How Not to Record Interviews

I call it my Aung San Suu Kyi Moment, mainly because I’m a show off and like to drop names of famous people I once interviewed over the phone. It was September 1988 and I was a rookie reporter in Bangkok, one of several of us in a wire service who spent most of the day trying to reach Rangoon, as it then was, via one of less than a dozen phone lines between Thailand (as it still is) and Burma (as it then was). If any one of us got through, it was an important moment, because news was so hard go get out of the growing street rebellion against the military government. One of the leaders was Aung San Suu Kyi (as she still is), and if we managed to get her on the line everyone would crowd around to listen to the interview on the speaker phone. We’d record the interview too, via a cable that plugged into our tape recorder, in case we missed anything. It was a wild life.

On my first week on the job I got her on the line and asked all the right questions, mainly because my boss was writing them down and passing them to me. I hung up, elated. Everyone gave me a slap on the back, right up until I realised I had put the cable in the earphone socket rather than the microphone socket. I had recorded only silence. In my excitement, of course, I hadn’t taken any notes. One of my superiors, an American helicopter pilot, gave his wry smile and said, “better luck next time, kiddo,” or something like that. I was crushed, and learned an important lesson: Never to let people call me kiddo. Sorry, I mean to never let technology outwit me at key moments.

Since then, for example, I’ve tried to tape over the earphone socket so I don’t make the same mistake, but occasionally I do, and the Law of the Aung San Suu Kyi Moment seems to be: The Likelihood that You Will Plug the Wrong Cable into Your Tape Recorder Is in Exact Proportion to the Importance of the Interview and in Inverse Proportion to the Quality of Any Handwritten Notes You Take During the Interview.

My first bugbear is this: Why don’t I take better notes? That of course, is related to my own incompetence at shorthand and the fact that if the person I’m interviewing is important I want to maintain as much eye contact as possible, reducing the time available to take notes to about three seconds, usually long enough to write something trite and meaningless, and then only to show them I’m listening. This important Journalistic Technique is less effective over the phone, of course. Then I don’t take many notes because I’m usually staring out of the window or scratching some body part, often one of my own.

Anyway, my second bugbear is this: Why can’t people who make these recording devices put the sockets further apart, color-code them (some do, admittedly) or at least mark them so they don’t look exactly alike, as per this one from Olympus?

Olymp

As you can see, in a hurry of an interview situation, scrambling to plug the microphone in to the socket, you’re likely to miss entirely and jab it it into the ear socket next to it, which would result in you recording an interview with yourself, and any other ambient noises that happened to be going on (such as the scratching).

It’s not as if laptops are any better. In fact they’re slightly worse. Many put their sockets at the back of the unit, with no color coding and with icons that make about as much sense as a junta press conference. Take this one from Acer for example:

Acer

Not going to win any design awards, that one. I’m in favour of putting them somewhere we can actually reach them, color coding them clearly and intuitively, labelling them, and not putting them next to each other. Us journalists should be allowed to scratch without these kind of worries.

A Directory of Visualizing Tools

Update Feb 2007: Just came across some cool stuff from digg labs (the guys behind digg) who haev some coold stuff I’ve added below.

In this week’s WSJ.com column I wrote (subscription only, I’m afraid) about treemaps, tools which allow you to look at data differently:

One of the things that bugs me about our oh-so-cool information revolution is this: We show such little imagination in how we actually look at that information. Think about it. We have all this fascinating data at our fingertips and yet we have decided the most effective way of viewing it is in…a table. Or a chart. Or a list of search results (“1.7 gazillion matches — click here for next 10 results”). There has to be a better way.

A treemap “is a bunch of squares, arranged to form a mosaic. The size and color of each block mean something”. It’s probably easier to show it than to explain it:

Treemap
(from RoomforMilk, see below)

The size of blocks indicate, in this case, the popularity of each subject, shades and color indicate how recent the topic has been updated. Click on one and more information appears. Best is to check them out: they’re intuitive and fun to use. Really.

