Nuisance calls

Direct marketing: a euphemism for “spam” and “nuisance calls”. I had my own personal brush with “direct marketing” recently. A local company here in Hong Kong (VirtualTech Consultants, if you’re interested) got my e-mail address from somewhere (they wouldn’t tell me where) and I started receiving marketing e-mails on behalf of their customers.

(You may be receiving e-mails from VirtualTech too; the way to tell is to look at the unsubscribe link at the foot of the message; if it’s a link to a web page in the domain interprofs.com then it’s a VirtualTech message.)

Now, here’s why the VirtualTech e-mails started to get on my flabby man-tits. (1) They’re broadly untargeted, selling things that I am not interested in (baby supplies? magical healing herbs?); (2) they’re mostly in Chinese; and (3) the unsubscribe button only removes you from that one single e-mail campaign. Nowhere do they provide the option to have your e-mail address completely removed from their master list.

Last week I ran out of patience, and called the owner of the company on his personal mobile phone. (How did I get that number? It’s at the end of the whois record for interprofs.com… just in case anyone reading this also wants to give him a call; after all, his own business model shows that he’s all in favour of unsolicited communications.) He noted my e-mail address and agreed to remove it from his list. A few days later I had another e-mail from VirtualTech. I called him again. He promised to remove my address from his list. Later that same day, another e-mail, another phone call, another promise… Now, I’m happy to play this game; I will cheerfully telephone the man every time I receive an e-mail for as long as he wants to send me e-mails. Really, it’s no problem. I think he’s going to give up first.

But imagine if you don’t have this opportunity for sporting redress. A letter in today’s SCMP really spelled out the amount of cognitive dissonance and disdain for the consumer in the direct marketing industry. The letter is from a Mr Eugene R. Raitt (who claims to be the Chairman of the Hong Kong Direct Marketing Association; if you’re reading this, Mr Raitt, please click on your name for an important message). The letter is about the Octopus company selling off personal information about people who signed up for its reward scheme. But that’s not the bit that stands out. Mr Raitt says:

Additionally, Mr Cramb has the option any time he receives a call he does not want to inform the calling company that he wishes it to remove his name from its call list, and it will gladly do so.

And as I read this, my blood boiled. Here’s the reality of the situation: I receive an unwanted sales call. When I answer the phone, the caller – hearing my English – immediately hangs up. Or says, “Sorry, wrong number” and hangs up. Or asks, “Do you speak Chinese?” and when I say, “Please do not call this number again” repeats, “Do you speak Chinese?” How, Mr Raitt, am I supposed to “inform the calling company”? Any suggestions?

Mr Raitt goes on to say:

The last thing any company wants is to spend money needlessly contacting people who clearly do not wish to be contacted.

Then where is our do-not-call list, Mr Raitt? Why are the direct marketers not at the front of the queue of people lobbying for a do-not-call list? All we have right now is a list to register our objections to recorded-message sales calls. See, this is exactly the same situation as I have with the VirtualTech Consultants: even if I can get myself removed from one company’s call list, it’s not going to prevent the next company from calling me, or the one after that. I do not wish to receive unsolicited sales calls, and Mr Raitt’s disingenuous claims do not address that at all.

Contrast Mr Raitt’s cynical distortions with the nice guy who runs VirtualTech Consultants. Mr VirtualTech knows he’s in a dirty business that wins you no friends, and yet is unfailingly polite whenever I phone him up to tell him I’ve received another e-mail from his company. I almost feel bad about pestering him. Mr Raitt, on the other hand, tries to pretend that he represents fine, upstanding, honest businesses, and comes across either as someone for whom shameless lies are part of the daily round, or the only inhabitant of a happy fantasy-land populated by community-minded telemarketers.

We’ve replaced this hooker’s regular herpes with the Win32/Wisp.A BackDoor-EMN virus. Let’s see if anyone notices…

The headline: “First human ‘infected with computer virus‘”.

The truth: oh lordy, it’s Captain Cyborg’s protege.

