Monthly Archives: October 2007

Broken Mother in Law

URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator.

Not very pretty is it?  Consequently most people refer to URL’s as Web addresses, such as www.churchillclub.org.au  Now the Churchill Club’s web address is fairly easy to remember and fairly easy to cut and paste into an email to send to someone.  But sometimes we are faced with much longer addresses, that are very hard to remember, and what’s worse when we send them by email, sometimes they get broken in half and the link doesn’t work very well.  If you haven’t experienced this problem, I would be very surprised.

Now a couple of weeks ago, I wrote the story at  http://www.smartcompany.com.au/Premium-Articles/Top-Story/The-high-tech-spying-boss.html  I was pretty chuffed by this story as it got picked up by Newscorp, so I thought I would email it to my mother-in-law.  My mother in-law is a woman who doesn’t really understand what I do, or why her daughter married me, nor does she particularly understand computers but she does want to be involved and is enthusiastic.

Anyway, about 2 hours after sending her an email, she rings and lets me know that the link I sent her doesn’t work.  Knowing from experience that Microsoft Outlook tends to break web addresses that are over 76 characters, I then guide my mother in law over the phone to the story I have written.

The problem with this solution is that my Mother in Law doesn’t actually know what a web browser is.  She knew what Internet Explorer was, but didn’t realise that it was also called a web browser.  And to her Outlook is the email thingy.  So we tend to have a conversation that uses very vague language (and from my point of view quite frustrating).  Eventually I guided her to the article.  There is an alternative to this struggle though.

Now wouldn’t it be good if I could make this long address much shorter, in fact if I could create a tiny shortcut to the address.  Enter TinyURL TinyURL is a free website that creates small, free “referral” Addresses.  There is no account setup, no fees and is quick and simple to use.  You simply paste in the long address, push the button and out pops the short address, or tiny URL.

When I enter

http://www.smartcompany.com.au/Premium-Articles/Top-Story/The-high-tech-spying-boss.html

At 89 Characters, TinyURL spits out a new address at 25 characters, being:

http://tinyurl.com/2c9vjw

The way TinyURL works is it creates what’s called a redirection page at the address it gives you.  Effectively when your web browser requests the page at http://tinyurl.com/2c9vjw it will be told by the web server “no, you actually want the page at smartcompany, here’s the address……….”.  This redirection page appears to last indefinitely.

This is really useful, especially when dealing with websites that use Lotus Domino as the Web server, which many automotive and international corporates do.  Domino automatically uses ridiculously long file names that make its life easy, not ours.  Pages routinely have names such as “082d6eb72342ebb6ca256488003c019a/a9cb9ad73d306e614a2565280017a6fc?OpenDocument”.  Almost impossible to memorize and almost certain to get broken by email clients such as Outlook.

Now the Techo’s among us may say “well don’t use Outlook” but the reality is even if you chose to another email client such as Eudora, you can’t control the email program your clients are using.

TinyURL solves the problem.  So why do they do it if its free?  One reason is that it’s a good service and advertising for Gilby Productions, the  owner.  Another reason is that they earn revenue from Google Ads and have had over 50 million people go there to register URL’s.  All is not smooth sailing though.  There is an interesting discussion on Wikipedia about TinyURL and how it is abused.  It appears that MySpace banned use of them last year as many people were using them not to shorten an address, but to hide a link for more nefarious purposes such as linking to porn or viruses.

But if your just sending a long address to a customer, or elderly relative, what a great solution.

Smarty Pants

Feeling a bit philosophical today as I have been thinking about thinking. Its not normally what I write about, so I have included the words Mash-ups, Google Earth, data sets and search engines so you can’t say I have strayed too far.

To my story………

The other day I met with a senior member of the Victorian Government whom made me feel a bit on the dumb/humble side. We were having a discussion about the use and availability of data sets that could be used in what is known as mashups. Mashups being websites that put together information from different organisations to generate interesting insights, such as housing sale prices on GoogleEarth.

Anyway, what made me feel humble/dumb was them mentioning a whole lot of websites that I knew nothing about. I felt quite ill prepared for the meeting as it appeared that I hadn’t done my home work.

Later, while staring at my monitor I realized that I shouldn’t be feeling dumb at all. All that happened was that the person pointed out they knew more in a specific area than I did. That didn’t make them smarter, in fact it didn’t even mean they had conducted more research, it just meant they had come up with some facts I hadn’t.

