Thursday, October 02, 2008

Skype monitored in China: intra- and international

The security of Skype as a missionary communications medium interests me.  I wrote about the German authorities difficulty with Skype's encrypted traffic here.

Then yesterday the New York Times had an article discussing the censoring, monitoring and archiving of Skype conversations.  For background Skype has developed a client (program you use on your computer) for use in mainland China in cooperation with local telecommunications company TOM.  The client, TOM-Skype, sends all of its traffic through TOM where it is censored, monitored and, apparently archived, says a Canadian activist group.

The activists, who are based at Citizen Lab, a research group that focuses on politics and the Internet at the University of Toronto, discovered the surveillance operation last month. They said a cluster of eight message-logging computers in China contained more than a million censored messages. They examined the text messages and reconstructed a list of restricted words.


The list also serves as a filter to restrict text conversations. The encrypted list of words inside the Tom-Skype software blocks the transmission of those words and a copy of the message is sent to a server. The Chinese servers retained personal information about the customers who sent the messages. They also recorded chat conversations between Tom-Skype users and Skype users outside China. The system recorded text messages and Skype caller identification, but did not record the content of Skype voice calls.

I had first heard about this earlier this week when a reader emailed me, cautioning me about Skype use China.  The reader mentioned the joint TOM-Skype conversation.  In fact, it turns out that this isn't news.  The Financial Times ran an article in April of 2006 citing the way TOM censored text messages.  Skype commented on that article the same month.

The NYT article is the first to point out, as best I can tell, that that message traffic is both being censored (previously documented) AND archived.  In the 2006 FT article Skype's chief executive, Niklas Zennström, said:

“One thing that’s certain is that those things are in no way jeopardising the privacy or the security of any of the users.”

The reality may be quite different.  According to the NYT the system is recording the messages and personal information of the users in- and out-side Chine.  It does not, apparently, record the content of audio conversations.

This is an interesting development for those of us who may work in politically sensitive environments.  While China is probably a bit of an "edge-case" when it comes to government monitoring of telecommunications it is a cautionary tale for all of us.

UPDATE: Skype's president comments on the story here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Skype 4.0 beta 2 release shifts focus

The good folks at Skype have just released version 4.0 beta 2 and it's a step in the right direction.  The previous beta came out in June, I believe, and it annoyed me.  Fortunately, it must have annoyed a lot of people.  After studying 350,000 users Skype is redesigning the look and feel of version 4 and bringing back some of the older flexibility.

If I had to explain it I would say that the older version had a user interface that balanced the text, voice and video capabilities of Skype.  Beta one skewed the focus all the way over to video and made text a little more awkward to use.  That was an important change for me as not everyone I communicate with has Internet service capable of supporting video, much less a quality voice connection.

Mike Bartlett, from Skype explains more.

See also the Skype blog,  JK, DownloadSquadSaunders and download it here.

How do you know if you've reached your limit?

All of us who live overseas have to contend with interesting Internet connections.  Those may range from "all you can eat," mega-fast broadband connections in western Europe to periodic satellite pings for a friend of mine in West Africa.  Some packages have transfer limits imposed by the provider.  Hit your limit and your service gets interrupted just before you send off that monthly report.  How can you tell when you're close to reaching your limit?  How can you tell what kind of download speed you're really getting, as opposed to the one advertised in the local language of your choice.

image BitMeter is a little application that will track both your connection speed and your data consumption over hours, days and months.  It will help you verify your up/download speeds AND monitor your transfer limits.

It's a free, handy tool for keeping track of your usage.

via jkOnTheRun

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Document collaboration in "Plain English"

Lee Lefever has created another of his wonderful explanations of technology "in plain English."  This one is about using Google Docs to  collaborate between groups of people.  (I've written about Google Docs a number of times before including here, and here.)

While sometimes it's difficult to help people to understand the power inherent in collaborative authoring.  Lefever does a great job.

There are a couple of limitations with Google Docs that you should be aware of. First, documents with complex formatting do not render well.  I've had this problem in two cases.  The first is with a document in large A3  (roughly 11x13) format that contains our team's strategic plan.  The document contains a large number of cells that just don't reproduce at all in Docs; it's unusable.  The second case was a learning contract I was working on with an intern.  It was a normal multi-page document that had a lot of spacing and tabs in it.  It didn't render well either, though it worked fine in Zoho (which I've written about here).