Captain Cyborg is Kevin Warwick, loopy professor of cybernetics at Reading University, who has been inserting bits of electronics under his skin for some years and making extravagant claims about the implications. He is most famous for taking advantage of the Soham murders by offering to implant an electronic tracking device into an eleven year old girl, (an offer that I think should earn him a place on some register or other).

Gasson is Warwick’s sidekick, although it seems the major lesson he’s learnt from the Cap’n is how to be a media whore.

So what about these claims he’s infected himself with a computer virus? I had a few concerned friends forward me the URL, seeking comment. Well, if I put a pregnant rabbit inside my PC case and then issued a press-release: “Computer Gives Birth To Bunnies!” – that would be about the equivalent to Gasson’s little achievement. (Full disclosure: that analogy is not mine, but it is far too superb not to share.)

Gasson, in short, has repeated a fairly dull RFID experiment. But before doing so, he wedged the RFID under his skin. He could equally have poked it into a sausage, or up his arse, and the results of the experiment would have been just as meaningful, but he’d not have got the press exposure because people would have been laughing at him instead, which would be the right response.

Of course, underneath the trashy sensationalist journalism and craven publicity-seeking there is a serious implication to this experiment: implants (pacemakers and such) that are integrated into the human body may become vulnerable to attack using technologies not dissimilar to RFID, and it is incumbent on the manufacturers to bear this in mind.

But the key word there is “integrated”. You achieve the status of cyborg when the technology has been actually integrated with your body, not merely inserted into it. You do not become a cyborg by placing electronics under your skin, even if you then scurry off outside looking for Sarah Connor. Although the whole concept of humans being infected by computer viruses is specious at best, you’d assume that this kind of integration would be a prerequisite.

So, in response to the concerned e-mails I received: you do not need to install Norton Anti-Virus on yourself. Not just yet.

Not even…

Earlier in the month I gave a talk at the Info-Security Conference in Wanchai, defending the PCI DSS against claims that compliance is worthless and does not improve security. At around the same time, I had an article published that contained essentially the same argument (read the PDF here; original article here).

Every day, dishearteningly, I see more and more examples of the kind of businesses to which my presentation and article were referring. Specifically, the ones that are culpably negligent in terms of information security.

Check out, for example, this news story. Nothing particularly unusual about it, but I thought the merchant’s statement was especially illustrative of the kind of attitude of which I see so much. They portray themselves as utterly innocent victims of a “senseless” attack. Bullshit! A senseless attack is when someone randomly punches you in the face while you’re walking home from the pub. Heisting a load of cardholder data makes huge amounts of sense: it’s valuable. And they’re hardly innocent. Wearing a short skirt does not mean you are asking to be raped, but leaving your payment card database hanging out most certainly does mean you’re begging for someone to come along and make a copy or two.

But it’s okay: “authorities” say the attack wasn’t the result of any “wrongdoings” by staff or management. Bullshit again! Management are responsible for securing their data. They neglected to do so. That’s a good, solid piece of wrongdoing right there.

Now, I really don’t mean to single out this one small restaurant, but I see attempts to substitute investment in security with affronted and unconvincing protestations of innocence like this all too often, and that was what sparked my pro-compliance presentation and article.

I sometimes consult for businesses that have got sub-par security. The fact that they’re addressing their poor security absolves them of negligence. Businesses like the aforementioned restaurant are in a whole different league of shame. And so I’m proposing a new terminology for them. Based on Wolfgang Pauli’s dry observation that something can be “not even wrong“, I am choosing to label the security negligent as “not even incompetent”. After all, you can only be incompetent at something if you’ve tried it.

Sadly, this does not surprise me

Wikileaks recently released a video showing incriminating footage of an attack by an American helicopter gunship in Baghdad. Many were killed, including two Reuters journalists, and children were seriously wounded. The Americans claimed this was all within the rules of engagement, but the video footage tells a very different story.

But that’s not what this posting is about. It’s about Facebook’s censorship of this very important subject matter.