I then started thinking about thinking. Did knowing more mean you were smarter, or was there other kinds of smart? In the past, I had chatted with Dr Michael Hewitt-Gleeson whom runs the School of Thinking [ pls link to http://www.schoolofthinking.org/ ] Michael had talked about how our brain works (In fact he coined the term software for the brain). Thinking about this, I started to jot down a list of ways I could be smart, and this is what I came up with:

Intelligent – The ability to make fine distinctions between different situations and see the detail (eg the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, do actually have some differences other than age and hair colour).

Wisdom – The ability to see patterns and act on them (eg I have finally noticed that my daughter does her homework much better in the morning, so now we only do it then).

Creativity– The ability to come of with new ideas or solutions (eg There were plenty of search engines around before Google came out)

Rational – The ability to act logically based on the information before you (I have a mate who’s very clever but goes to pieces in Airports, his wife accepts this and takes charge when they go on trips).

Empathy – The ability to understand the emotions of others and act upon it (eg When I know my wife is stressed, I don’t mention the new parking fine).

Anyway, there are probably heaps of other types of smart as well as I am no a “smartness researcher”, but this list works for me. Its value is that when I meet with someone who points out lots of things I don’t know, I no longer feel embarrassed. Instead I remain confident, knowing I am dealing with someone whom clearly has good research skills, but may not be wise, intelligent, creative or even rational.

Benchmarking Web hosting

On occasion I have a tendency to slag off website hosting providers that give shitty service. It occurred to me that this is a piecemeal approach and it would be worthwhile noting what I get for my money as a benchmark for you to think about.

Note I have two providers , one in the USA, and one in Australia. The USA based provider seems to deliver the website just as fast as the Australian one so having it there is no issue. The USA based provider also answers there phones at 3am, because its not 3am their time and in the middle of the day, I always get though first ring because its actually is 3am their time.

Anyway back to the benchmark. For $100 a year I get:

1. A control panel to manage every aspect of my account; including websites, databases and emails.
2. 300Gb of Space on a shared Unix Computer running the Apache Webserver.
3. 3,000Gb per month of data transfers
4. 2,500 email addresses
5. Unlimited domain names managed (so I can have www.churchillclub.org.au and www.lewisfamily.com.au websites without any additional cost)
6. Unlimited subdomains (meaning I can have a whole lot of websites with names such as http://test.churchillclub.org.au or http://special-event.churchillclub.org.au not just the standard www website)
7. 50 databases
8. Access via the Control Panel, FTP and SSH.
9. True 24/7 Support

Now I’m not going to tell you who I use for two reasons. Firstly I didn’t have to search hard to find multiple providers offering similar deals. Secondly, whenever I recommend a hosting service, someone normally has had a bad experienced with them and immediately wants to tell me I’m wrong and recommend a different provider.

So if the above gets under your skin and you want to have a change, I suggest you have a quick search. When you find someone you like the look of, do another search using their name combined with other words such as “bastards” or “useless” to see what kind of complaints people are making about them. Now everyone has complaints made about them by unhappy customers, but if you can see patterns of complaints then you know what to look out for.

Control-freak@churchillclub.org.au

So the other day a guest signed up for a Churchill Club event called “How to build a Killer Board”, which was a lunch time panel session we ran on getting your Board of Directors right. Now when he signed up, he gave his address as “churchillclub.org.au@hisdomainname.com”. (Obviously I just made up the “hisdomainname.com” bit). I was thinking he got it wrong by accidentally cutting and pasting the wrong bits, so I gave him a quick call. “Not so” says my patron, “I normally create an email alias for all the things I subscribe to as it saves me heartache downstream”.

At first I thought “that’s dumb” but then as my brain ticked over some more; I realized it was a great idea. In fact so much so that I thought I should flesh it out and talk about it as there are some good lessons here, which can make your life easier (read -> your inbox smaller).

But first you need to be in control of your email addresses. Not such a big ask though as most hosting companies have a control panel such as cPanel that allows you to manage your website hosting, databases and email. If they don’t, seriously consider dumping your provider, as in my experience, the guys with the worst service are usually the most expensive.

Anyway, back to what you should do with email addresses:

1. Create an email address with your name. Eg blewis@churchillclub.org.au So you can get all email sent to you. Yes, I know this is obvious but for completeness reasons I felt compelled to include it.

