Sunday, August 31, 2014

Turn off annoying Facebook feature, save money and bandwidth

In case you are using Facebook  - and in Bhutan, who isn't?- you may have noticed an interesting change in your news feed in the last few months: as you scroll through the feed, videos posted by friends start to play automatically. The videos play silently (thank goodness for that!). Clicking on the video will turn on the audio. In the ever constant battle among the media companies to get our attention, this feature - called autoplay - is a rather clever way to distract us even further. And because the videos are muted by default, users can live with this annoyance (in fact, some experts speculate that the recent viral success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge can be partially attributed to Facebook's autoplay feature). But what about the data implications?

While many ISPs around the world offer plans which include unlimited (or capped) data quotas, in Bhutan the situation is different: broadband and 3G users pay for each byte they consume. Thus, whenever you visit Facebook (either on a desktop or your smartphone) and there are autoplayed videos in your feed, it means that you have paid for downloading those videos, whether or not you clicked thems. And since videos are data intensive, this hits your account balance rather heavily. Thus, if you noticed that your data balance is draining a bit too fast and you are a Facebook user, it might be a good idea to turn off the video auto-play feature. This will also save precious bandwidth for other applications. If you are interested in disabling Facebook auto-play, use this simple guide. Good luck!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dzongkha smells like "incense burning under a starlit sky"

I first wrote about the Dzongkha perfume in 2011. I recently bumped into "Perfumes: The A-Z Guide" at the local library. This is a fat perfume "bible" which contains reviews of (almost) every perfume on the planet. I was happy to see that "Dzongkha" got a raving four-star review!


Friday, June 27, 2014

Farewell, Bhutan (K2 #87)

When I first landed in Paro six years ago, little did I know that 2008 would turn out to be an auspicious year that would be remembered in Bhutanese history as a year of tremendous events and tectonic changes: His Majesty, the 5th Druk Gyalpo, was crowned; the first ever elections for the national assembly took place; a democratically-elected government began ruling; and the constitution was enacted.

Significant technological changes engulfed the country as well: In 2008, both broadband and mobile internet services were introduced in Bhutan for the first time. These two technologies signalled the start of a new era in ICT. No longer did Bhutanese need to connect using ancient dial-up modems and wait long minutes (or even hours) to read email, surf the web, or download documents. During the same period, global technological innovations that changed the world took place. Twitter was launched in 2006. Facebook was opened to (almost) everyone a few months later. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007; the first Android-based phone saw light the following year. The combination of global and local developments - social media, smartphones, and faster and cheaper access - has had a rapid and profound effect on Bhutanese society.


Back in 2008, fast internet was too expensive for most Bhutanese: the monthly package for a slow 256 Kbps broadband line - which included a “generous” 0.5 GB of data - cost Nu 1000 and would entail paying Nu 3000 for each additional GB. Today’s standard broadband connections are 8 times faster and 30 times cheaper. If flight technology advanced at the same pace, you would fly from Paro to Bangkok for Nu 700 and reach Suvarnabhumi in 20 minutes...


It was thrilling to experience the incredible changes that took place over the last 6 years: examples include the international internet capacity increasing dramatically to 5 Gbps; more and more government services becoming available online; a very active blogging scene with writers, such as Passu, receiving more than 1000 page views a day and having a voice heard within and outside Bhutan; politicians and journalists skillfully using social media including a Prime Minister with more than 34,000 Facebook “Likes” and 8,000 Twitter followers; a small but promising start of local apps, for example, the beautiful Zakar app commissioned by the Dratshang Lhentshog; and the launch of iSchool, an initiative to tackle the shortage in teachers by using remote classroom technology.

Along with these wonderful developments, challenges abound. I list a few challenges that deserve careful attention going forward, if the goal is to embrace progress while actively supporting an adaptable, healthy and forward-looking society and culture.

The broadband divide: While urban dwellers are increasingly enjoying faster and cheaper internet connectivity, accessing the web in rural areas is often next to impossible. Mobile broadband technologies have the potential to significantly narrow the access gap between these two increasingly growing-apart segments of society. How? By skillful deployment of fast 3G in all gewogs, as well as guaranteeing that cheap devices are available to all. A recent unfortunate decision made by BICMA, the body in charge of regulating the telecom providers, has made cheaper Indian smartphones unusable for 3G in major Bhutan localities. This in effect helped widen the gap instead of narrowing it. In the future, important decisions affecting society and individuals must be carefully scrutinized.


Three years ago I received a phone call from Kuensel reporter Gyalsten K. Dorji. He had an idea for me: write a regular tech column in the Kuensel’s K2 magazine. As all things internet and mobile were still a novelty to many in Bhutan, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to share my knowledge by answering readers’ questions. The first “Ask Boaz” column was published three years ago on June 11, 2011. This is the 87th and last column. I am honoured to hand over this space to Lama Shenphen who will be providing Buddhist-themed answers to youth-related questions. Readers are encouraged to submit questions to shenphenzangpo@yahoo.co.uk

Hi-tech industry: The launch of the much-awaited, World Bank-supported Thimphu TechPark, with its failure to jumpstart a hi-tech IT industry, was a stark reminder that “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t always work. While the lack of speedy and reliable internet connectivity certainly hasn’t helped, the main issue has been the lack of top-notch talent. A thriving IT industry requires the best and brightest to compete globally. Computer programming can be taught at primary school level, and high school toppers in science and math must be directed and encouraged to study computer science and computer engineering (but not “computer applications”) at top universities. A handful of successful IT startups can create employment opportunities even outside of ICT, in fields such as e-agriculture, media, music, health, travel, and education.

