Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This is not a Hoax

image List the horrors out there on the internet. Let me guess what makes your list. Viruses. Spam. Spyware. Credit card fraud. Porn. Old pictures of you from when you were in secondary school. One thing that I bet will not make your list is internet hoaxes. Hoaxes are not dramatic. They don’t keep your computer from working. They don’t take money from out of your pocket. So why care about hoaxes? There are several reasons you should.

A hoax, according to Wikipedia is “a deliberate attempt to dupe, deceive or trick an audience into believing, or accepting, that something is real, when the hoaxster (sic) knows it is not; or that something is true, when it is false.” The most familiar types of hoaxes are April Fool’s Jokes.

Hoaxes have been around for far longer than the internet, but like for so many other things the internet has accelerated the ability to spread hoaxes. In that lies their potential for great damage. One of the most common types of hoaxes out there are virus hoaxes. For example:

Some miscreant is sending email under the title "Good Times" nationwide, if you get anything like this, DON'T DOWN LOAD THE FILE!
It has a virus that rewrites your hard drive, obliterating anything it. Please be careful and forward this mail to anyone you care about. The FCC released a warning last Wednesday concerning a matter of major importance to any regular user of the Internet. Apparently a new computer virus has been engineered by a user of AMERICA ON LINE that is unparalleled in its destructive capability. Other more well-known viruses such as "Stoned", "Airwolf" and "Michaelangelo" pale in comparison to the prospects of this newest creation by a warped mentality. What makes this virus so terrifying, said the FCC, is the fact that no program needs to be exchanged for a new computer to be infected. It can be spread through the existing email systems of the Internet.
Once a Computer is infected, one of several things can happen. If the computer contains a hard drive, that will most likely be destroyed. If the program is not stopped, the computer's processor will be placed in an nth-complexity infinite binary loop - which can severely damage the processor if left running that way too long. Unfortunately, most novice computer users will not realize what is happening until it is far too late. Luckily, there is one sure means of detecting what is now known as the "Good Times" virus. It always travels to new computers the same way in a text email message with the subject line reading "Good Times". Avoiding infection is easy once the file has been received simply by NOT READING IT! The act of loading the file into the mail server's ASCII buffer causes the "Good Times" mainline program to initialize and execute.
The program is highly intelligent - it will send copies of itself to everyone whose email address is contained in a receive-mail file or a sent-mail file, if it can find one. It will then proceed to trash the computer it is running on.
The bottom line is: - if you receive a file with the subject line "Good Times", delete it immediately! Do not read it" Rest assured that whoever's name was on the "From" line was surely struck by the virus. Warn your friends and local system users of this newest threat to the Internet! It could save them a lot of time and money.
Could you pass this along to your global mailing list as well?

Now this may seem like a harmless, though annoying joke, but it has the potential to cause quite a bit of trouble. Many hoaxes ask you to take some kind of action or the other. For instance, delete a file from your computer or stop using a particular product or adopt a particular perspective on something. Then it also usually asks you to forward the email to everyone you know. this is where the internet effect comes into play. Say you forward to 100 people and those 100 people forward to another 100 and so on and so forth. In a matter of seconds, that email could be in a 100 million mailboxes. If we assume 10KB for each copy, That’s 1TB (1,000 GB) of storage space consumed with false information that is spread, not by some insidious mechanism like a virus, spam or a trojan, but by gullible people hitting the forward button. That is bad enough but it can get worse. Now supposing you, and 10 percent of the other recipients (10 million people) actually act on the suggestion of the hoax. This could potentially result in 10 million support calls to a service provider because they deleted an important, or 10 million people who go to see a doctor because of imagined symptoms, or a business that loses millions of dollars in lost business because of a hoax about cockroaches in their factories. Now look at it from a different perspective, supposing, again 10 percent of the hundred million people read the email and spend 1 minute on it. That is 10 million minutes. Which is nearly 170,000 man-hours. If we assume a totally arbitrary five dollars per hour that is $850,000 lost.

You get the idea.

What should you do with hoaxes? Ignore them. Don’t forward them. Don’t hit “reply to all” asking that no more should be sent to you. Kill it dead. Of course, it is not always clear that it is a hoax. However hoaxes usually have the following characteristics.

  • Hoaxes toss up well known names in the industry they address in order to give an air of authenticity. So a virus hoax may invoke Microsoft, Symantec (makers of Norton Antivirus) and CNN (to get the media angle). A hoax about a disease may invoke the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A financial hoax may invoke the name of a bank.
  • Hoaxes ask that you forward to as many people as you know. They have usually already been sent to a lot of people, so you will often see a lot of email addresses already in the email.
  • They usually claim catastrophic effects. A virus that will bring down the internet. A plot to ban all preachers from American television. A company who will donate 1 dollar for every email forwarded to the live-saving operation of a little child.
  • Some technical, professional or scientific sounding information. Most people believe that people who sling around technical terms are speaking the truth – the worship of the expert.