The web site Collateral Murder was set up to ensure that the video could reach a wide audience. But interestingly, if you try to post a link to Collateral Murder on Facebook, you get:

“Blocked Content”? Now how did that happen?

A wibbling too far?

An interesting question from Dave over at Dave’s Wibblings:

Here’s my thought for tonight: if someone is blogging pseudonymously, but their true identity is trivially googleable, does anyone have a requirement to keep that identity quiet?

[…] why should I be required to preserve the anonymity of people who are only anonymous to preserve their lifestyle which depends on human trafficking for sex?

[…] why should I preserve the anonymity of some overpaid expat who is using his blog to boast about how much sex he pays to have? While he supports the triad gangs who traffick in women? Or some wanker banker bragging about his conquests. Especially now that these banker types are profiting at everyone else’s expense.

Here’s my take, Dave, as one non-pseudonymous blogger to another. Why don’t you mind your own business?

Has anybody actually asked you to unmask somebody in this manner? No, didn’t think so. Why should they? What you’re actually saying here is, “Ooh, I’ve just done some slick detective work on Google and found out who $blogger is… I really want to spread the word so people can see how clever I am! But I don’t want to look like a playground sneak. I know, I’ll get rhetorical and hope somebody asks me, then I’ll have an excuse to spill the beans!”

Good man. You disapprove of prostitution and fatcat bankers. Me too. But you’re behaving right now like one of those tedious fundamentalist Americans who photograph men coming out of porn shops and post the photos on the web. And I had you tagged as a decent, sensible atheist fellow too.

Dave, if you know the identity of someone who is doing something illegal then take it straight to the police. I’ll applaud you for that, in public if you want; but this snide “I know what you’ve been doing…” business is beneath you. Get a grip.

Edit: Dave deleted his blog posting. Good stuff.

More supermarket shenanigans

Apropos of the previous blog post, something else I’ve noticed that they do in Taste/Park’n’shop is to leave the “This product is out of stock” label covering the shelf prices of products that are clearly in stock and piled up right there in front of you.

Why else would they do this, except to prevent you seeing the unreasonably high prices they charge? The individual items are not marked with prices, so the shopper relies on the shelf price. I have started confiscating “out of stock” tags that are untrue, so the prices are visible once again. I have quite a few already.

Truly, I wish there was somewhere else I could shop. There is a Wellcome in Tung Chung, but it’s woefully local and sells very little of any use.

Whine tasting

My local supermarket, Taste (part of the Park’n’Shop empire), pulled a neat bait and switch on me this evening. Many times on other blogs, or the estimable Not the South China Morning Post web site, I’ve seen articles about Park’n’Shop’s dubious product labelling practices. Today, they got me.

I was in the wine section. They had Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay.

(Wine tasting sidebar: Yes, I know Banrock Station isn’t elite or special, but the unwooded chardonnay is a nice quaffing wine, versatile for cooking, and it’s generally reliable. Suggestions for other wines to try are always massively welcomed, but lectures about my poor taste in Aussie whites will force me to open a Leeuwin Estate and not share it with anyone.)

The wine was labelled at $59 each or $100 for two. I took two.

At the cash desk, the special offer did not materialise. I got charged full price. I complained, and they said there was no special offer on the wine. I went back to check, and this is what I found:

  • The special offer price tag was for “Banrock Station Sem. Char.” You may safely assume the use of tiny print.
  • There was no Banrock Station Semillon Chardonnay anywhere in the wine section
  • There was no price tag anywhere for the Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay
  • The price tag for the Semillon Chardonnay was directly under the Unwooded Chardonnay bottles, up at one edge of the shelving.

Bah, humbug, Park’n’shop. You may be technically in the right, but I have no doubt that this little stunt was deliberate. You do know, Mr Li, that this is a shabby way to treat customers? You do know that this is a cunt’s trick?