2. Create an email address with your title, and have that address forward its email to you. Eg salesmanager@churchillclub.org.au You can then use this email address to register at websites that may generate enquiries for your business (eg a government register of suppliers). This means that if appoint someone new to the job, you just have to redirect emails from this address, to the new person eg salesmanager@churchillclub.org.au now forwards its email to joe.bloggs@churchillclub.org.au Saves having to run around lots of websites trying to update your details everytime staff changes.

3. Create any generic email addresses you want such as info@churchillclub.org.au , accounts@churchillclub.org.au and memberships@churchillclub.org.au You can stick these on paperwork and your website. It helps your organisation look bigger if you don’t actually have staff doing those jobs.

4. Create an email address specifically for a newsfeed, subscription or any other website you register at, that then has its email forwarded to you. Eg. Smartcompany.com.au@churchillclub.org.au The reason you would do this, is so that _you_ control your subscription not the other party. For instance I have decided on occasion to cancel a subscription to a newsfeed, only to find that I can’t unless I remember my password, and they won’t help me figure it out. If I have setup an email address for that specific newsfeed, I could then cancel the address, causing all their emails to then bounce, without my life being affected.

Maybe I’m a control freak, but point 4 appeals to me a lot. Especially when having to regularly deal with IT help desks that seem to serve no other purpose than giving a job to poor unfortunate souls that would otherwise be unemployable.

Google Based Reconnaisance

Just a quick snippet this week, on a what I think is a clever use of a search engine for some competitive intelligence.

So a friend rings me up and says, “this company has a job going, and if I remember rightly you know the owner”. I say “I haven’t spoken to him in years, but I would be surprised if his business was big and successful, as he was strong technically, but weak at sales”.

So here’s the trick

1. I got to the companies website (or yellow pages listing to find their address)

2. I go to Google . (www.google.com.au)

3. I type in the address, enclosing it with quotation marks so I don’t get a million hits that are irrelevant.

4. Checking the results, I have a quick look if there is any other businesses at that address, and whether they share any of the same characteristics, such as telephone number or staff etc.

Sure enough, there are four other businesses that are sharing the same address and phone number. A reasonable guess is that the company is either very small and using serviced offices, or, there are a couple of interrelated business lumping in together. Nothing wrong with this, but its not what my friend is looking for so he won’t waste time applying.

10 seconds of Google based reconnaissance. Lovely.

It’s also interesting to do the same thing with published client lists of small businesses. I have noticed that plenty of small web developers and SEO businesses will publish a list of clients. A quick search then shows up that half of them share the same address. Marketing via the web is a two edged sword….

As a side note : when I enter “Level 5, 400 Collins” Google also returns results for other obvious variations on that address such as “Level 5/400 Collins” and “Level 5 : 400 Collins”. It’s also worthwhile noting that the address wasn’t actually Level 5, 400 Collins”. I changed it protect the innocent.

Peeing on a log

Over the school holiday’s I took the kids camping at Lakes Entrance. A great time was had by all; fishing, 4WD, going down Buchan Caves, couple of vineyards etc. But like all good things, the holiday came to an end and I’m back at work.

Going through the backlog of emails received whilst I was away, I found a number of requests to hook up with people on Facebook [Link to www.facebook.com ]. Going through the bits and pieces, I found that many people (mostly singles) were posting all these photo’s of their travels and partying. Right-oh says me, I’ll post some of my pictures from the holidays. The four year old peeing on a log. That sort of thing.

Strangely enough though, everytime I tried to upload photo’s the Facebook website came up with an error. Thinking about it, I decided that maybe the images were just too big. They were all high res photo’s around 2 to 3 Mb each. The obvious solution is simply to reduce the size of the photo’s then have another go. The photo’s don’t need to be 600dpi for my screen. Yes I know my screen is measured in pixels per inch, not dots per inch, but lets use the standard language. For standard Windows resolution, most objects are portrayed at 96dpi. Therefore my pictures are about six times too large.

The easy solution is to open up the images in Photoshop and drop down the resolution. Oops. I’m at home not work and I don’t have Photoshop on my home computer. In fact I don’t have a copy of anything that can do this.

