Mobilizing the Bird Watchers

It sounds more like the storyline for a movie, but this piece in the International Herald Tribune by Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Coming Plague”, highlights an area where technology might be able help stem the tide of bird flu:

One of the best untapped resources in this epic battle against influenza is bird-watchers, who are among the most fanatic hobbyists in the world. The major bird-watching organizations and safari clubs ought to work with the World Health Organization and OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health, to set up Web-based notification sites, where birders could report sightings of groups of dead birds, and the movements of key migrating species.

This information would then lead to issuing alerts, and, when “carrier species are sighted in a region, swift action should be taken to minimize contact between the wild birds and their domestic kin. In such a way, it might be possible to limit avian deaths to susceptible wild birds, such as the dying swans of Europe.” The picture Garrett paints is a scary one (her book title perhaps reveals her optimism, or lack of it, about what could happen.) So could the bird watcher brigade save the human race?

In some places it’s already happening. Organisations in the UK, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have asked their members to report dead birds, but unless I’m not looking in the right place their websites don’t make much of it. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust had one link to avian influenza but buried the contact number for the public at the bottom of the page (and no email link).

China, too, is mobilizing bird lovers, according to the China Daily but candidly admits its numbers aren’t enough:  “There are more than 100 frequent birdwatchers in Beijing, but the number proves to be far from enough when the people are scattered at wild bird habitats around the city,” [Li Haitao, a birdwatcher in the capital,] said.

It would seem to me that the Internet is perfectly suited to this kind of coordinated “citizen reporting” of migratory patterns and bird deaths. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Plus, it would make a great movie. Leonardo di Caprio as an anorak-wearing bird watcher saving the planet?

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Peering Into The Blogosphere

Has the blogosphere disappeared into itself, like some 18th century salon of elitists? Probably not, but sometimes I wonder. Clearly others do too. The second comment on a new website that purports to measure the Top50 bloggers is actually more entertaining than anything else on the site: The writer fires off both barrels at the technorati:

This illustrates the subjective nature of blogging and the real-world irrelevance of the self-appointed, self-promoted “A-list”. If you love to write, then write, but don’t publish a “blog” that’s got more ads than a mal-ware link-page and expect me to read it. When I see an ad-infested blog (as most “A-list” blogs are) I see a whore looking for the next trick (or next ‘click’, in this case), not a contributing member of the blogosphere.

It goes on in a similar vein. Strong stuff, and in some ways not fair, particularly the ads thing. The A List bloggers I read don’t have any ads at all that I can remember, certainly less than the number I have. That, in most cases, is not their motivation. And their content is often very interesting stuff, and a great place to hear about new gizmos and Web 2.0 thingamijigs first. But that said, there is perhaps some fire inside the smoke. The A List of bloggers hasn’t changed hugely in the past three years, and while it’s fascinating to watch them evolve (or not, in some cases) you can’t help but wonder why, when blogging has grown in popularity, both in readership and authorship, the A List remains such a small club.

And when that happens, how relevant are the musings of that club to outsiders who may recently have joined the blogosphere?  How useful is a blogosphere so dominated by such a narrow group of people? At what point do the musings of the A List just become a cross-referencing, back-slapping (and occasionally bitchy) salon of folk who have lost their sense of perspective? What I’d like to see — perhaps it already exists — is a visual representation of all the cross-linking that takes place among the A-List. Perhaps then we’ll get a clearer picture of what the A List actually is.

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My Links

If you’re visiting the site and not reading the feed, you might have noticed one or two slight changes to the blog. This is part of a move to an overhaul which I’m approaching with my usual timidity and poor sense of urgency. First off, sorry for the changing photo. I did include one from the other night when I wore the former ruling party’s outfit to Planet Hollywood which didn’t go down well with a regional governor sitting at the bar. I got a few scowls from him, especially when I grabbed a metal detector and started swiping the bags of passers by. Indonesians are way too nice.

Secondly, I’ve added a link roll from my collection. This is an attempt to pass on to those who are interested those links I’ve come across that I thought were worth saving. If you move your mouse over the link a bubble should appear with some comment in there to give you an idea why I thought it was worth saving.

 I’d be interested in your thoughts. The downside of this is that those subscribing to the feed won’t see it unless they subscribe to my feed, which is probably more than you really want to do. Anyway, it’s an experiment. There may be a better way to do this.