There are websites out there that keep track of hoaxes: www.snopes.com, www.museumofhoaxes.com, and one of the better ones, www.hoax-slayer.com. Your favourite antivirus software will also have information about current hoaxes on their website. The cartoon is courtesy of www.paultempleton.co.uk.

Hoaxes can cause as much damage as the better known internet horrors out there. Unfortunately, there is no technical tool to keep them away. You just need to have a healthy dose of scepticism and go easy on the forward button.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Go From Consumer To Creator.

The billboard dominated the landscape drawing the eye to it. The image on it is forgettable. Some young hustler obviously making his bid for success. The words, however, are memorable: “Go do Something”. Right now I forget whether the message was from MTN or GLO, but I cannot forget the words. The message is not new, nor is the idea a foreign one to me. The thought was not initiated by the sight of the billboard, but the tall white text does crystallise it for me.

Today, the ordinary person is suddenly capable of impacting the world in a way that has never before been seen. The ability to make changes, for good or bad, was once within the ambit of nations or the traditionally wealthy. For the self-starter it often took many years to accomplish anything and even longer for the impact to be seen. Technology has changed all that. Death has been called the “Great Equaliser”, well the internet comes a close second. Which is why so many are trying to address the issue of the digital divide. If we can bring the internet and information technology to many of the world’s poorest and most deprived people, these same people can not only change their own lives, but can in turn reach out to the world and change it.

Image Courtesy: crimzonblue on flickr

So this week, I have to say the same words to everyone out there who already have access to the internet - go do something. Use the technology you have access to to change the world around you. There are many things we use the internet for everyday. Entertainment, education, communication, acquisition. Yet much of what we do with the internet enriches no one but ourselves. That was the old internet where we went to consume the content that was out there. Usually, it was created by someone else, usually by some expert with specialised knowledge and some arcane capabilities to bring that information to the net. Today’s internet is one where every ordinary person can create something and put it out there for all the world to use.

There are many ways, with a little effort, that every Nigerian on the internet can do something that changes someone’s life for the better. It is almost frighteningly easy to do so. Many of the things you can do are free with the only cost to you the internet connection and computer (and if you can use someone else’s computer and connection even that is free). You can even use a phone. It is that easy. I should add that when I say “change the world” or “change someone’s life” I do not necessarily mean free services. Doing free stuff is very worthwhile and we also should find some way to give freely of ourselves. However those kinds of change are also what all great business enterprises are built on. The greatest business enterprise at the end of the 20th Century, Microsoft had the vision of putting a computer in every home. This vision took Microsoft to where it is today and is central to the worldwide computer revolution. So “go do something” could definitely mean go implement some great business idea that affects all of us positively.

Permit me to make a few suggestions.


I’m blogging because it’s the easiest way for a writer to put his work out there for people to read. You can write short pieces that shares ideas, critiques systems, encourages people or shares news. You can crusade for the homeless, You can record your adventures in the business world or record your sorrows. You can even serialise a novel. Easy. One of the most popular sites to blog from is www.blogger.com – my host and it is free. It is even easier to use www.posterous.com. You don’t need to sign up for anything. Send an email containing your first blog post as text to Posterous and they will set up your blog for you. With just a little bit of effort you can even set up your blog with the potential to make money from Google AdSense (by the way, click on the occasional advert on this page if you please) or some other service. You don’t need a publisher or distribution mechanism. Write it, post it, share it and it’s out there.


If you’ve used the internet for more than a day, you must have heard of Wikipedia. The free online encyclopaedia enables everybody create entries and edit existing entries. So you can contribute towards entries about Nigeria or about the Yoruba nation. You can add to the world body of knowledge on jurisprudence, or record the recipe for Zobo. This is still writing but unlike a personal blog, Wikipedia entries show up high in Google searches and a more likely place to be heard. More importantly, it is huge planet-spanning collaborative effort.

Become a Reporter

A few months ago, the brutal beating of young lady on the streets of Lagos caught the world’s (or at least the nation’s attention) because someone with a camera phone recorded the incident and posted to the web on CNN’s iReport. This incident, unfortunately not an uncommon one, was the subject of international outrage simply because someone spent a few minutes recording then uploading. Now if someone would mount a tiny camera on their car and capture the name tags of all the men in black collecting 20 naira…


YouTube is the world’s most popular site for video posts and has developed a reputation for being a repository for utter rubbish. However, YouTube, like the internet itself is morally neutral – it takes on the character of the content providers. So, if you choose to, you can create a huge amount of quality content on YouTube. For instance, an auteur (budding or established) can create trailers or even short films and distribute then on the internet as means to introduce people to his or her work. A budding musician could showcase his or her talents with YouTube videos and get discovered this way. That is how the rapper called Soulja Boy was discovered. Recently, an entire orchestra was assembled via YouTube. Think of the millions that are spent for such shows like American Idol or DSTV’s Naija Sings. With less than a tenth of the same amount of money, much less complexity and with the potential for much more revenue, YouTube accomplished something very similar. Are there any Nigerian poets out there? How about if we start a spoken poetry channel on YouTube? Worth exploring.