A quick search of the internet found a lovely free product for me called PIXresizer [pls link to http://bluefive.pair.com/pixresizer.htm ] This product has all the attributes I like in software.
1. Small
2. Effective
3. Simple
4. Free

In fact it was easier than doing the job in Photoshop, as I could select a whole lot of images in a directory and reduce them down in size as a batch. I reduced ten pictures down to 400 x 300 and uploaded them in seconds to Facebook. The Pixresizer software only works on Windows, but I’d have to say it was a great solution.

The question remains of course, why would I spend work time uploading holiday photo’s to Facebook? The answer to that is a different story.

Technology Enabled Bastard Bosses

To record some of the Churchill Club sessions, we decided to invest in a digital voice recorder.  We purchased the Olympus WS-331M [ pls link to http://www.olympusvoice.com.au/products/digital/voice_music/ws331m.html ], which is a tiny little device capable of pickup up most speakers in a conference.  While fiddling with it to determine what it can and can’t do, we discovered that it is slim, silent and powerful enough to slip unnoticed into a shirt pocket and record conversations.  We can then plug it straight into the PC and treat it as a USB Memory stick to store conversations in WMA format.

Kind of cool; I could be nasty and record conversations with staff on the sly.  Which then made me start to wonder, what technology is now available to use if I truly were a bastard boss.

Now I am not making any recommendations on how you should go about your business, or even the legal status, but looking around, I came up with some nasty uses of technology which I thought I’d share.

In the Car
=======

GPS

Sat Nav and GPS are now readily available as either aftermarket or part of the standard package of vehicles.  This technology, although handy of the average punter, can also be used by the bastard boss.  Companies such as Quicktrack [ link to http://www.quiktrak.com.au/  ] and GPS for Fleet [ Link to http://www.gpsfortrucks.com.au  ] allow you to know where your vehicles are at all times.

Black Boxes
————
In the trucking industry, vehicles have been monitored for more than just location for some time.  Products such as Environav [ Link to http://www.ess.com.au/products/environav.asp ] let you look at anything you want to that has a sensor attached, such speed, engine speed, time of use, deviation from routes.  This technology is now starting to be packaged standard into some vehicles [ link to http://www.projo.com/projocars/content/CA-BLACK_BOX_09-08-07_KM6QTV0.1d4300a.html  ].  So you can monitor your staff at all times when they are out and about, and can get SMS or email notifications when they are not behaving themselves in your vehicle.

On foot?
———
Of course if you want to know where your people are once they have got out of the car, why not try the Benefon Track 1 mobile phone.  It may not have a camera or sweet multimedia capabilities, but it does have a built in GPS device.  Lets you know where your people are within 50 metres.  Which could be disappointing for staff, if they tell you they are looking for a parking spot, when it turns out they are still at home.

In the Office
========

Office Cam
————
Anywhere you have power, you can now put a wireless IP camera such as this d-link job [ link to http://www.ht.com.au/N/Accessories-Multimedia-Devices-D-Link/part/D-Link-SECURICAM-DCS-G900-Wireless-G-Internet-camera-Network-camera-colour-10100-80211g/detail.hts ] .  Connect this camera to your wireless network, and you can view (or record!)  what’s happening from anywhere in the world.  In fact I know someone that drove his staff wild, by constantly watching his programmer’s effectiveness, every time he went on a sales trip to the US.

Personally, I have used the wireless IP camera to show me whether there was a spare guest parking spot, when I had visitors coming (two flights of stairs, was too much for me).

For around the $300 mark, you get a nice solution.  Add another $1000 and you get a camera that you will be able to pan, zoom and tilt.

RFID Tags
———-
Of course if you want to run a time clock without it seeming you are running a time clock, you can also equip your staff with security passes that contain RFID tags.  [ http://www.ramp.com.au/leisure.html ] you can then passively monitor what time people are arriving and leaving as well as how much time they are spending in areas such as the lunchroom or out for a smoke.

I actually met someone some years ago, that had been terminated for lying on his timesheet (his rfid tag record for the parking lot didn’t match the project timesheets he was filling out).

On the Phone
=========
In Office
———-
Now while your staff are in the office and being productive, you can have a good look at their phone patterns.  If your telephone system runs through a PABX that was made in the last ten years, you can almost guarantee that a log pf every single call is recorded, including the handset, number called and data/time stamps.  Useful if the Bastard Boss tires of someone whom is constantly yakking to their friends.

Normally the information can be extracted into an excel spreadsheet.

