Indian Slumdwellers Protest Biometric Scanning of Impersonators. I Think

Who says that privacy is only an issue in the First World? According to The Times of India residents of Palsora and Lal Bahadur Shastri colonies have demonstrated against “alleged irregularities in the biometric test, which is being carried out in the slum areas to check “impersonation at any level.” The problem, it seems, is that people have been impersonating other people, sometimes twice, to register or occupy property.

A couple of interesting things about this. First off, this is not just any old biometric test. The administration, the story says, plans to test “all those living in slums [who] will have to furnish details of their fingerprints, photographs, face recognition, voice recognition, signature, shape of the hand, and other such details.” This sounds quite advanced. (Shape of the hand? Is this a first? ) Slumdwellers would also be asked to submit the usual stuff, such as “personal details, including date and place of birth, father’s name, number of family members, present address, et al.” All in all, that’s quite a survey. The government is going to have more data on the slumdwellers of Chandigarh than probably anyone else on the planet.

Slumdwellers are now protesting outside the regional government offices, probably as we speak. Well, not today, as it’s the Hindu New Year, I believe. However, they are not up in arms about this apparent invasion of their privacy (voice recognition?), but that “genuine people were being ignored in the survey.” I take this to mean (and I could be wrong) that the survey teams seem to be focusing mainly on impersonators. (Can that be right? – Ed) If true, this might be the first recorded Protest Against A Survey of Slumdweller Impersonators.

Call Me, If You Can Figure Out My Number

Why do people leave their mobile or alternative telephone numbers on their phone greetings messages, spoken so fast they sound like Mongolian railway stations? “Hi, this is Janice, if you need me really urgently you can call me on blblsvblffblsxsvvngihtblblle. Thanks for calling, and have a great day trying to figure out the number I just gave!”

Who in the world can remember more than about four digits spoken quickly in sequence, let alone the nine or so in your average phone number? And why are these always the same people who never repeat the number, as one would do in any normal conversation? And why are these the voice message recordings that never leave the listener with the option to have the message repeat (“press 1 to leave a message, press 2 to page the person, press 3 to leave your number, press 4 to have the number repeated at a normal human hearing and cognition speed”?)

And why are these always the people that actually you do need to reach quite urgently? I guess that’s why they do it, as a sign of power. “We’re incredibly smart and busy people, so if you’re not smart enough, and needy enough, to want my phone number you’re either going to have call me back four times so you can hear the number or else you’re going to just have to leave a message in a rather pathetic voice hoping I might just listen to my voicemail once a year.” It’s natural selection by voicemail.

Anyway, here’s the answer: Skype phone recording. Skylook, for example, records every phone conversation you have, if you want, and if you don’t care about the legal ramifications. So you don’t have to call the stupid jerk back to listen to their stupid greeting message again and again, you can just listen back to the recording. Ha. Gotcha. Of course, I then had to listen to another prerecorded greeting, with another number tacked on to the end of the message, but I still feel I’m ahead. Unless of course I deciphered the first number wrongly and was listening to the voicemail of someone completely different.

Plea: If you’re going to leave a number in a message, please speak it slowly, and repeat it. It may be a number you’re so familiar with you can cite it without actually moving your lips or tongue, but for the rest of us it’s probably a new configuration of digits, so we’d like to hear it a speed that doesn’t make it come out as blblsvblffblsxsvvngihtblblle. Thanks for calling.

It’s Downhill From Here: Web 2.0 Awards

It’s a sign either that Web 2.0 has become an important and integral part of things, or that matters are getting out of control, but here’s another of what you should expect to be a long line of Web 2.0 Awards. This one is from SEOmoz, of whom I’ve never heard before, but which is actually a search engine optimization consultancy. In ordinary speak an SEO company sells its services to web sites that want to get higher rankings on Google. Why is a company dedicated to fiddling search engine algorithms making awards to companies claiming to be part of some new Internet Holy Grail?