Effect on society: No one is certain how living in the “always-connected” age - the result of the addictive combination of mobile internet and smartphones - affects our psyche as individuals, as well as a society. This is research in progress, and we are the ultimate guinea pigs. But given the thoughtful and very careful emphasis that Bhutan places on the effects of development on its culture and well-being, this must be carefully considered. Bhutan cannot - and should not - avoid these developments, but leadership and citizens must be constantly mindful of how technology affects us. As the Buddha said, “Be devoted to heedfulness. Guard your mind.”

Boaz Shmueli was a faculty member and co-director of the Rigsum Research Lab at the Rigsum Institute of IT & Management, 2008-2014.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Getting Hacked (K2 #86)

Question of the Week
Why are so many Bhutanese websites being hacked?
— Chimmi P., Mothithang

Answer
Dear Chimmi,

In the last few years, it seems that almost every website in Bhutan underwent surgery by knives of hackers. From RGoB’s main portal (www.bhutan.gov.bt) to BOB, T-Bank, BICMA, RCSC, DPT, Royal Bhutan Police, DrukNet, tour operators, schools... you name it! Now for the news - good and bad.

The good news: The attacks are often simple ones, and the hackers – perhaps bored teenagers sitting in an internet cafe in Tehran or Istanbul – are not professionals. They usually take advantage of well-known software vulnerabilities in the server. In fact, it’s easy to avoid these simple attacks; one only needs to make sure the server software is up to date (much like the Windows Update feature on personal computers). Many webmasters in Bhutan, however, don’t bother to update the server software, and so suddenly the websites display a cryptic message in Arabic (often bundled with an oriental tune).

The bad news: Given the abysmal state of internet security in the country, combined with the fact that more and more sensitive systems and databases are now online, it is difficult to overestimate the amount of damage that can be caused by malicious, professional hackers. The results can be disastrous. Bhutan must start taking cyber security seriously.

“There are no jobs for IT graduates” has become a common mantra these days, and fewer class XII pass outs are choosing the IT route. The fact is, however, that there are jobs – both in Bhutan’s private sector and abroad – for good computer programmers. The problem is not the jobs – it’s the type and quality of the degrees. I recently met a Bhutanese employer in Bhutan who is looking for skilled programmers, but was not able find a single one although he interviewed hundreds of IT graduates, many of whom are decorated with Bachelor in Computer Application (BCA) degrees. I have had similar experiences. There is a limited market for excellent BCA graduates, but a much larger demand for rigorous B.Tech or Computer Science graduates from reputable universities. The end result: while there are jobs for skilled software engineers and coders (as programmers are often known), the current state is that most of the IT graduates are unemployable.

Readers are encouraged to submit technology-related questions to boaz@thimphutech.com

Monday, May 12, 2014

Google not Showing Doodles in Bhutan. Why?

Two months ago, on March 8th, 2014, the world celebrated International Women's Day (IWD). On that day, as it sometimes does, the official Google home page logo was replaced with a "Google Doodle", a fun and interactive logo designed especially for that occasion. Millions of users around the world enjoyed the logo and the video that came with it (click here to see that doodle; read more Google Doodles, including an archive of more than 2000 past doodles.)


Google Doodle for IWD 2014 (shown worldwide - but not in Bhutan)

Some Google doodles are specific for a country. For example, a few days ago Google showed a special logo to users in the country of Israel, which celebrated its 66th Independence Day.



Google Doodle for Israel's 66th Independence Day

Many of the doodles, like the IWD 2014 one, are international and are viewed by users in many countries — almost. For some reason, ever since Google.bt was launched, Google has stopped displaying international Google doodles in Bhutan.

Here is a map showing, in BLUE, the countries where the IWD 2014 doodle was shown. Note that Bhutan — the tiny white speck near NE India — is in WHITE. Bhutanese users got the same treatment as users in less-women-friendly countries such as Iran, Sudan, and Yemen. Why?

The reach of the IWD 2014 Doodle
But that doesn't stop here. Checking information about other international Doodles (Earth Day, Mother's day, birth and death anniversaries of important people, etc) shown in the last few years, it is apparent that users in Bhutan are always excluded. And we dare not even mention the remote possibility that Google can create Doodles specifically for events or people in Bhutan...

Google, bring doodles back to Bhutan!

Update: Yesterday (May 11th) the 1.2 billion neighbors to our south (along with many others around the world) enjoyed the following Mother's Day doodle. As usual, Google kept Bhutanese in the dark.


