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Monday, March 31, 2008

Google has lots to do with intelligence

When the nation's intelligence agencies wanted a computer network to better share information about everything from al Qaeda to North Korea, they turned to a big name in the technology industry to supply some of the equipment: Google Inc.

The Mountain View company sold the agencies servers for searching documents, marking a small victory for the company and its little-known effort to do business with the government.

"We are a very small group, and even a lot of people in the federal government don't know that we exist," said Mike Bradshaw, who leads Google's federal government sales team and its 18 employees.

The strategy is part of a broader plan at Google to expand beyond its consumer roots. Federal, state and local agencies, along with corporations and schools, are increasingly seen by the company as lucrative sources of extra revenue.

In addition to the intelligence agencies, Google's government customers include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the state of Alabama and Washington, D.C.

Many of the contracts are for search appliances - servers for storing and searching internal documents. Agencies can use the devices to create their own mini-Googles on intranets made up entirely of government data.

Additionally, Google has had success licensing a souped-up version of its aerial mapping service, Google Earth. Agencies can use it to plot scientific data and chart the U.S. coastline, for example, giving ships another tool to navigate safely.

Spy agencies are using Google equipment as the backbone of Intellipedia, a network aimed at helping agents share intelligence. Rather than hoarding information, spies and analysts are being encouraged to post what they learn on a secure online forum where colleagues can read it and add comments.

"Each analyst, for lack of a better term, has a shoe box with their knowledge," said Sean Dennehy, chief of Intellipedia development for the CIA. "They maintained it in a shared drive or a Word document, but we're encouraging them to move those platforms so that everyone can benefit."

Like Wikipedia

The system is modeled after Wikipedia, the public online, group-edited encyclopedia. However, the cloak-and-dagger version is maintained by the director of national intelligence and is accessible only to the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and an alphabet soup of other intelligence agencies and offices.

Agents can log in, depending on their clearance, to Intellipedia's three tiers of service: top secret, secret and sensitive but unclassified. So far, 37,000 users have established accounts on the network, which contain 35,000 articles encompassing 200,000 pages, according to Dennehy.

Google supplies the computer servers that support the network, as well as the search software that allows users to sift through messages and data.

Dennehy declined to asses the quality of Google's products, but he applauded the contribution that Intellipedia can make to the government's work. Whether the network actually leads to better intelligence will largely depend on agents sharing some of their most important files and then their colleagues chiming in with incisive commentary - issues that are out of Google's hands.

Normally, Google ranks results on its consumer site by using the number of links to a Web page as a barometer of its importance. Doing so on Intellipedia isn't as effective because the service lies behind a firewall and is used by a limited number of people.

Instead, material gets more prominent placement if it is tagged, or appended by the network's users, with descriptive keywords.

Because of the complexities of doing business with the government, Google uses resellers to process orders on its behalf. Google takes care of the sales, marketing and management of the accounts.

Conspiracy theories

Google is one of many technology vendors vying for government contracts.

A single deal can be sizable, such as the one Google made with the National Security Agency, which paid more than $2 million for four search appliances plus a support agreement, according to a contract obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

However, the amount is insignificant when measured against Google's overall revenue of $16.6 billion last year, virtually all of which came from online advertising.

On occasion, Google is the target of conspiracy theories from bloggers who say it is working with spy agencies more closely than simply selling search equipment.

The buzz got so loud two years ago that Matt Cutts, who leads Google's fight against spam Web sites, responded by ridiculing the idea in his personal blog.

Google's Bradshaw emphasized that the company sells virtually the same products to companies as it does to government agencies. Google can make minor tweaks to comply with government rules about equipment security, for example, while major customization is handled by others.

"There were some wild accusations," Bradshaw said. "But everything we do with the government is the same as what we do with our corporate customers."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sydney 2030

TEARING down the Cahill Expressway, moving Circular Quay railway station, remaking Darling Harbour and building a huge convention centre over the tracks at Central are part of the City of Sydney's grand vision for 2030, to be made public today.

The Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, wants to transform Sydney into a truly "green, global and connected" metropolis in the most comprehensive long-term strategy for the city since Martin Place was reclaimed as a pedestrian thoroughfare and the Queen Victoria Building was revitalised decades ago.