The third thing to keep in mind is that it obviously assumes that you have an Internet connection.  That's not a given where many of us work.  At the same time, if you regularly work on documents with teammates who live far from you (as in another continent) Google Docs and/or Zoho Writer are great tools.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

OneNote Printer disappearing with 09 Sept08 Windows Update

OneNote's "send to OneNote" printer driver has an annoying tendency to disappear without warning.  The problem is that I use it far more often than my physical printer.

Apparently a the 9-Sept-08 Windows Update caused more a wholesale disappearances of the driver.  See the post at Daniel Escapa's OneNote Blog.  One commenter, Rainald Taesler, points out that this has been an ongoing problem since the program's launch and nobody at the ON team seems to be paying attention.  Go get 'm Rainald.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Travel Tips: New TSA Laptop bag rules

Starting today the Transportation Safety Administration is adopting new rules for traveling with laptops.  For years we've had to take them out of our carry on for separate x-ray.  I've still had to turn it on in some places top prove it actually was a functioning laptop.

These below types of laptop bags will allow you to put your laptop through the the x-ray device without removing it.  These bags allow the laptop to lay flat without zippers, snaps and other metal objects between the laptop and the x-ray.


These types of bags are no goes...which is a particular bummer for me, as I travel with a backpack.


You can find more information on the TSA site here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Skype 3.8 for Windows goes public with audio improvements

Our favorite, free communications program just got a little better.

The main improvements can be found under the hood of the audio engine. In the real world, this translates to significantly reduced background noise, less delay, fewer call drops, and fewer cut-outs. And if you change your headset, headphones or microphone, there's no need to mess around with sound settings. 3.8 takes care of it behind the scenes.

One technologically minor but user-friendly change is this: by default, we've hidden the users profile image in incoming authorization requests. Some people have been using offensive images, so we decided to put them behind a veil. You can still see the hidden avatar if you click on it.

The release also includes a number of video-related bug fixes... And even if you're happy with an older version of Skype, we recommend upgrading to the latest.

You can find more, including the download link, here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Record setting skyscraper to go up in Prishtina

A four hundred million euro skyscraper is being built in the capital of Kosovo, Prishtina.  Hmm

The complex is located on Bill Clinton Boulevard close to the center of Prishtina on an area of 26,000 m2. With a floor space of 285,000 m2, the complex consists of 100 luxury apartments, a 165 m 42-story-high high-end office tower, the highest in the Balkans, a shopping center, a hotel and six level subterranean garages.

Err...don't get me wrong.  I'm all for skyscrapers and everything, but what kind of generator do you need for a 42 story building when there's not enough electricity as it is?

via New Kosova Report

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Skype to sell unlimited international calls for $9.95/month

Skype is rolling out a new international pricing plan. 

The plan will allow unlimited calls to land-line phones in 34 countries for $9.95 per month, said Don Albert, vice president and general manager for Skype North America.

The countries encompassed include most of Europe, plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Malaysia.

Calls to domestic land lines and cell phones are included as well, as are calls to cell phones in Canada, China, Hong Kong and Singapore, but not cell phones in other countries.

from Yahoo News

Good news for Missions execs.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bloggers get free access to Encyclopedia Britannica

TechCrunch reported yesterday that Encyclopedia Britannica is granting one-year free access to "web publishers."  If you're  a blogger, webmaster or someone "who publish[es] with some regularity on the Internet" you qualify.

If you're interested head over to Britannica Webshare and check out the details.  You have to click on "register" and fill out a short form that includes the URL of your site.  I got a response in less that 24 offers that included an offer code that allowed me to "order EB for one year. 

I'm not sure how often I'll reference Encyclopedia Britannica, but it's a $70 value.  That's access to 44 million words of quality information for free!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

YouTube mini-analytics inform video posting strategy

As part of my work as a missionary I create short, low-quality, low- tech videos for friends, family and supporters back home.  Because of my context I upload some of those to YouTube, others only for my FaceBook friends and others to a server and link to the video in an email  which I send out selectively.  I do this to protect the identity of the participants.

But the folks at YouTube have given me another reason to host my videos there: mini-analytics.  You can now know how many times your video has been watched, when and in which country. 