Sell, Sell, Sell

EBay is an internationally renowned auction site. Ordinary people can sign up to buy and sell stuff. People have become millionaires by selling goods on EBay. We have our own Nigerian version called www.Tokunbo.com. The profit motive is pretty obvious, but there is an altruistic benefit too. To wit, you can pass on items you no longer have use for that are still perfectly serviceable to someone else who would value them. This goes a long way to reducing waste in the world. Of course, you could give it charity, but if you don’t want to do that, this is definitely a way to get something you don’t want anymore to someone else who may have been looking for it desperately. You are also not limited to used things. You can set up a business on EBay or Tokunbo.com selling new things.

Program It

All of the possibilities above require almost no technical skill. However for the technically inclined, there are an infinitely greater number of possibilities. With the website and web application creation tools out there today you can create completely new systems. You can also go in a simpler direction and assemble new things by pulling things together from bits and pieces of other people’s work. There are a huge amount of APIs (application programming interfaces) which are bits of functionality that someone else has created that other people can use. These are called mashups. For instance if you create a site that lists all the parishes of your church in a particular state, you can have a Google map embedded in your webpage that shows the location of each parish relative to some defined starting point. So Google has done all the heavy lifting, you just consume it. You don’t even need a lot of programming ability to do it. With the right skill set, the right team members and the right plan you can conquer the world.

Tweet it Sweetie

Lastly, even if you are absolutely unwilling to expend any effort, completely uncreative, or just downright uninspired you can sign up to www.twitter.com and spew out 140 characters into the ether. You don’t need to connect to friends, maintain relationships, invite people or listen to anyone if you don’t want to (but you can if you do). Surely you must have some useful thought that can take up 140 characters? Surely you can say something that brightens someone’s day? Can’t you?


What other ideas do you have for how people can go from being a consumer to a creator on the Internet? It’s great to share.

By the way my handle on Twitter is “the_dej”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When Should You Do Made In Naija On The Web?

I’ll start by asking everyone to stand up and give a resounding round of applause to those Nigerian entrepreneurs (or entrepreneurs focused on Nigeria) out there who are making their mark on the internet. Think of www.enownow.com, www.turenchi.com, www.walahi.com, think of www.startupsnigeria.com, www.naijapals.com, www.legwork.com.ng, www.ticketonmobile.com and all the other sites out there. Take a bow folks, you are pioneers on the bleeding edge of a new Nigeria technology industry.

As with any technology, there is a lot of innovation out there as well as a lot of duplication. Sometimes, the duplication improves on the original and gives the world something better than the original innovators give. Everybody knows the iPod, yet nobody realises that it wasn’t the first portable MP3 player. Sometimes they battle neck and neck in a historic contest that becomes the stuff of legends. Think Coke and Pepsi. Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Milo and Bournvita. Omo and Elephant. Sometimes, the copies don’t really succeed because they are essentially flawed in their model, their service offering or their product design. Sometimes one product simply fails because they don’t have enough money to throw at it or because they chose the wrong colour or the wrong name. The Microsoft product called Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere was almost totally ignored by everyone in the tech industry, but when they changed the name to SilverLight, it suddenly became the hot new product.

More often than not the product fails because it is based on a flawed premise. Maybe it wasn’t right for the market, or maybe they couldn’t provide the same thing to their customers that their competition could provide.

My point? When should I choose a Nigerian technology brand before I chose an international one that offers me what the Nigerian brand offers and a whole lot more? When should I chose Zinox over HP? eNowNow over Yahoo? Tokunbo.com over eBay? The answer is pretty simple for a service like Turenchi.com (Nnanna, you need to pay for this product placement) which provides RSS feeds of Nigerian news stories or ticketonmobile.com which provides tickets to local events. However what does Legwork.com.ng offer me that I can’t get from Facebook or LinkedIn? Facebook gives me access to form communities and groups with other Nigerians. I can indeed form communities around all sorts things on Facebook including my nation, my culture, poetry, technology, faith, movies and so on. The technologies available to me via Facebook are almost infinitely configurable. Facebook has an entire ecosystem that gives access to developers, advertisers, and users. It provides storage for pictures, event notification, instant messaging, classmates across the world and very many more things. Legwork (and I only use them as a poster child of modern Nigerian ecommerce) gives me only a small relatively unsophisticated subset of that. Legwork gives me access to 500,000 Nigerians. Facebook gives me access to 200 Million people the planet over. I am in full support of start-ups and upstarts (and want a piece of the action), but as a service user, a customer, I have to go with what gives me the best and the greatest options. So I am registered with both Facebook and LinkedIn, but not Legwork.