I have no idea, but the scent of snake oil and hype can’t be far away. Web 2.0 is, for those of you who don’t spend your whole day reading memeorandum, is the term used to describe a growing — now, fast growing — array of web services aimed at the end-user. What used to be a niche area of interest only to pie-in-the-sky bloggers is now attracting big money, not least because there is a lot of money out there and not many places to put it. So now more or less anything new, and not so new, can be called Web 2.0, especially if it’s got the words “tagging”, “social”, “AJAX”, “mashup” in it somewhere, and if it’s not spelt correctly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long been a fan of what is now being called Web 2.0. I loved del.icio.us, and I love tagging. I love stuff that is simple to use, and put together with passion. It’s just that awards like this merely highlight how entrenched, predictable and money-oriented the whole thing has quickly become. Now, with Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and AOL dropping silly amounts of money to buy up some of these services, there’s no real way to measure the enthusiasm, commitment and longevity of any of these services. Money attracts people interested in money — or primarily interested in money — and while I’m sure not all, or even many, of the 800 or so Web 2.0 services now available are purely motivated by greed, we won’t know. So, as an end user, why bother investing time and effort in them?

Another problem with Web 2.0 stuff is that each service requires a degree of commitment from the user. Some services are beginning to understand they cannot merely offer walled gardens of service, where you enter your data — photos, appointments, bookmarks or whatever — but cannot access that data through any other service than theirs, but they are few and far between. Until we can do that, these services will remain smallscale, niche affairs that most people beyond early adopters won’t bother with. Indeed, the very plethora of services now appearing doesn’t lead to critical mass, it leads to critical failure, because the chances of two people finding that they use the same service and therefore can share their data falls the greater the number of services on offer.

People talk about a bubble a la 2000. Could be. I would be more afraid of just simply too many services chasing too few interested people. There are three main areas here:

  • Social networking sites follow more of what I’d call The Trendy Restaurant Model. Patronage tends to be fashion-driven and short term. Everyone flocks to MySpace because that’s the trendy place (or Consumating, or wherever). Then they move on (does Rupert Murdoch know this, by the way?).
  • Then there’s the Long Stay Parking model: bookmarking, business networking, project management and calendar tools. Here the payback for the user is longer term — the more one adds data, the more useful it becomes over time. But why should I bother adding data if there are a dozen very similar competing services, and if I can’t easily move that data to a rival service if I get a better deal, or prefer their features? Or even if I want someone who is not a member of that service to be able to access my data? The likes of Flickr, LinkedIn et al which dominated their corner don’t need to worry too much here, because they’re the default choice for anyone considering using a service in that space. But elsewhere long stay parking is asking a lot of the user. Too much, I suspect.
  • Then there’s the shorter term Eat and Rush Buffet model: here I’d include things like online editors and collaboration tools like Writely or Campfire. Great for one hit sessions of collaboration, but no real loyalty on the part of the user (and no great business model.) This in a way is the heart of Web 2.0: short, sweet services that individuals don’t need to invest much time or data in mastering. But how many of these can the Internet support without a business model?

There are other areas, I guess. And this is not to say that some services currently finding themselves being called Web 2.0 won’t thrive and dominate. But the arrival of awards, issued by a “search engine optimizer” (which puts SEOmoz top, for now, of the Google news search “web 2.0, awards” which I suppose was the point of the exercise), makes me start reaching for my gun. Or the door. Or the sickbag.

Another Blog Posting Tool

Not always being online, I love to use software that allows you to compose blog posts offline. My current favorite is BlogJet, but it’s not cheap and it often throws up error messages. I keep a list of those that are worth looking at (and more suggestions are always welcome.) This post is being written with a new one I’ve not come across before: SharpMT produced by Randy L. Santi. So far it looks pretty good, though it only works with Movable Type-based blogs, and it doesn’t have the WYSIWYG feel of BlogJet. Still, it’s great to see more contenders out in the field. I’d love to see the ability to add technorati tags a la Flock but perhaps that’s in the works.