For example, in December we participated with Samaritans Purse to distribute Christmas giftboxes in Kosovo.  To document that effort I shot a two-minute video at the gift distribution site, an elementary school in a nearby city.  Here is that video which was posted on December 15th, 2007.

videoviews-countIt's easy to see how many times the video has been watch; it's out in front.  In this case, it's 184.  That's about average for my videos; my audience is very small.  That doesn't really tell us much though.  When did those 184 views happen?  My assumption, before discovering the analyitics, was that most of those views came within a few days of the video's original post.  I should have known better and learned a lot from this new feature.

Finding the Analytics

image To find your analytics log into YouTube and click on "my videos."  Find the video you're interested in and select, "about this video" on the right hand side.



You'll be taken to an interactive map with a scrollable timeline on the left and a map on the right.  The timeline can be moved from the video's original post date to the current date.  By scrolling through the view history you can easily find when the most views occurred; the map shows you the view density for that period.


What I found surprised me. I had assume that most people would watch the video within a few days of it being uploaded.  I could not have been more wrong.  In fact, based on the timeline above, only about ten people watched this video within the first three days.  Had I imageknown that then, I probably would have quickly quit shooting video!

But if you look closely, you'll see a big spike about halfway through the timeline.  When I scroll over to that peak and select USA from the map view this is what I see.


Now I can see that on about February 18 about fifty-five people viewed the video.  Slightly less than a third of the total views happened on one day, two months after I posted the video.  They were mostly in North Carolina, but also in WI, NY and a few other states (the shading represents view density).  So what happened on Feb 18?  I have no idea.  But here are a few implications I've gleaned.


  1. Videos have much longer legs than I thought.  Their timeliness isn't determined by the poster, but by the viewer.  Videos are watched months after their posted.  They need to be easy to find.
  2. I cannot predict when a video will attract someone's interest or why.
  3. Because of the first two points, missionary videos should be posted to a service that allows them to be aggregated under the poster's identity.  They should be easily searchable and storable.

I mentioned before that I post some videos to a server and send the link in a prayer letter.  I do that if the video has a lot of church members' faces or other identifiers.  Because I work in a nominally Muslim country I try to be careful.  But that "security" comes at a cost.  Most viewers will watch a video in ones or twos in the months that follow, not within a couple of days of the video becoming available.  A prayer letter with a link will get deleted or forgotten before the video's "long tale" has a change to grow.  Videos I distribute by link alone will be watched much less than those posted to a hosting site like YouTube (there are many others too).

If you're using video to communicate your work or ministry, I would highly recommend that it be permanently linkable, searchable, storable and aggregated under your identity.  People will watch your videos long after you've forgotten about posting them.  Make it easy for them to find.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Great SugarSync demo video

There has been a lot happening in the on-line storage and sync space recently. For example, here, here, here, here, and here.

Back in January I wrote about a new player in sync/backup called SugarSync.  SugarSync, which is new to sync/backup but not to online services, backs up everything (or as much of everything as you choose).  It also syncs with all your chosen devices (Mac, Windows & phone) and makes it all available, through a secure connection, to any Internet-connected computer.

The below video shows a great demo of how the product works which James Kendrik pointed out.

After using it in beta for several months I bought a one-year subscription, which set me back $25.  I rarely buy services or software always preferring FREE.  But this was too good a service to pass up.  [DISCLAIMER: After buying a one-year subscription, the kind folks at SugarSync gave me a free life-time 100GB plan (though they didn't refund my $25 :) ).]

Honestly, I now worry far less about lugging my laptop around knowing that I can get anything I need wherever there's an Internet connected computer.  And while I have a fairly robust backup strategy in place, it's only as good as it's weakest link...which is usually me.

If you're looking for an online backup and synchronization service SugarSync is worth a look.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Always Reliable Makfax says 6 Feb Independence Day

Here's a quick clip from Makfax, quoting Radio Kosovo.  Independence may be declared on 6 February.

The independence of Kosovo will be declared on 6 February, Radio Kosovo cited sources close to the Kosovo's PM Hashim Thaci as saying. Radio Kosovo said that the document on declaration of independence will be adopted on 6 February in the Kosovo's Parliament, which would be followed by recognition by other countries. The same source added that the Parliament has already embarked upon preparations for that historic event, but did not specify whether will the European Union act in package or the recognition would be carried out by each country individually.