Finally, for those of you subscribing to the feed: thanks. And, if you’re not already, take the FeedBurner feed, not the TypePad one. It’s better, I can get a better idea of what’s of interest to you (generally speaking, not you in particular) and it should look nice in your aggregator.

How to Make More Use of the Vicar

In last week’s WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote about how Bayesian Filters — derived from the theories of an 18th century vicar called Thomas Bayes and used to filter out spam — could also be used to sift through other kinds of data. Here’s a preliminary list of some of the uses I came across:

  • Deconstructing Sundance: how a bunch of guys at UnSpam Technologies successfully predicted the winners (or at least who would be among the winners) at this year’s festival using POPFile, the Bayesian filter of choice;
  • ShopZilla a “leading shopping search engine” uses POPFile “in collaboration with Kana to filter customer emails into different buckets so we can apply the appropriate quality of service and have the right people to answer to the emails. Fortunately, some of the buckets can receive satisfactory canned responses. The bottom line is that PopFile provides us with a way to send better customer responses while saving time and money.”
  • Indeed, even on-spam email can benefit from Bayes, filtering boring from non-boring email, say, or personal from work. Jon Udell experimented with this kind of thing a few years ago.
  • So can virus and malware. Here’s a post on the work by Martin Overton in keeping out the bad stuff simply using a Bayesian Filter. Here’s Martin’s actual paper (PDF only). (Martin has commented that he actually has two blogs addressing his work in this field, here and here.)
  • John Graham-Cumming, author of POPFile, says he’s been approached by people who would like to use it in regulatory fields, in computational biology, dating websites (“training a filter for learning your preferences for your ideal wife,”, as he puts it), and says he’s been considering feeding in articles from WSJ and The Economist in an attempt to find a way predict weekly stock market prices. “If we do find it out,” he says, “we won’t tell you for a few years.” So he’s probably already doing it.

If you’re new to Bayes, I hope this doesn’t put you off. All you have to do is show it what to do and then leave it alone.  If you haven’t tried POPFile and you’re having spam issues, give it a try. It’s free, easy to install and will probably be the smartest bit of software on your computer.

I suppose the way I see it is that Bayesian filters don’t care about how words look, what language they’re in, or what they mean, or even if they are words. They look at how the words behave. So while the Unspam guys found out that a word “riveting” was much more likely to be used by a reviewer to describe a dud movie than a good one, the Bayesian Filter isn’t going to care that that seems somewhat contradictory. In real life we would have been fooled, because we know “riveting” is a good thing (unless it’s some weird wedgie-style torture involving jeans that I haven’t come across). Bayes doesn’t know that. It just knows that it has an unhealthy habit of cropping up in movies that bomb.

 In a word, Bayesian Filters watches what words do, or what the email is using the words to do, rather than look at the meaning of the words. We should be applying this to speeches of politicians, CEOs, PR types and see what comes out. Is there any way of measuring how successful a politician is going to be based on their early speeches? What about press releases? Any way of predicting the success of the products they tout?

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The Problem With Surveys

I love BBC World, the satellite news channel, and I love offering feedback (rarely welcome, as readers will know). In the hope of satisfying both passions I joined the BBC World Panel where “users are invited to register and record their comments online and to take part in regular surveys and questionnaires specifically on viewing and programming issues.”

The surveys are handled by a company called eDigital Research which claims to be

unique in our field as we combine an in-depth research background with a thorough understanding of developing and managing Internet websites. Our propriety research programmes are developed in-house by our experienced team of developers allowing us to develop bespoke client programmes and react to the immediacy of the Internet. We are able to translate complex market research data into concise management reports that highlight key business issues effecting the ROI. 

With all due respect to eDigital, which also trades as eMysteryShopper, eCustomerOpinions, eGlobalPanel and ePollingStation, all this language sounds tired and out of date. “The immediacy of the Internet”? What does that mean, exactly? The Internet is a huge bunch of people. That’s what the Internet is. For sure the Internet is “immediate” but it’s not just about being fast, it’s about connecting to customers, listeners, surveyees, whatever. (And what are “propriety programmes”? Do they mean proprietary, as in “something exclusively owned by someone, often with connotations that it is exclusive and cannot be used by other parties without negotiations” or propriety, a noun meaning “correct or appropriate behavior”. Both kind of make sense here, which perhaps illustrates the poor use of language here.)