Doodle for Mother's Day 2014 shown in many countries, including India (but not Bhutan)



Saturday, May 3, 2014

Being there (K2 #85)

Question of the Week
I discovered that Facebook only allows changing a Page’s name if you are in the United States. How can I do that without leaving Bhutan?
— Namgay Zam, Thimphu

Answer
Dear Namgay,

Facebook’s policy is annoyingly discriminating against non-Americans, but luckily – as is often the case – there’s a workaround. First, how do the folks at Facebook know your location? Whenever we access a website, the server on the other end sees our “IP address” – a unique number assigned by the Internet Service Provider to our computer or smartphone. The IP address discloses our location in the same way that someone calling from India will have her phone number displayed as starting with 91. So, when Facebook (or any other website) sees, for example, a DrukNet-assigned IP address, it knows that you are in Bhutan. Open any browser and visit www.WhatIsMyIP.com to watch this in action.

One way to fool Facebook into thinking that you are in the USA is to use a proxy server, which acts as an intermediary on your behalf. You connect your browser to a proxy server (which “happens” to be in the USA), and the proxy server then connects to Facebook; the latter sees the IP address of the proxy server. The sad news is that finding and working with free proxy servers is a major hassle.

Luckily, there’s another option: you can use the free software called Tor (The Onion Router). This software was originally designed to protect the identity of the user, including concealing the user’s location. When using Tor, your information is first encrypted many times, then passed on via many randomly-selected relays around the world. Each relay only “peels” one layer of encryption (hence the Onion metaphor), until the original data reaches the destination. By the time the data reaches Facebook, your original IP address is long gone, and Facebook only sees the IP address of the last relay (also known as the exit node).

To start using Tor, visit goo.gl/AkrVGL, then download and install the Tor Bundle Package. Launch the Tor browser by double-clicking the Start Tor Browser app in the Tor Browser directory. Once the browser is open, visit www.WhatIsMyIP.com and check the displayed country; this is the random country where the exit node is located. Any site you use will now think that you are in that country instead of Bhutan! Since you want Facebook to think that you are in the United States, the last piece in the puzzle is to force Tor to use a USA-based exit node. This is done by using a text editor (Notepad for Windows, TextEdit for Mac) and adding the following line, exactly as written, to the torrc file inside the Tor Browser\Data\Tor directory:

ExitNodes {us}

This tells Tor to use an exit node in the USA. Now, re-launch the Tor browser, go to facebook.com, and voilĂ  – you should now be able to change your Page’s name!


Readers are encouraged to submit technology-related questions to boaz@thimphutech.com

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Broadband Leakage (K2 #84)

Question of the Week 
My broadband account gets depleted very quickly. How can I check what the problem is?
— Aby T., Thimphu

Answer
Dear Aby,

Internet in Bhutan has rapidly evolved from being a luxury toy for occasional usage to a necessary utility used on a daily basis. With such usage, your broadband Internet bills can therefore add up rather quickly. Prepaid broadband costs about Nu 100 for every GB these days (and slightly cheaper if you happen to recharge using the Nu 1499 or 2499 packages). Some users find that their balance quickly vanishes into thin air, and they often tend to blame Bhutan Telecom for faulty bookkeeping. But the truth is that there can also be other causes for a quick drain. If you suspect that you are overcharged, here are a few steps to take before rushing to Bhutan Telecom.


  1. Change your broadband password. The Bhutan Telecom system is set up in such a way that multiple users can use the same account (dnetxxxxxxxx) from multiple fixed lines at the same time. So, if a “friend” got hold of your password, they might be logging in from their home and downloading the recent Bollywood blockbusters at your expense. Changing your password will hopefully put a stop to that (but hopefully not to your friendship).
  2. Secure your wireless network. More and more homes in Thimphu have wireless routers, allowing laptops, smartphones, and tablets to connect to the Internet without cables. However, if your network is not secured with a password - or, if your password is simple to guess - your lovely neighbor might be taking your Internet connection for a free ride. Secure your network by setting a strong wireless password. Check the documentation that came with your wireless router for further instructions.
  3. Protect shared computers. Is there any chance other members of your household — brothers, sisters, spouse, children — are using your computer to watch their favorite YouTube videos when you’re at the office? It’s not a bad idea to password-protect your Windows account. Visit the Windows Control Panel to password-protect your user account, as well as disable any other accounts that are not password protected (such as the Guest account).


Say you've done the above, but are still puzzled about how your data is used. This is where a bandwidth monitor comes in handy. A bandwidth monitor keeps track of the data used by your computer, and shows you how your data is used. A recommended utility for Windows computers is the free NetLimiter 2 Mon, which you can download at www.netlimiter.com/download.php. Other creatures can also feed off your wireless network: if you connect an Android phone or tablet to your wireless network, you can check the data usage by using the built-in counters at Settings > Connections > Data Usage > Wi-Fi. If you happen to own an iPhone or iPad, you will need to install an app that monitors Wi-Fi usage, such as the free Cisco Data Meter (available at the iTunes app store).

Taken all the above steps? If you still think DrukNet is overcharging you, take a printout of the bandwidth monitor’s statistics with you when you pay the Bhutan Telecom office a visit.