There was a lot in the media today about the EU and US having coordinated a date with the local government.  We'll see what happens.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

James Blunt music video recalls the tragedy

I don't know how I missed this music video, but it is absolutely worth three and a half minutes. As the push for independence crawls on, as various US, EU, Serbian and Russian diplomats take the world stage with their proxies in tow, it is all to easy to forget what really happened here.

Award-winning, and Grammy Nominee James Blunt  wrote the song, "No Bravery" while an officer in the British Army serving in Kosovo.  As a captain Blunt was the first British officer to enter the capital, Prishtina, in 1999.

This music video relates some of his experience.

via FreeKosova

Thursday, January 17, 2008

SugarSync backs up & syncs everything - it may be everything I'm looking for

Today Read/Write/Web had an exclusive review and presentation of Sharpcast's new SugarSync product.  Though SugarSync is in closed beta, RWW had 1500 invites, and I scored one (thanks guys!!).  In a nutshell, SugarSync syncs and backs up all of your data into the cloud (their secure servers) and allows you to use your data from practically any device, including your mobile phone.

According to RWW, Sharpcast CEO, Gibu Thomas, calls this ability to use, back-up and sync data across multiple devices the the "holy grail" of web apps.  I would agree with his assertion.

Other applications handle some of this.  I've been impressed with DocSyncer, for example, and have written about it here and here.  Though it keeps your stuff synced in real-time, it only keeps your Microsoft Office/Google Docs stuff synchronized.  Several times over the last couple of days I've been over at our community center working on things when I needed a file.  I thought, no problem, I'll log into DocSyncer ....ooops.  Then I'd remember it wasn't a Word doc, it was a PDF file.  Nuts, now I have go back to my house and grab my laptop/flashdrive/etc.

SugarSync brings everything into the cloud; everything you tell it to, that is.  It also works in real-time.  When you modify a document on your computer, it is synced to the SugarSync secure servers.  If you create a document on a public computer you can, through SugarSync's secure web portal, sync that doc back to your home computer or laptop.

image A free account will apparently get your 1GB of storage, with upgrades available.  I am only syncing a portion of my "My Documents" and it weighed in at 2.4 GB.  Fortunately, extra space is free during the beta period.  Oh, and did I mention that with my awesome Kosovar Internet, it will take 15 days to sync up all my stuff?  Once it's uploaded, however, synchronization is reportedly quite fast.

Again, this product is in closed beta, but keep your eyes open for it, and read the article at RRW.  There is a huge amount of potential for this product, especially for those of us who travel regularly, and like to travel light.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Language Study Tools: Express Scribe - Transcription Playback

Most career missionaries devote a significant amount of time to learning and working with some foreign language.  We've all had occasion to transcribe some verbal "text" from our adopted language into English, or vice versa.  It's usually a bit of a painful process, juggling tape recorders, MP3 players and computer keyboards.

Express Scribe is a free, powerful piece of transcription software that may just make that job easier.

    1. Variable speed playback (constant pitch).
    2. Supports many professional foot pedals which connect to the game, serial or USB port to control playback. More info...
    3. Uses 'hot' keys to control playback when using other software (eg. Word).
    4. Ability to dock both analog and digital portable recorders to load recordings.
    5. Works with Microsoft Word and all major word-processor applications.
    6. Automatically receives and loads files by internet (FTP), email or over a local computer network.
    7. Automatically sends typing to the person who dictated the work.
    8. Works with speech recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking to automatically convert speech to text.
    9. Loads CD audio directly - listen as it loads in the background.
    10. Integrate with dictation management systems using the Express Scribe SDK.
    11. Works with FastFox typing utility to turn difficult medical/legal phrases and common terms into mere shortcuts from your keyboard.
    12. Express Scribe is free.

via DownloadSquad

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Skype To Go: Make calls from any phone, including your mobile

I've mentioned, numerous times, how much money Skype has saved our parent organization. Skype To Go is part of the Skype Pro plan and allows you to call nearly anyone from your land line or mobile at really attractive rates.

I can see US mission executives or regional leaders embracing this kind of solution for lowering their tel-com expenditures as well as giving them more calling options.

Here's the latest information from the Skype Blogs:

How does the new To Go number work? It’s simple:

  • Sign up to a local Skype to Go number which you can call from anywhere in your country. See below for available Skype to Go countries.
  • Register online by adding up to six of your favourite friends phone numbers or Skype addresses you want to reach.
  • A friendly Skype voice will also guide you on the phone to tap in a phone number or select one of your six favourite friends from your speed dial list.

