How you can hack SpyMaster now!

June 7, 2009

I just read absolutely fabulous story on how the new Twitter game SpyMaster was hacked. I discovered this by googling ‘spymaster greasemonkey script’. Then, as my newly installed script started automatically doing tasks to earn my persona money, I started browsing for new approaches. I did not expect to find such riches.

The essence of the story is that our hero did not actually attack SpyMaster servers and take out their security. Instead, he built a few scripts and found out about a couple of bugs in the system. The key bug, which SpyMaster cleverly renamed an ‘exploit’, was that you could send money to different bank accounts including your own, and they money would never leave your account, but simply accumulate. Automating this with a script proved to be the key to great wealth in a few short hours: nothing short of inventing a bank note printing press.

“I earned 73.59 Trillion British Pounds in under 15 minutes. I bought every single safe-house and 100,000 of everything in the black market.”

Our hero, not satisfied with a personal fortune, then went one crucial step further and spread the wealth to thousands of others. In doing so, he covered his tracks.

SpyMaster was not happy to discover that some people had suddenly got not just hundreds or thousands or millions .. or billions .. or trillions in a few weeks of play. In a somewhat draconian move, they arbitrarily and without any warning shut down their accounts, renaming the bug an ‘exploit’. Unfortunately, they shut down thousands of accounts from people who were merely the beneficiaries of the new banking scheme.

Check out a YouTube video on how the bank account bug worked.

This is why your blog is dying

June 7, 2009

This seems a common problem: you start a blog but you just can’t keep it going. At first, I thought this was because actually run out of time, probably because actual events and tasks IRL take over. As an example: we recently had our second child and she takes up a lot more of my time lately, meaning that I have less time available to spend online.

Actually, this is a dirty lie. Although I have less time available, I still spend about the same amount of time, if not more, online. I just spend it in the middle of the night after a feed or in the early morning after having finally gotten her to sleep.

I think the real reason that blogs die is that the market is fragmenting at an astounding pace. On one level, it’s which blog provider you wish to use since the arms race to provide more features and integrations continues hourly. The number one problem when switching to a new blog provider is importing all those old posts. Instead, you slither out of your old skin and move on to better and brighter things.

On another level, there’s less and less need to blog any more, since you can just tweet, or send out a status update (depending on the platform du jour), and after three of four pithy updates you’ve covered the essence of a blog post. Aside: most people don’t tweet this way, instead choosing to re-tweet the constant stream of messages they skim, or point out a stream-of-consciousness snippet bordering on the consciousness of an insect.

The third level is that there is just so much to do within these platforms now. As more and more entertaining (say, Mob Wars or Spymaster) informative (say, Praizd answers) and searching (say Vark) takes place in or on or across social platforms, there is less and less time, energy and focus to write a post (like, say, this one).

Conversion Rate Experts

May 17, 2009
One of the excellent seminars I was able to attend whilst at Affiliates 4 U (A4U expo) was Conversion Rate Expert’s How we grew the sales of SEOmoz by 170% . Interesting mostly because they were taking a landing page that had been deeply optimised by a number of ‘experts’ already and were still able to get enormous uplifts.

Actually, I phrased that first sentence entirely the wrong way. The only reason I attended A4U expo was to meet CRE and see a little of their magic in practice. I’ve been a hug fan of their site ever since reading their excellent Google Website Optimizer 101 which not only gives their assessment of Google’s Website Optimiser (“it turns your website into a ruthless money-making machine” — don’t you just love a little landing page copy with your morning coffee?) but also 108 handy hints for using this tool. At A4Uexpo, I was able to meet Karl Blanks, Ben Jesson and Stephen Pavlovich and chat to them a little about how they went to work.

One of the key take-aways of the seminar was that although GWO and other mulitvariate tools are absolutely fantastic ways of sifting through your website for nuggets of gold, much more important by far is the methodology by which you choose where to look.