So, what’s the big deal? It’s $18 difference. It’s nice wine. I’d probably have bought two bottles anyway, as I have a risotto to cook tomorrow. It’s simple enough: when I shop for food, I don’t want to be on tenterhooks looking for scams all the time like I’m in some crazy grocery-related find-the-lady game. Food-shopping is one of our most basic needs; one would expect it to be accompanied by some basic decencies. Now I know better; it’s time to learn some Cantonese and start shopping at the wet market.

Green dambusters

It’s not all over the news any more, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away. I’ve been pondering the Green Dam situation a lot recently, because – for whatever crazy libertarian reason – I find that I simply cannot agree 100% with its detractors.

Actually, I love the idea. This is one of the two areas in which I am in agreement with the Chinese Communist Party, the other being persecution of Falun Gong. (I should add, though, that my motives for both are quite different from the CCP’s.)

See, I find the “protect the children” brigade thoroughly tiresome. The Australians went as far as trying to implement ISP-level porn-blocking to “protect the children”. Apparently Kevin Rudd didn’t just pick up some Mandarin while he was in China. But “protect the children” is an international problem, not just antipodean.

So we have this group who opine that the Internet needs to be “child-friendly”, i.e. everything unsuitable for children should be removed. That’s going to make the Internet pretty useless. You wouldn’t expect adults to watch nothing except childrens’ television, would you? Or just read childrens’ books? Then why would you expect them to approve of a “childrens’ Internet”? I’m all in favour of not letting kids watch porn, but if that means that adults can’t watch porn too, then something’s gone awry.

Call me a cynic, but isn’t “protect the children” a badly-concealed excuse for skirting around the true aims of the campaigners? I have a measure of respect for good old-fashioned bigots who are prepared to be honest about how they just want things that they disapprove of to be banned. Compare that to the dissembling of a “Focus on the Family” type organisation which has exactly the same agenda but hides it behind their “for the children” rubric. And, of course, “for the children” is rebuttal-proof. You can’t argue against a measure that is “for the children”, or else you’re a vile child-hater. You approve of Internet porn? Why do you hate children!? Etc etc etc.

I’ve debated with a few of these types and asked why they don’t just take action to protect their children. The usual answer is that their kids are very well protected, but what concerns them more are all the other kids who don’t have the benefit of insane parents. And with that reasoning, they’ll continue their campaign to have porn blocked at the ISP level and make sure we all get nothing more taxing than Sesame Street on YouTube.

Hence, the logic of Green Dam was instantly attractive when I first heard about it. It’s the perfect solution: a content filter that is installed (or at least shipped) with all PCs, which will prevent the underage from stumbling on www.analmidgets.com, and which can be disabled or uninstalled by grown-ups with a tolerance for such things. It won’t shut the prudes up, but it might force them to admit the real reason for their complaints, and that makes them easier to debate. And critically, it moves the role of censorship away from the network and onto the workstations.

Of course, successful implementation relies on the software (a) not being filled with stupid security glitches that show a total lack of software quality control, (b) not being largely stolen from another company, (c) not being full of government back-doors (open source would be a sine qua non, I think), and (d) not being way, way too sensitive so that your applications are constantly shut down without warning just because you typed something slightly frowned-upon.

So: ten out of ten for the idea, but minus several million for the execution. I’m anticipating the release of version 2 of Green Dam with genuine curiousity. Of course, it will still be intrusive and flawed, but if it reduces the argument in favour of the Great Firewall of China even one iota, then it’s a step in the right direction.

Tung Chung FAQ (part 2)

Apart from people seeking commercial sex in Tung Chung (see the FAQ part 1), the other search engine queries that turn up many times a day are from peckish people searching for food delivery services.