What are the costs?

  • Skype Pro subscription fee is €2 (€2.30 with VAT included) per month
  • The cost of a local call to your Skype to Go number (maybe part of your inclusive minutes, mobile or otherwise)
  • Plus the cost of the SkypeOut call to the country of destination number

The last item really bears checking out.  For example, the last time I checked, it was just as in/expensive to call from the US to Kosovo through Skype as through a Warehouse store calling card.

Xobni getting good press, offers Outlook plug-in

Xobni (inbox spelled backwards) is a windows-only, freeware application that adds some pretty neat features to Microsoft Outlook.  Some of these features are really gee-whiz and some actually seem pretty useful.

imageBasically Xobni adds another panel to the right side of Outlook which displays all kinds of helpful information about your email.

It displays some of the sender's contact info, the frequency of their emails, times at which they're sent, etc.  It also provides threading for your conversations, which is actually pretty neat too.  That is, you can click on a particular conversation and Xobni will assemble the thread in the panel.

Check out the video for a better explanation.

Both TechCrunch and LifeHacker have good write ups (and invite codes to boot).  See also Web Worker Daily and Mashable as well. 

Xobni is in private beta at the moment.  I've got 5 invites if anyone is interested in trying it out.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Typeroom Simplifies Web Page Editing Online

Many of us have been in the situation where someone has done some web-design work for us for free and then wandered off our social graph.  You either don't have time to change the site, or you don't know enough HTML to pull it off.  Your donated website ends up languishing somewhere, unloved, un-updated, un-hit.

Typeroom may provide the answer for you.  Typeroom is a web-based site design tool, but with a twist.  It allows you to do web design with its layout tools, as do many other companies in this space.  But Typeroom allows you to enter a specific web site which it then copies to its own servers for editing.  Once on their servers you can edit the site with their WYSIWIG editing tools.  You can take that old, donated site and spruce it up to your heart's content.

Once you've made your edits Typeroom can reload the finished product back to your own server.  Check out the video for a better explanation.

Right now Typeroom is in closed Beta, but if I can wrangle an invite I'll let you know.  I have a languishing website that badly needs editing.

via TechCrunch

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Official Google Docs Blog: New features for 2008!

According to the Official Google Docs blog you can expect new features in your GDocs account.  In addition to now being able to embed presentations Google is also releasing these features.

* you can now embed presentations anywhere online.

* Sub-folders, sub-folders, sub-folders...try selecting one of your folders and then choose New > voila!

* Rename documents and folders from the Docs home toolbar (the Rename option is now between Delete and More Actions).

These are some of the top requested features from users, according to the blog.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Google Extra gives you more in your search

Ryan at Cybernet has posted a great little greasemonkey script that gives you more bang for your (free) Google Search buck.  It's called "Google Extra" and it utilizes the abundant right-side white space that a Google search normally gives you.

If you look at the search below on "Kosovo" with the script enabled you'll notice a number of areas that have been added to the return.


First, on the left column, is a short section of news returns and then, underneath, the normal Google search list.  On the right column, which is normally just white-space you'll find an image section, followed by videos, Wikipedia and entry.  [Note, I have an additional image group at the top of the left column.  That's an artifact from another script or plug-in.]

You can re-order the right-hand column returns.  Hovering over an image or video shows you a larger version of the image or thumbnails from the video.

Get the script here.

Via DownloadSquad

Discovering vs Teaching Four Uses

Not long ago someone wrote me and asked, "what's so great about  It looks great, but I don't quite get it."  It's a good question and one that begs the previous question, why hasn't, a powerful social bookmarking application, and services like it, gone mainstream?

I just discovered a great post from John Udell asking these same questions.  Udell believes, quoting Richard Ziade, that hasn't gone mainstream for one of three reasons:

    1. Nobody really needs a way to centrally store their bookmarks
    2. Most people don’t understand what does
    3. People don’t feel compelled to share with others

I agree with Udell that the answer is almost certainly number two.  People just don't understand what does.  He writes a nice description of his top four uses here.

The title of Udell's post tells you what the article is really about, "Discovering versus teaching principles of social information management."  That's the key to so many Internet technologies.