Anyway, as I was filling out yet another BBC survey this morning I realised how old this kind of approach is. The survey in question was just like the other surveys I’ve done in this series: They are composed of questions and either multiple choice answers, or ordering selections from drop down menus, all of which are time-consuming for the user without ever really zooming in on the user’s real priorities. This is the kind of thing:


(The numbers go up to 10.) There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it also needs to reflect the way the Internet has changed the way consumers interact with companies, and the expectation (however unevenly reflected) that their voices be heard beyond choosing a few options that don’t necessarily capture the flavor of their attitude towards the product. This kind of multiple choice thing is fine in quick surveys for busy shoppers outside supermarkets, but not in a survey of volunteers who have deliberately set aside time to offer feedback.

Then, the equation should be quite different. The surveyor should be asking “How can I vacuum up as much of the rainbow of this user’s attitudes and thoughts about the service/product in question before they go to breakfast?. Sifting through their thoughts may take me longer, but the quality and usefulness of that freeform feedback is going to be much more valuable to the client than simply a few PowerPoint graphs.”

This lack of effort to gain access to the user’s real feelings towards the product/service is reflected in the final question, a broad one (without a question mark, oddly) but with only a small box for the user to type in their response:


As you can see, I went on at length about my passion for English soccer, and my ideas for how BBC World could expand its coverage without having to fork out big bucks for actual soccer footage. But I also, knowing from previous experience that as far as I know respondents to these BBC World surveys never hear back from the surveyors, however much extra feedback we type into the freeform text boxes. added this final comment:

One last thing: communicate with your respondents. This survey is too Old Thinking. Start a conversation with your viewers that doesn’t just involve us clicking multiple choice boxes. Email your respondents with follow-up questions, engage us as human beings. Some of us love BBC World and want to see it do well. But throwing our considered responses to your surveys into a deafening silence is not the best way to engage or keep your viewers. Nowadays the market is a conversation. Use it. And use us.

How should someone do this? I would say the BBC Viewer’s panel should be just that: a panel of selected viewers (chosen, perhaps, for the quality of their freeform feedback), overseen by a panel leader who maintains a blog, throwing out occasional gems from viewers’ responses and updating viewers on the progress of the changes being wrought in response to these surveys. This morning’s survey, for example, was initiated by an email with the intriguing paragraph:

Because of the costs involved, there are many problems showing clips of sports on news channels. Should BBC World show only what it can, or would you like to see a rolling results show on the channel? Whatever you think, and even if you aren’t a sports fan, we’d like to know what you think.

Off to a good start. But that’s just the beginning. Use blogs, use discussion forums, use blog comments, use a Wiki, use Skype, use whatever it takes to find out, to really find out, what your viewers want from you. Let them guide the discussion, not a market research company with spelling issues.

Company Releases Research on Rushed Workers, Posts Wrong Link

Here’s something to confirm your worst fears: a Reuters story (thanks, John) that quotes research suggesting that

Most U.S. workers say they feel rushed on the job, but they are getting less accomplished than a decade ago… Workers completed two-thirds of their work in an average day last year, down from about three-quarters in a 1994 study, according to research conducted for Day-Timers, an East Texas, Pennsylvania-based maker of organizational products.

The biggest problem, the piece says, is technology. As we take on more tasks we feel we do them less well, and feel we’re accomplishing less. Here are the comparisons:

  • The average time spent on a computer at work: 16 hours a week vs 9.5 hours in 1994
  • Workers who “feel extremely or very productive”: 51 percent vs 83 percent in 1994
  • Workers who felt they accomplished at least half their daily planned work:50 percent vs 82 percent
  • Workers who considered themselves very or extremely successful: 28 percent vs 40 percent

Needless to say this doesn’t surprise me. And I don’t just mean because the research was commissioned by a time organizing company . It’s a truism to say we’re bombarded with too many demands on our time and I’ve warbled many times before about how SlackBerries actually reduce productivity rather than increase it.

What amuses me most about this story, though, is the fact the story appears on the sponsoring company’s own website but with a link to the wrong press release. In fact, I can’t find the correct press release on the website, even though the Reuters story was written on February 22, so it must have been available for a day at least. Could someone at Day-Timers have been in such a hurry they forgot to post the press release, or inserted the wrong link into the Reuters story? 

