Hard News by Russell Brown

Geeky stuff

Adherents to the Cult of Mac who have visited the fine websites operated by Scoop, The Listener, Street Talk, Rialto and Stuff in the past two or three days may have noticed some odd behaviour. Specifically, Safari and Opera browsers will try - and fail , but keep trying - to download a file called "acvcbd.aspx", and will attempt a new download for every page you load.

It's not a show-stopper, but it's very irritating, as correspondents to the boards at Street Talk and IDGNet's Press F1 section have attested.

So what is it? Duff code from MediaOne, the Canadian-based online advertising company that has chosen New Zealand to beta-test its technology.

What MediaOne is meant to do is spawn an unsolicited pop-up window (or "player") containing a video ad. This is what it was doing to users of Internet Explorer 6.1 for Windows and up, until this week. But an expansion of the project, to deliver to all Windows browsers, appears to have been defective. (I have another report of it triggering multiple reloads in Windows on The Listener site.)

The .aspx extension is standard for pages created with Microsft .NET, but the problem doesn't occur with the vaster majority of other .NET sites, including Microsoft's own (although it's been an issue for ages at Al Jazeera).

IDGNet has removed the code from its forums and at least a couple of the others have been in touch with the company.

Greig Buckley, MediaOne's vice president and general manager for New Zealand told Scoop that "in the default installation of Safari it apparently doesn't recognise .aspx files as legitimate HTML. Users have to instruct (teach) the browser to accept it when asked the first time it is encountered, then it will no longer prompt each time an .aspx file loads. I guess this is partly a result of the standoff between Microsoft and Apple, as their new browser starts to take over from IE for Mac (and as Firefox grows, but the ASPX format won't be an issue for that) …

"We are running some tests to see if there is any solution to eliminate this issue. I will keep you posted over the next few days. In the meantime I suggest you advise users to take the above action when they first encounter an .aspx file on the net."

He suggests that an update to Safari in the last couple of days has caused the problem. Hardly. VersionTracker says the current version of Safari is nearly a year old. The problem is actually this: the MIME type isn't set on the aspx file.

Safari certainly doesn't have to be trained (for instance, it didn't have to be trained to accept the .sm file extension used on Public Address) and it doesn't actually have a preference to do so. (By the way, the file has no content: its only purpose is to set a cookie in the browser.)

Given that MediaOne has required all these sites to allow it to place its own Javascript code on their pages - and leaving aside, for the moment, the merits of unsolicited video pop-ups (does anybody respond positively to them?) - this seems pretty sloppy.

I've got as much interest in the maturing of the Internet advertising market as anyone, and I have my own ideas about what works. I made a no-pop-ups promise when we first launched advertising on Public Address, and I would hope to stick to it. We do occasionally get reader comments or complaints about the ads we do run, and in one case, I passed those on to the corporate advertiser, who toned down the ad and, I think, achieved a better result all around. MediaOne needs to stop blaming browsers and test its code properly before it posts it on other people's websites. (It might also be an idea to enable the "feedback" button in the MediaOne player.)

Moving on, it's actually about time an established news organisation did this: Salon is running a story by Peter Dizikes headed The scandal sheet, which collates "34 scandals from the first four years of George W. Bush's presidency - every one of them worse than Whitewater."

Don't expect the conservative blogosphere to break from calling for Kofi Annan's head long enough to mention the oddities of Halliburton's business in Iraq, still less to contemplate the multiple instances of flat-out crookery offered up by the Republican House leader Tom DeLay (memorably described in Lewis Lapham's editorial in this month's issue of Harper's magazine as "always quick to quote from scripture but quicker still to give or take a bribe"), but do feel free to read Dizikes' story and weep.

Faintly hilarious example of neocon tunnel vision: Having railed against the result of the governor's election in Washington state (taken by the Democrat after - quelle horreur! - a recount) Power Line is now demanding a Pulitzer Prize for a Seattle Times columnist who is unhappy that there were 2500-3000 more votes cast than there were registered voters. Oddly enough, the same righteous anger was not directed toward the state of Ohio (won, of course by the Bush campaign), where in Cleveland alone, there were 93,000 more votes than registered voters. Indeed, Washington state was an anomaly in this respect: almost everywhere else, the dubious results ran against the Democrats. Of course, anyone who complains about those results is a poor-loser looney liberal.

Further, even in Washington state, there were other oddities. American statistician Arlene Ash, in a new piece called Why We Must Question Our Elections, pointed out that:

Snohomish County, Washington, also used non-verifiable touch screen voting in all precincts (polling locations) on election day 2004. Among about 100,000 touch screen votes in the famously close governor's race, Republican candidate Rossi had an 8,000 vote advantage; while among about 200,000 paper (absentee) ballots, Democrat Gregoire had 2,000 more votes. [2] Some voters spoke of the touch screen machine changing their vote. Countywide, there were 19 formally reported instances of machine switching; every one favored the Republican.

The kindest conclusion is that the system is in disarray and urgently in need of inspection and reform.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration appears to be taking much the same approach to its "reform" of Social Security (ie: superannuation) as it did in the run-up to war in Iraq: declare a crisis and then lie vigorously. Check out this analysis from the economics correspondent at MSNBC:

"If you're 20 years old, in your mid-20s, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now," he said Tuesday at a forum on Social Security. The stark choice of words was hardly a slip of the tongue - Bush used the word "bankrupt" five times in the 45-minute session.

He also warned of a potentially "bankrupt" system in a radio address last month, referring to demographic changes that signal a "looming danger."

"In the year 2018, for the first time ever, Social Security will pay out more in benefits than the government collects in payroll taxes," Bush said.

That is just plain wrong. In 14 of the past 47 years, including 1975 to 1983, Social Security paid out more in benefits than the government collected in payroll, with the gap reaching $10 billion in 1983. So the projected "crossover" point in 2018 is a relatively meaningless milestone, say opponents of Bush's privatization plans, even as they acknowledge the system faces long-term problems.

Bush's statements "appear designed to further a widespread perception, especially among younger people, that Social Security will entirely collapse and that there will be nothing for them when they retire," said Bob Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The White House press office did not return phone calls seeking an explanation.

Well, time is marching on and I've got a little work to do: including knocking out a special old-school Hard News bulletin for 95bFM's broadcast from the Big Day Out site tomorrow (which I might post here too). So, yes, at about 8.45am tomorrow, the words "GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES …" will be heard again …

PS: As of about an hour after this post, the MediaOne problem is no longer occuring on the above sites. It looks like they've added a MIME type and an empty HTML document in that time. Happy to be of service ...