office applications.

Security researchers and malicious hackers have zeroed in on the desktop productivity suite, using specialized "fuzzing" tools to find a wide range of critical vulnerabilities in Word, Excel and PowerPoint file formats.

The upsurge in reported Office flaws has put Microsoft on high alert for targeted zero-day attacks that have all the characteristics of characteristics of corporate espionage—highly targeted and using Trojan horse programs to drop keyloggers and data theft malware programs, according to information from anti-virus vendor Symantec.

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