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The Anger of the Blogger Spammed

There’s something just so lame about comment spam dressed up as a legitimate comment that it gets me angrier than I do with ordinary spam, blog or otherwise, for some reason. (Comment spam/blogspam/linkspam is when individuals automate posting of comments on blogs to build traffic and Google rankings by having links to their sites on other sites. Some comment spam is just gibberish, but would still boost Google rankings because of the links contained somewhere in the comment, while others pretend to be legitimate comments.)

I think it’s because I’m as much a sucker as the next guy for anyone saying anything nice about me or my blog, and the anger of realising I’ve just been spammed by some dork who wants to promote their website on your real estate is of a deep, visceral kind.

This I just got on a posting about the weirdness of online auctions in Singapore:

Excellent Blog. Very informative. And very well organized.

Online Auctions are really looking up with more and more people interested in buying and selling product online.

Keep it up. We need more such blogs which provide quality information.

No sign in there the writer has actually read the blog. Clearly just a blast at all blogs mentioning the word ‘auction’. In the name and URL field of the comment the sender gives his name and his website. I would publish both here but it would just drive traffic, and I’m guessing if the guy is already stooping to comment spam he’s not going to be shamable. Still, if you were to block all comments from you might be doing yourself a favor. And let’s just say the spammer in question is quite prominent in Indian circles as “an Internet Entrepreneur, Online Biz Consultant, Hypnosis & NLP “Guru” and a Prolific writer.” Prolific as in prolific spammer?

Bottom line: Please don’t comment spam me. All comments have to be approved first so you’re just wasting my time and yours, not the reader’s.  And shouldn’t we be treating comment spammers like ordinary spammers, and making all efforts to shame them and inform their ISPs?

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Starting A Computer That Won’t Start

If you have problems starting Windows XP because of a blue screen telling you (I forget the exact wording) that you need to run CHKDSK /f and disable all antivirus and disk management programs, here’s a possible solution.

The problem is that while you’d love to run CHKDSK /f — which runs a check on your hard drive and fixes any file errors — you can’t actually start Windows, or even get to a DOS prompt, to do it. The furthest you’re likely to get is a screen listing the drivers being loaded, but stopping at one called agp440.sys. Then the blue screen. Here’s what worked for me (it assumes you have a spare computer and an external drive casing for your hard drive, whichever size it is. I’ve learned to hang onto these kind of things for just such a situation as this):

  • Turn off the computer (I’m assuming it’s a laptop but this would work with a desktop too)
  • Remove the hard drive (take photos with your cellphone if necessary to remind yourself where the screws went, etc)
  • Attach the hard drive to your second computer using the external casing
  • Run CHKDSK /f (or any Disk Checker utility) over the hard drive. This should fix the problems with the hard drive
  • Remove hard drive from external casing and put back in original computer.
  • Restart computer

May not work for everyone but it worked for me.

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The Gates Are Open, Phishers Welcome

I’m probably naive, but I’m gobsmacked that, nearly 24 hours later, a phishing website is still active despite my alerting the registrar and host of the domain in question. The only access was via a form so I’m not able to record my email to them but it was shortly after I posted the comment above.

I’ve not been able to contact the bank in question because there’s no media contact that I can find on their website. The scam has been recorded here and the Halifax website seems to be down so perhaps something is happening. But why is the original phishing site still up? And why don’t banks have an easy way for members of the public (or journalists, for that matter) to alert them to such scams? Millers Miles, which records phishing attacks, has recorded more than a dozen against the Halifax in the past year. 

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China Cracks Down on Beautified Soccer Hooligans

Further to my post about China’s facial recognition, a system — possibly the same one — will be used to ban soccer hooliganism at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the Beijing News reported on Wednesday. It will even work on those who try to look their best for the occasion: 

If the hooligans attempt to enter stadiums to watch soccer games again during the one-year term, police are obliged to take them away from the games, it added. Face recognition devices to be installed at the stadiums will be able to spot hooligans even if they wear heavy makeup, Liu Xuechao, a senior police officer with the Municipal Public Security Bureau, was quoted as saying. “

For some reason I can’t shake the image of hordes of Chelsea fans wearing lipstick and too much eye-shadow.

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