The city would be greener as well as sleeker, with much of the city sourcing its power from local, gas-fired power plants. George Street would be transformed from a car and bus gridlock into a pedestrian-friendly, light rail thoroughfare.

The long-derided Monorail, Cahill Expressway and Western Distributor would be pulled down and parking space in the city would be cut to deter people from driving into the city centre.

This glimpse into the future is revealed in the council's draft Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan - a fusion of ideas put forward by the Danish urban planner Jan Gehl, some of the city's leading architects and economists, and thousands of people across NSW during the past 12 months.

The most far-reaching ideas are the Darling Harbour and Central Station redevelopments. The Western Distributor would be buried under a sprawling new Darling Harbour park, a project paid for by selling the convention and exhibition centres to developers for apartment blocks.

The flyovers would be demolished and the road brought back to street level. About 250 metres of the distributor would go under Pyrmont to reach the Anzac Bridge. The new park would be built over the top of the distributor, creating a green space for city workers stretching from the waterfront to Haymarket. It would be 80 per cent of the size of Hyde Park and consume the area occupied by the Entertainment Centre.

Huge new convention and entertainment centres, along with shops, units and open space, would be built over the tracks between Central and Cleveland Street. This alone would add about 600,000 square metres of office, retail and residential floor space to the city, as well as new green areas and open space.

The Premier, Morris Iemma, said the strategy deserved attention and respect, and the Government would work with the council to determine what could be jointly achieved. "Sydney has huge unrealised potential and there are still too many legacies of bad planning from the '50s and '60s that we need to overcome," he said.

Cr Moore said: "Sydney can be one of the world's leading green cities and become internationally recognised as an environmental leader with sustainable development, sustainable transport and sustainable green energy transformers. This can be our point of competitive advantage with other world cities." Cr Moore is launching the plan as she heads to her first mayoral re-election campaign in September. The council has yet to cost the plan and Cr Moore admits it could go ahead only with co-operation from government agencies, the private sector, landowners and residents.

Under the plan, the under-used Darling Drive, behind the convention and exhibition centre at Darling Harbour, would be buried under new mixed-use developments and become the main thoroughfare between the Anzac Bridge and Broadway. The ever-clogged Harris Street would become relatively peaceful, similar to Bourke Street in Surry Hills.

The redevelopment would remove the barrier between Surry Hills and Chippendale and enable the extension of a George Street public transport corridor to Redfern and Botany Road.

A spokeswoman for RailCorp said it was open to discussions on how railway services and property would be affected, as well as any technical aspects of the plan.

The plan adopts many of the ideas in last year's Gehl report, including three public squares along George Street at Circular Quay, Town Hall and Central. Cr Moore said history had shown how important it was to set targets for the city's growth.

The council had overseen "history-making developments" in its time, some met by strong political opposition, but "the vision of planners and urban designers and the commitment of the community" had improved city life for decades to come. The executive director of the Property Council of Australia, Ken Morrison, described the draft document as an exciting and bold vision but urged the city council to further develop its long-term planning strategies, particularly height limits, to accommodate growth in the city centre.

The council will consider the draft on April 7. It will go on public exhibition 10 days later.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Coming clean on organic logos

Labelling on organic products in Australia is confusing, potentially misleading and urgently needs reform, consumer advocacy group Choice says.

It is calling for a single, unified system of certification to replace the current method, whereby several different bodies regulate producers, and some brands make completely unsubstantiated claims to be organic.

Research by The Sun-Herald reveals how buying "organic" can cost customers more than twice as much. The organics industry is one of the fastest growing in the Australian food and grocery sector, increasing by 30 per cent in the past year.

It is now worth about $400 million a year in the retail sector, the Government's Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation says.

There are eight organic certification bodies, which are overseen by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service.

But some own-brand organic products bought by The Sun-Herald in Coles and Woolworths last week had none of the official logos. Woolworths' organic tinned tomatoes had no official certification, and the small print on Coles organic carrots stated "product in conversion to national standard" with no other explanation.

Five different products bought in Coles used five different organic logos.