Plaxo Drops the “Hi, I’m updating my address book” Email

Plaxo is dropping the “Hi, I’m updating my address book. Please take a moment to update your latest contact information…” email which has, over the past three years, raised more than a few hackles. (What is a hackle? And can they ever be in any other state than raised?) Anyway, people (including myself) have objected to the rather cavalier way that Plaxo software would send these update requests out to people. Writes Tom, one of the founders, on the Plaxo blog:

Obviously, a lot of people loved this feature, but some people did not. Journalists, A-list bloggers, and anyone else who is known by more people than they know were inundated with requests. We quickly responded by adding opt-out and throttling features, but we’ve always known that the update requests were a means to an end — our goal has always been to get as many members as possible so that these e-mails were unnecessary. And it looks like we’re finally getting to that end.

Plaxo now say that’s not going to happen anymore, because there’s no need:

As of last week, we’ve past 10 million members. We are now growing at over 50,000 users a day. Due to this great growth, the depth of our network, plus our heartfelt desire to be good net citizens, we have started phasing out update requests.

This feature will probably always exist in some form, but we are no longer aggressively pushing new users to send out e-mails and are adding restrictions to prevent existing users from sending out large batches. Within the next six months (allowing for releases and upgrades to our base), you should see these messages drop to a trickle.

This is good news. I wonder, though, about the 10 million members thing. After resuming my Plaxo account the other day I got the distinct impression that a) there were quite a few new members from among my contacts on Plaxo but not a massive amount and that b) a lot of those members were not actively updating their contacts. Indeed, it’s not clear to me how one can tell whether an account is dormant, and if so, whether the information that is being updated to your contact list is current or not. (I guess in some ways this may actually reduce the effectiveness of Plaxo, in that your updated contact details for a person may be overwritten by those in a long dormant Plaxo account.) (I just asked Stacy Martin, Plaxo’s longsuffering and patient privacy officer, and he suggests users who no longer update their Plaxo account delete by going here. )

Anymore, I don’t want to be churlish. It’s good news that Plaxo is phasing out those emails. I can understand their predicament; the product’s usefulness grows the larger the more people use it, so the emails were an important part of spreading the word. Trouble was, some folk found it irritating. Hackle-raising irritating.

How to Split Your Screen Down the Middle

Here’s something for the directory of monitor extenders — stuff that increases the size, scope or general bendiness of your screen — SplitView , from the guys who brought you DiskView:

SplitView increases productivity by making it easy to work with two applications side by side. It helps make full use of your high resolution monitor and gives the benefit of dual-monitors without their associated cost.

Given it costs $19, that statement is indeed true. The problem is simple. Having two monitors is great — if you haven’t done it yet, you haven’t lived — but it’s also neat because you can pretty much keep them separate, a bit like having two desks to play with. That’s because Windows treats the two screens as one for some functions – moving windows and whatnot — but as two for functions like maximising programs etc. Very useful if you’re moving between two documents, or dragging and dropping text using the mouse.

But what happens if you have one supersized monitor, with high resolution? You have all that real estate, but not the same duality, if you get my drift. This is where SplitView jumps in. A small program that incorporates itself into the pull-down resize menu on the left-hand top corner (right clicking on its icon in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen has the same effect), SplitView lets you make the program take up half the screen on either the left or right in one move (or via keyboard shortcuts).  So now you have two monitors in one:

I can imagine this would also be useful for those of us used to dual monitors but forced into single screendom when on the road. Now your laptop can be split in two, making it easy to drag and drop and stuff. Its author, Rohan, says he wrote it “as a ‘me-ware’ – something i needed myself, and then productized it.” Good productizing, Rohan.

Catching the Spark

This is the week of hobbyhorses. I love sparklines though I’ve been very lazy in actually trying to make more use of them. Sparklines are simple little graphs that can pepper text to illustrate data. I went through a phase of using them a year ago on media coverage of technical stuff, the excessive online habits of Hong Kongers and a rather lame illustration (my first effort) at the rise and fall of Internet cliches.