Now, eating out in Tung Chung is woeful, for the most part. We have:

  • The Aviator: poor food at high prices
  • Pizza Hut: poor food at high prices
  • Delifrance: Incredibly poor food at high prices
  • Starz Bar: Microwaved plastic food at high prices
  • Spaghetti House: Bland but inoffensive, although they did once serve a friend of mine with a pizza that included a plastic bag between the base and the topping
  • Food Republic: Well, it’s a food court. You wait ages for your food while standing up, and when you have it you won’t be able to find anywhere to sit. Once you have sat, you are haunted by other people hovering nearby holding rapidly cooling meals and waiting for you to leave. Also, Food Republic manages to have a back door but no front door.
  • That new restaurant under the cable car, whatever its name is: Can’t even be bothered to go look, because the menu they dropped in my mailbox had “Chinese Western-style Food” scrawled all over it, i.e. bad steak, overcooked and served with fried rice. I’m the last person to lambast Chinese food – I love it in all its forms – but they cannot butcher, so anything involving western cuts of meat is a guaranteed failure. Also, some of my chums have tried this restaurant and say it’s pretty bad.
  • KFC: KFC
  • McDonalds: Gone, in accordance with CityGate’s policy that an Outlet Mall must contain nothing other than outlets, which is why we don’t have any HSBC ATMs any more either.
  • Eastern Gate: Nice dimsums (but a very limited menu; where’s the tripe fried in black pepper? where’s the no mai gai?), long, long queue, and the wait staff get incredibly surly if you overstay while they’re trying to set things up for the Sunday afternoon geriatric mah jong sessions.
  • The Thai in the Basement: Some say they like it. I find the food unsubtle and unsophisticated; the sweet-and-sour tastes like ketchup. If you want Thai, go to Melody Thai in Tung Chung Village, where the phanang curry will make you squeak with pleasure, and the full-strength tom yam goong will just make you squeak.

There are other options, but generally I don’t bother eating out in Tung Chung. Kowloon and the Island have a million better alternatives.

You can get food delivered in Tung Chung and it’s not always a bad option. The Handi Tandoori (again, out in Tung Chung Village) does magnificent and authentic Indian food and will bring it right to your door. The aptly named “Pizza and Chicken Experts” will deliver… well, I never used them, but I see their bikes about the place. I assume they’re delivering pizza and chicken.

And now McDonalds claim to deliver as well. I guess they bike it over from Yat Tung, where clothing outlets know their place. In fact I actually tried to order food from MaccyD’s delivery service recently. The nice lady telephonist, whose English was unexpectedly good, told me that “the chef is very busy” and the order would arrive in “one hour and forty minutes”.

Firstly, chef?

Secondly, who waits nearly two hours for a quarter-pounder? McDonalds food is the very last resort for a terminally tired guy who needs a protein-stuffed comfort food fix before lapsing into unconsciousness. It has no features sufficiently redeeming to justify an hour and 40 minutes delay. I cancelled the order and, as a result, added two days to the far end of my lifespan.

And just to annoy all the folks who’ve waded all through this diatribe in the hope of finding phone numbers for Pizza and Chicken Expert, McDonalds, or the Handi Tandoori – yes, I have them all, and no, I’m not publishing them. Not unless they start paying me commission.

In-grad-itude

A letter in today’s SCMP struck a chord. It’s from a chap called Clive Chan in Kowloon Tong, and I’d like to buy him a beer. Here’s an extract. The emphases are mine.

I refer to Alex Hung’s letter (“Internship scheme must not be used to exploit graduates”, March 24).

While appreciating his concern for our young graduates, I do not agree with his view. I think it is time for our young graduates to learn the harsh reality of life. During the years leading up to the financial meltdown our young graduates benefited from a booming economy and it was not uncommon for them to jump ship a couple of months after landing their first job simply for a few hundred dollars more in salary or because of a stern reproof from their superiors. In a thriving economy employers often waste a lot of resources in training young graduates who show no gratitude for the opportunities they have been given.

Instead of repaying their employers with hard work and loyalty these young people are often conceited and critical of their bosses. The prevalent child-centred family culture does not help to produce disciplined and responsible graduates. They often lack punctuality, initiative and neatness. Employers, particularly those of small and medium-sized enterprises, will be hesitant to join the internship scheme unless they know for sure the graduates will stay in the job after the initial training period and produce tangible profits for them.

Having been bitten thusly, I couldn’t agree more.