The Sun-Herald also looked at the cost of organic goods compared with conventional products.

Organic carrots from Coles cost $3.48 for one kilogram compared with $1.68 for the conventionally produced equivalent.

In Woolworths, organic carrots were $3.98 compared with 94 cents for the mainstream equivalent.

Organic tinned tomatoes in Woolworths cost $1.15, compared with 58 cents for a "normal" tin.

And 500 grams of regular minced beef from Coles cost $5.55 compared with $7.33 for its organic rival.

Andrew Monk, spokesman for Biological Farmers of Australia, one of the largest official certification bodies, said: "Coles and Woolworths are both working very hard to simplify the system of organic certification.

"We do have concerns about organic labelling and we have to make sure we are not just bandying about the word organic willy-nilly."

On the subject of price, Dr Monk said: "Some organic products such as carrots are always going to be a little bit more expensive because they cost more to produce without pesticides and chemicals, but there is no reason why other things should cost more."

Coles and Woolworths did not respond to requests for comment. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said it might look at the cost of organic brands in its inquiry into the price of groceries.

.. from smh
.. read more on organic food

Saturday, March 15, 2008

This is your chance to unswoosh Nike's tired old swoosh and give birth to a new kind of cool in the sneaker industry.

... buy a pair here.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

~ of Coffee and Exercise bikes ~

I've been sampling some of the premixed coffees that seem to be quite popular over here in Malaysia. Currently, 'Breakfast' is my favourite, though I have partaken of plenty of the others too.

Above are the 3 that I've tried so far, along with 'Ernie' my trusty and reliable electronic urn. A very handy device, it allows me to set the boil timer so I can set it before I go to bed, and in the morning it will be ready, boiled and waiting at one of a variety of pre-chosen temperatures.

..aah, civilisation.

I've also been trying to increase the amount of exercise I get, so most nights of the week I can be seen down in the gym of my apartment complex pedaling away for about 40mins or so while zoning out to my iPod and trying not to think how much my legs hurt, or the sweat stings in my eyes, or other manly pursuits.

So far going well, I've been at it regularly for a couple of weeks now and I feel really good. I can get out of bed without being puffed ;)

Note to self: download 'Eye of the tiger' for increased motivation (.. and because it's a hella song)

..Till next we meet, gentle reader.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

So.. How was YOUR Monday?

Monday, March 10, 2008

My weekend : bike riding & 10,000 b.c.

At the crack of noon Saturday my girlfriend and I went bike riding at taman pertanian, Sham Alam, which is apparently an agricultural park, (whatever that means).

We had a great time riding around, sweating profusely and exploring some of the strange attractions.

For example, the four-seasons house (which apparently is perpetually stuck on Spring for financial reasons, and is brilliantly, startlingly freezing cold inside, .. especially when you're soaked with sweat from riding outside for an hour in 35 degrees C)
.. and the rabbit garden, which is more of a rabbit battery caged jail in hell.

.. Poor rabbits.

I did however also manage to finally get a photo of a Malaysian squirrel, which I am very proud of considering how fast the little blighters move. Observe.

After a well earned shower and a powernap we trekked off to Times Square again for our weekly movie, this time the Roland Emmerich blockbuster 10,000 B.C.

I wasn't expecting a great deal of cohesion or brains in the plot, and it delivered on my expectations.

I felt a little more cro-magnon after watching it, but as big and dumb and mixed-up as it was, it was visually spectacular, which was exactly what I wanted.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Voting in Malaysia

Tomorrow is polling day in Malaysia. I just had to post the above photo taken on Jalan Ceylon of some overly-zealous advertising for the current ruling party.

You just have to love the way it forces the pedestrians off the footpath and onto the road. If you look closely, you'll see they've done the same again, further up the road.

I'm not sure if that's really sending the right message, do you?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

iPhone musicians

A trio of tabletop musicians have turned their gadget lust into an art form, using two iPhones and an iPod Touch to form the "iBand".

The three art students from Vienna in Austria have eschewed roadies and regular instruments in favour of custom music applications loaded on to the touch-screen gizmos from Apple.