Anyway, interest seems to be returning for sparklines. Here’s a good piece on Corante on Sparklines: Merging visual data with text  about a new utility that lets you create sparklines for your web page or blog:

Joe Gregorio took the idea and ran with it. He created a web-based utility that lets you input a series of comma-separated values from 1 to 100 in order to generate a sparkline you can add to any online text. To give it a shot, I entered the numbers of repeat visitors to this blog beginning on Monday, March 13 and ending yesterday, March 19.

 

Mapping Your Tiddly Thoughts

I’m a big fan of TiddlyWiki, the personal wiki that runs in one file in your browser, and I’m very impressed by all the plug-ins and tweaks that the program’s users are introducing. (I wrote about TiddlyWiki last year in a WSJ.com column — subscription only, sorry — but have also included some notes for the piece here in the blog, including on this page (scroll down).

Anyway, TiddlyWiki is a free form database, not unlike an outliner, but with lots of cool elements that make it much more. (Yes, tags, too.) Think of lots of individual notes that you make in your browser, which you can find via ordinary search or by tags you give to each note; you can also view a list of notes chronologically — i.e. in the order you created them — etc etc.

But if you’re a fan of mindmaps, or PersonalBrain, where your information can also be viewed graphically, you might feel a tad constrained. Not for much longer, if a Java programmer and writer called Dawn Ahukanna has her way. She’s just released a “hypergraph plug-in” which creates what she calls navigation graphs (I’d call them mindmaps but that’s me). As she says, “I’ve had quite a few revelations with it already, using it to map my existing TiddlyWikis.”

Tiddly1

It’s an early prototype and not as pretty as it could be, but this kind of thing is in my mind the thin wedge of a revolution largely ignored by the “social” Web 2.0. Tools like TiddlyWiki, though presently a little rough around the edges and geeky, mark a very useful exploration of different interfaces for personal, portable data.

While I think of it, another interesting new TiddlyWiki modification is the MonkeyGTD (Getting Things Done, to the few people who haven’t been sucked in by the David Allen book and self-organizing philosophy), which tweaks the TiddlyWiki interface into little blocks.

Would You Buy A Bluetooth Car From These People?

Spare a thought for the car salesperson. Nowadays they’ve got to know as much about technology as they do about cars. A recent course held by Ford in the UK called True Blue Live to train salespeople in technology has produced mixed reports. A South African motoring website called motoring.co.za reports that “by the end of the session nearly half felt “very confident” and most of the rest were “reasonably confident”. Only a few were still unsure but, importantly, conscious of the need to brush up.”

But elsewhere The Coventry Evening Telegraph (sorry, can’t find original link) reports from the same training session that “feedback after the event indicated that around 35 per cent of the sales staff who attended had little confidence in their own ability to demonstrate high-tech in-car equipment such as BlueTooth devices and voice control systems.” What’s not clear from the story is whether this was their attitude before or after the event. But you can’t help wondering whether, if the salespeople have trouble explaining Bluetooth and other features of these cars, end users actually ever understand or use any of them?

The Bluetooth Gun

Bluetooth in the line of fire? New Scientist reports of a police gun invention that when fired will automatically send its position to fellow officers who can then, presumably, provide backup.

The idea is that when a police officer is holding his gun correctly — both hands on the weapon — he or she can’t easily reach for the radio. So inventor Kevin Sinha of Georgia, “has come up with a simple way around the problem and Motorola, which has made police radios for many years, has pitched in.” The invention involves a Bluetooth transmitter chip controlled by a sensor in the gun which detects when the firing pin is triggered. Whenever a shot is fired the gun sends out a signal to a GPS radio on the wearer’s belt which determines the wearer’s precise position and transmits a pre-recorded message along with the location.

An interesting use of Bluetooth (and GPS). Of course, knowing how hard it is to couple two Bluetooth devices, and their tendency to need “waking up” even if they are paired, I wouldn’t want to rely on it in hairy situations. Like being shot at, for example.