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Juicy link building

May 5, 2009

I saw Christopher Cemper’s presentation on juicy link building at Affiliates 4 U Expo in Amsterdam and I was very impressed. Some of the highlights:

  • Ignore page rank
  • Focus on natural link building the way that users would do it, from trusted and relevant domains

Particularly the one struck me as interesting. Two things Christopher highlighted as being red flags to Google’s spam fighting bull:

  • Using the best possible anchor text and keeping this same across multiple new links that go live around the same time
  • Having no nofollows in your links

The non-intuitive guidance that flows from this is that if you want Google to pay attention to the many links from trusted and relevant domains, you need add in some ‘fibre’ to the Googlebot diet. This fibre is what makes your link building relatively indistiguishable from the common-or-garden users who would be writing about and linking to your site. Crazily, this means that once you have found and persuaded trusted and relevant domains to link to you you actually need to ask some of them to use a nofollow or use anchor text for which you have no chance of being found in Google (like click here ).

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Nothing beats a live audience reaction

April 11, 2009

I have been enjoying Steve Krug’s brilliiant “Don’t Make Me Think!: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability”. He mentions that one of the reasons that Groucho Marx was so funny — and successful — was that all of his shows were testing five times a day on grinding Vaudeville tours in front of live audiences. The Marx brothers honed their jokes, writing and re-writing them and focusing on the ones that got the best reactions from real people in the audience. He also mentions that Groucho, even once they’d created jokes that got great responses, kept on testing small differences in the lines to see what had the best effect.

Sounds a lot like usability testing today — using lots of little tests to find out how live people react to a site. Not just what they think about it but what they actually do.

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Nenglish and Dederlands

March 27, 2009

I have bit of a background in linguistics. That was one of my loves at high school when I first read “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, so I went on to study it before university. First, self-taught, I tried my hand at building machine translation programs (in Basic, on the ZX81 on then a BBC micro), which is where I found out it was pretty useful in Artificial Intelligence. Then I actually studied it as an A-level before university, and found I had a certain knack for it. My dad persuaded me at the last moment that doing a joint honours in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science — I’d been programming for a decade already — would be a lot more useful in the ‘real world’ than a degree in Artificial Intelligence and Linguistics. Neither of us foresaw the rise of search engines or how their rise would be fed by Computational Linguistics graduates and researchers.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an eternal dabbler, who loves taking deep dives into subjects before moving on to the next subject that I grew to love learning new languages. I speak about two adequately and about 15 extremely poorly. The natural result of that is a passion for linguistics.

One of the first differentiations I learnt was between ‘prescriptive’ grammarians and ‘descriptive’ grammarians. The former are old school types who state how a language should work based on our understanding of its roots and how we were taught it. This presupposes that languages are best pinned to the floor and dissected carefully. ‘Descriptive’ grammarians watch a body of language moving in the wild and describe what they see and hear, but never fall into the trap of thinking that because one generation does one thing, so should the next.

In English, much of how the language was taught thirty years ago — and still is taught today in some places — comes from the prescriptivist approach. Students are taught not to use the words and ways of putting those words together that they would use in spoken language at home. Instead, they are taught a single way of speaking and writing English. The prescriptivist approach is true to its Victorian roots: it is very morally clear on what is ‘proper English’ and what ain’t. Oops — sorry that was a little under the belt.

There is no doubt that it is useful for children to learn a certain requisite flexibility in their language. In linguistics, this is sometimes refered to as varying the ‘register’ of a voice. Different dialects (particular words and syntax used more frequently or solely in certain places in a country) and sociolects (ditto for different social strata) can be very useful for communicating more effectively, just as the Queen’s English can be useful in certain situations. The important thing is not to teach a single register to the exclusion of others. That reduces flexibility and the effectiveness of communication.

So, imagine my surprise when the first rumblings of prescriptivism stirred in my belly. Commercials using Dutch words in English sentences seem to be on the rise. A packet of crisps announces that they are ‘delicious chips’ (‘chips’ is ‘crisps’ in Dutch, but is a common false friend that Dutch people use in their English too). I wouldn’t have an issue with ‘lekker chips’ or ‘delicious crisps’ but mixing the two together? Similarly, a bus tells me to “Take a ING hypotheek”. My closet prescriptivist jumps up in anger. I wouldn’t have too much of an issue with “Take an ING mortgage” but using a Dutch word in English, and then making a basic mistake with a/an — I can’t take it!

Maybe it’s me getting older but my natural tendency is to damn rather than describe. In fact, this is a fascinating phenomenon. English is being used more and more frequently in the Netherlands, for teaching at University, on TV (with Dutch subtitles) and some are even suggesting that we should use English to teach high children because the best text books on the newest subject matter is only available in English (the same arguments as we used for the universities).