Seb, 24, is the drummer, Roger, 25, is on bass and guitar while Marina, 26, is the vocalist and pianist. They declined to give their surnames for privacy reasons.

The iBand's first video, uploaded to YouTube two weeks ago as a demonstration of what could be done with new music applications, jumped from 20,000 to 300,000 views within the first three days.

After spreading virally across the internet and being linked to on various gadget blogs, the clip now has just over two million views.

The band's first real song, Life is greater than the internet, appeared on YouTube six days ago and has attracted over 60,000 views so far.

"Of all possible things you can do with a mobile phone, what could be more meaningful than to create music," Seb said in an email interview.

"We have been thinking about forming a band that would only use iPhones as musical instruments for a long time now, since the possibilities of the iPhone as a programmable, customisable platform became obvious with the first wave of third-party applications."

The custom music applications, which are unauthorised by Apple but can be used after performing a simple software hack, are called MooCowMusic Pianist, MooCowMusic Drummer and PocketGuitar.

Buttons displayed on the touch screens correspond to different sounds, allowing the band to emulate a range of real musical instruments. All three band members play conventional instruments but decided to form the iBand to "create a new type of sound".

"To use the iPhone as a musical instrument isn't about getting a technically perfect song together," said Seb.

"It has very innovative input methods, but we could also use any sort of synthesizer and full band equipment; with today's technology there are no limitations."

To create their music, the iBand connects the iPhones and iPod Touch to a mixing table, which is in turn connected to a regular stereo hifi system so the trio can hear what they're playing. Everything is recorded and mixed live, except for vocals which are added afterwards.

The band plans to continue churning out tracks but Seb insists they are more than just gadget freaks having fun. He said the iBand's first song seeks to express the message that real life is just as important as virtual life.

The track is available as a free download from the iBand website and the band is asking those who like it to donate through PayPal.

"It seems that many people are sucked into the black hole of the web too deeply, losing their idea of what life can really be," Seb said.

"We think that although the internet comprises the possibility to lose oneself within it, the technical developments of our world can also be used to realise the potential of oneself and the life that is given to every one of us; to realise that there is something higher to be sought and found in life."

.. from smh

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hack into a Windows PC - no password needed

A security consultant based in New Zealand has released a tool that can unlock Windows computers in seconds without the need for a password.

Adam Boileau first demonstrated the hack, which affects Windows XP computers but has not yet been tested with Windows Vista, at a security conference in Sydney in 2006, but Microsoft has yet to develop a fix.

Interviewed in ITRadio's Risky Business podcast, Boileau said the tool, released to the public today, could "unlock locked Windows machines or login without a password ... merely by plugging in your Firewire cable and running a command".

Boileau, a consultant with Immunity Inc., said he did not release the tool publicly in 2006 because "Microsoft was a little cagey about exactly whether Firewire memory access was a real security issue or not and we didn't want to cause any real trouble".

But now that a couple of years have passed and the issue has not resolved, Boileau decided to release the tool on his website.

To use the tool, hackers must connect a Linux-based computer to a Firewire port on the target machine. The machine is then tricked into allowing the attacking computer to have read and write access to its memory.

With full access to the memory, the tool can then modify Windows' password protection code, which is stored there, and render it ineffective.

Older desktop computers do not come equipped with Firewire ports, which are needed for the hack to work, but many recent models do. Most laptops made in the last few years include Firewire ports.

Paul Ducklin, head of technology for security firm Sophos, said the security hole found by Boileau was not a vulnerability or bug in the traditional sense, because the ability to use the Firewire port to access a computer's memory was actually a feature of Firewire.

"If you have a Firewire port, disable it when you aren't using it," Ducklin said.

"That way, if someone does plug into your port unexpectedly, your side of the Firewire link is dead, so they can't interact with your PC, legitimately or otherwise."

Ducklin also advised people to be careful when giving others physical access to their computer.

"I know people who'd think three times about asking passing strangers to take their photo in front of the Opera House in case they did a runner with the camera, yet who are much more casual with their laptop PC, as long as it's software-locked, even though the hardware alone is worth five times as much as the camera," he said.

Microsoft was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

.. from smh

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