However, I just might. Legwork is innovating. They seem to have recognised that they cannot go toe to toe against the global social networking sites out there. So they are providing services that are relatively hard for those other services to provide, or at least that are not yet on the radar for the likes of Google.com (never mind their Yoruba version). So for example, they are leveraging SMS for multi-person conversation on their network. SMS is a service that every Nigerian can relate to, has easy access to and is relatively in-expensive to indulge in. That kind of thinking that looks at what you can provide locally that the behemoths in the space cannot provide to your locality is the kind of thinking that can succeed. Indeed, an internet that has grown by stretching it’s hands towards the ends of the earth will actually grow even more by reaching out to provide location specific services. The only way the Walahi.com’s of this world can compete against the Amazon.com’s is if they find some way of getting themselves entrenched before Jeff Bezos figures out that 150 Million Nigerians is a market only half the size of the US.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sit Up Straight: Your Life May Dependent On It.

Today’s world is a mad mad one. Information technologies, as well as other technologies, have blessed us tremendously. As we discussed in last week’s post, there have been unfortunate consequences to these advances. In addition to what we talked about last week, there are very real physical consequences to the reliance we have come to have on computers for our everyday tasks.File:Computer Workstation Variables.jpg

For an increasing number of us, computers are at the centre of work and play. So we spend 8 - 14 hours tapping away at our keyboards peering at the screens in front of us, scrunched in our office chairs. We then go home and do pretty much the same thing.

Without realising it, we are putting ourselves at risk of long-term damage to our joints, our bones, our muscles and our eyes. Welcome to the increasingly painful world of repetitive stress injuries (RSI). Without going into all the technical medical terms and descriptions, the group of disorders known as RSI occurs because we spend too much time doing things over and over again in unnatural positions. The disorders also result from using wrongly designed tools and furniture for our daily tasks. The picture to the right taken from Wikipedia, shows the recommended physical position everyone should sit in when working with computers.

Most of us don’t use our computers this way. We slouch forward rather than sitting straight, we bend our wrists the wrong way and rest them on the table while typing. Our monitors are at the wrong height for us. We stretch our legs out rather than place them flat on the floor. Our elbows are not at 90 degree angles. We hold the mouse the wrong way. Our chairs are set at the wrong height. We stare at the screen for long hours without a break.

However, most importantly, even if we sit the right way, and use our keyboard and mouse right, doing it for too long without taking breaks will eventually have the same impact. Aside from how we sit and work, the tools we work with are also important. We use computer equipment and office furniture that are not designed to keep us healthy and comfortable. The technical term is ergonomics and this refers to the “scientific discipline of designing according to the human needs”.

The effect of all this may not be felt in the short term beyond the occasional stiffness. However, in the long term the impact can be devastating. The effects may include tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, muscular weakness, nerve damage, and can get as bad as paralysis. You may well require surgery. Harvard has a good resource on this subject and there is a huge amount of material on the internet about this.

I can’t emphasis enough how important it is that we be aware of this. Picture yourself a middle-aged man or woman in your fifties. You can’t stand straight, you can’t hold things in your hands for long. your arms are constantly trembling. And you are in unrelenting pain.

That is the risk.

What can you do? Take frequent breaks from your computer. Stand up. Walk around. Set up your workstation to fit the standards in the picture about. Specialists have come up with little exercises you can take at your desks to exercise those key joints and muscles. These exercises are quick, easy to do and are very effective. This is a computer problem and there are actually computer aids to help with this. My company uses a software called WorkPace by a company called Wellnomics that forces you to take short frequent breaks. It enforces these breaks by making making your mouse and keyboard unresponsive for periods from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the settings you have selected. It can track your current usage and tailor the breaks to fit your needs. It also gives you little exercises that you can take during the breaks and you can track how well you follow the breaks and exercises.

WorkPace isn’t free software, but there are free solutions that do similar things. Download.com is a good place to start looking. Get one of them and install it on your computer. It is worth the expense and the effort to replace your work furniture with ergonomically appropriate furniture. It’s definitely worth having an “industrial engagement” with your employers to get safe and ergonomic chairs, tables, keyboards and mice. If you’re the employer, then you owe it to you employees to provide them with such furniture and equipment. Lastly, if you are already in pain or experiencing any of the symptoms discussed here or in other resources, please go and see your doctor.

I started out talking about the madness we face in today’s world, well unless we take very good care, one of the casualties could well be our health.

My back hurts.


Back Pain: RSI Prevention Exercises