However, if you are using a really new PABX [ link to http://www.nec.com.au/accessories/default.htm  ] that runs on internet protocols,  the easiest thing to do, if you are filled full of distrust, is configure your phone system to record every conversation to a computer server for you’re later review.

This is even easier if you are using a virtual PABX [ link to http://www.nch.com.au/pbx/index.html  ](a computer pretending to be the PABX)

Mobile
——-
If your staff are out and about using your mobile phones, you can of course get the bill in either paper and/or electronic format.  But did you know if getting the bills in electronic format, you can also suck all information from the bill into an excel spreadsheet.

A couple of bills and voila, you can a database of most called numbers, percentage used afterhours, amount of time and cost of an employee regularly ringing a girlfriend.  In fact if you ring a couple of the most used numbers, you may be surprised to find a competitor answering.

On the Computer
===========

Configuration
——

Now you have probably noticed that on your standard windows computer, you can have a couple of different user accounts, and each of these users can be of a different type.  So what does this mean?

Well, if you don’t allow people to be an administrator on their own computer, it means they can’t install any nasty foreign software that they find on the internet.  Better yet, you can setup their account so that they can only store information centrally on a file server rather than on their own computer.  You can then review their work at your leisure.

Spyware
———-

You have probably read about nasty software on the internet such as spyware [ link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spyware  ] and keyloggers [ link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keylogger ].

Spyware isn’t normally called spyware when its being sold.  It usually goes under the name of Monitoring software [ link to http://www.download.com/System-Surveillance-Pro/3000-2162_4-10625684.html ], with rationale’s such as use this for invisibly monitoring your children.  It can record all websites visited, instant messages sent and programs run.  It will even take regular screenshots and email them to you if you like.

Keyloggers capture all that’s being typed into a keyboard, and can either store it or send it out automatically to a predefined location.  Most available keyloggers [ link to http://www.download.com/3000-2092-10252681.html ] can be tried out for free, but you have to pay a small fee to make them invisible.

On the Internet
=========

Proxy Server
————–

Most users of the office network don’t realize that their internet access goes through a computer called a proxy server.  The most popular is called Squid Cache [ link to  http://www.squid-cache.org/ ]  The point of a proxy server is to store a copy of a webpage, in the likely event that someone will want the same page almost immediately, and thus reduce the amount of data a company has to buy, and the load on the network.

A side affect of the proxy server achieving this is that it keeps a log of your IP address and the web page you have requested.  Therefore, if you are surfing to http://www.fatchicksinpartyhats.com   its highly likely that your network administrators already know and are laughing at you.

Firewall
———
Of course, if you are running a decent firewall  [ link to  http://www.watchguard.com/ ], you already have the ability to monitor all web traffic, stop instant messaging, and block user access to any website you don’t like the look of.  Good bye Facebook.

But did you know that firewall solutions can also be used to inspect every email, and block images, jokes or anything else you don’t like, including attached images with too much skin tones inside the picture.

Mail Marshall [ link to  http://www.marshal.com/pages/whitepapers.asp ] has an interesting paper on the issue of “leakage” of proprietary and confidential data.  Basically staff sending either information home or to competitors or their next employer.  A recent (2006) FBI survey found that 68% of their respondents found it to be a current issue.  Firewall’s can notify you every time a company document leaves your premises and block it if desired.

Mail Server
—————
Many companies run mail servers either on their own network or using a third parties.  Mail servers can do a lot more than just send and receive email.  For instance you can have the mail server send a copy of company policies to every user on a monthly basis.  No one then gets the chance to say…….” I didn’t know “

Google Alerts
—————
Shouldn’t ever forget Google alerts, when your employees go home and blog about their day at the office from their own computer, its nice to know what they are saying.  If you are a bit paranoid, setup an alert on your company name and your own name.  I must admit I have come across a temp on a working holiday, telling his mates in the UK what a slack time he was having at his employers.  Unfortunately he used their name and they quickly terminated him.

Using the Printer
===========
Finally, here is a nice piece of software I found for “Informed Printing”  [ Link to http://www.pharos.com/General_Office/Informed_Print.html ].  This piece of technology will not only audit how much each person is costing you on the printer, but generate a popup everytime thy print, telling the how much their print job will cost, and offering cheaper options.

Its called “Involve your company’s users in the print cost-savings initiative”.  Bastard Bosses have got to be happy with that.