A Pidgin is not misspelt small bird, but a ‘contact language’ with relatively simplified grammar and vocabulary that is often created when two different sets of language speakers are brought into contact with each other and without a shared language. But this is not like a Pidgin, more like starting to use English as a dialect of Dutch or Dutch as a dialect of English. Is the start of the death throes of Dutch, or the start of a new form of language in the Nethelands, or just advertising that sounds hip to the ears of its main audience? Perhaps the closest analogue is actually cool-looking Japanese script on a tee-shirt, which actually reads ‘this foreigner is an idiot’.

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ZumoDrive in public beta and on the iPhone and

February 26, 2009

ZumoDrive is not just another cloud storage service a la Dropbox or MobileMe. Rather than using the cloud as a backup of the data on your hard disk, ZumoDrive merges the cloud and your disk to give you a lot more room than you’ve been used to.

For example, you can have 10Gb in the cloud, but only take up a few hundred Mb on your laptop – or now iPhone. Performance is very good so they you barely notice the fact that are not running applications locally. There are some IO intensive apps that I don’t think are suitable.

For instance, this frees you to buy a (solid state) small 60Gb disk on your laptop but have three times that available. ZumoDrive syncs the data it expects you to need intelligently, so that you can survive without a network. However, in this day and age that is quickly becoming less and less necessary.

The iPhone app is cutely named Supersize Me. Its proposal is similar: whether you access a network over wifi, 3G or some 2.5G variant, you get to massively increase your storage space by streaming it from the network. I am writing this 3000 feet in the air on the iPhone WordPress app on the way to Copenhagen and Supersize Me works just fine in flight mode too.

In fact, this is not as revolutionary as it sounds. Plenty of apps do this already but they are limited to a single purpose. For instance, my Last.FM app streams music to my iPhone, just as my beloved Sonos system does to three different sets if speakers spread across my house. There is no difference in performance between me listening at home to Coldplay streaming from my local NAS or streaming from a Last.FM server somewhere in the cloud. What is cute about ZumoDrive is that it works with files for any app: music, photos, spreadsheets, presentations, word processing documents – you name it.

ZumoDrive was only available with an invite code until today when their public beta started. At the same time, the app is available on the iTunes app store for free — before it goes up to $5.

Pricing plans have also just gone down from where they were in the private beta. You can get 25Gb for $7 a month, 10Gb for $3 and 1Gb for free. I think this is not at all bad, and Zumo is going to get a lot of users in a pretty short time. This has got to be a default choice subscription for MacBook Air owners.

How to move from print to online

February 12, 2009

Techcrunch informs us that Google has recently a Finnish paper mill and intends to build out a data centre there instead.

Maybe that’s something Yellow Pages companies around the world should look at too? Can’t imagine the business case is going to be quite as dramatic just yet…

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Zcapes is live

February 11, 2009

It looks like the first phase of the Zcapes go live has started. You can check out m.zcapes.com (in your mobile browser but your desktop would work too) and start reading some of the content and widgets that are already there. You’ll have to wait another week or so before you can create your own Zcapes, but that’s not so far away.

When I first wrote about Zcapes, I was in I love the idea that context is a new long tail and the use of different plug-and-play meta-data and functional services and bots to define it. Since then I have talked to a couple of people who are also trying to get at the basic building blocks — the genotype — of what makes an online experience interesting and who are trying to find how to capture these basic elements into a consistent whole. Zcapes looks like a fun way of playing around with some of these ideas.
There you’ll see a range of services and bots, e.g. messages, poll, twitter search, flickr search, RSS feed, RSVP, tagging & location. Although you can’t create any yet, and the widgets are reasonably limited, you can browse some zcapes through their tags. One to follow.

Google Latitude puts you on the map

February 4, 2009

Google Latitude allows you to see you and your friends on Google maps on a phone or on a computer. Friends can be found by browsing Gmail contacts and introduced via SMS on a phone, or just used directly with some common Google services, like iGoogle on a regular computer. It’s currently ‘available soon for iPhone and Android’ — i.e. I can’t test it yet. For those of you that have, let me know your experiences.

You get good control over with regards to your location privacy — just like on an IM service, you can choose to be invisible.

This is now going to give social networks like Loopt and Gypsii a run for their money by commoditising one of their unique selling points.

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