Here’s some links (yes I know this should be in the form of a treemap, but I’m not that clever) from the column and some stuff I wasn’t able to put in for reasons of space (Yes, I am aware of the irony. Yell at my editor): 

  • stack a vertical bar chart of activity, with the stories themselves moving way too fast down the screen (from digg labs)
  • digg’s bigspy an impressive scrolling list of stories, size dictated by the number of diggs.
  • swarm another digg offering. not sure what this does, actually, but it looks cute.
  • Panopticon a leading supplier of professional Visual Business Intelligence to the financial services industry as well as other fields of business. Download their free Panopticon Explorer .NET Learning Edition which lets you view treemaps of files, processes, event logs and spreadsheets.
  • Marcus Weskamp’s excellent newsmap
  • Peet’s Coffee Selector good example of a treemap at work for consumers
  • RoomforMilk lovely looking treemap of Slashdot headlines, or as the website puts it — “RoomforMilk.com is a news feed pasteurizer and homogenizer featuring Slashdot News Headlines. RoomforMilk is not even 2% affiliated with Slashdot.org.” Colors and shades indicate new/old (fresh/stale) stories, blocks indicate keywords.
  • del.icio.us most popular treemap from codecubed very cool-looking map of the most popular links from social bookmarking tool del.ico.us, by derek gottfrid.
  • Microsoft Treemapper with Excel Add-In. Simple tool “to view hierarchical data conveniently from an Excel file.”
  • Wikipedia World Population in a treemap by The Hive Group, as a demonstration of their Honeycomb technology. Very absorbing. Check out their views of iTunes’ Top 100 and Amazon.
  • NewsIsFree also uses Honeycomb.
  • CNET News’ Hot page.
  • Great recent piece by Ben Shneiderman, inventor of the treemap. Didn’t get to talk to him but I hope to at some point.
  • Wikipedia entry on Treemapping.
  • Grokker search, a kind of treemap. (Thanks to a reader of the column for that.)
  • WSJ’s Map of the Market, from SmartMoney. Uses Java, but pretty cool.

And, some software to visualize your hard drive (Windows, unless stated)

  • FolderSizes strictly speaking not really a treemap, but a good way to visualize your drives via pie charts. “It can quickly isolate large, old, temporary, and duplicate files, or even show file distribution by type, attributes, or owner. All with multiple export formats, command-line support, shell context menu integration, and much more.” $40, free trial.
  • SizeExplorer Features include folder size, graphical charts, file distribution statistics and reports (by size, extension, type, owner, date, etc.), biggest files, network support, snapshots, file management, printing of file listing, compress into ZIP file, exports to Excel, html, xml and text files, etc. $16-45
  • DiskView another pie chart approach, but useful. DiskView integrates into your Windows Explorer, pretty well. New version also indicates how fragmented files are , and, if your hard disk supports it, its health
  • SpaceMonger my favorite space-hogger hunter. Does a great job of mapping your hard drives and showing you what is taking up space. New version out soon, I’m told.
  • DiskAnalyzer Similar to FolderSizes, though not as pretty. Free tho.
  • WinDirStat free program which will create a treemap of your drive(s), based on the KDirStat for the K Desktop Environment, an interface for UNIX.
  • DiskInventory X similar to WinDirStat/KDirStat, for Macs
  • SequoiaView similar to the above. Linked to the company MagnaView, which sells commercial versions of its treemapping software “take input from virtually any information system, file or database, and support the development of an impressive range of visualizations”. (thanks, Michael.)

You can also see a bunch of posts I’ve done on different kinds of newsmaps, including some interviews with folk like Marcus Weskamp and Craig Mod, creator of Buzztracker, here. I’m sure I’ve missed lots; please do let me know either by email or comments.

 
 

Skype’s 100 Million: Where The Hell Are They?

Internet telephony folks Skype today says that it now has 100 million registered users. A press release (free registration required) says that this was achieved in “just two-and-a-half year’s time [sic], and has nearly doubled in size from September 2005 when it had 54 million registered users.” This is truly impressive. But if this is the case, where the hell is everyone?

My Skype currently shows 3,633,607 users online. Admittedly this is during the Asian day, when traffic is not as high as when the Europeans and Americans wake up. But that’s less than 4% of registered users actually online. OK, allowing for people who are ‘away’ (I believe this excludes them from being counted) and for folk who only go online occasionally, and allowing for the vagaries of actually reporting the total number of users online (actually, another 6,000 users have appeared since I started writing this paragraph), I can’t help wondering whether the 100 million figure is a) a wild exaggeration, down to people registering twice, b) people registering and then ditching it or c) the number of users that appears in the Skype program is just not reflecting reality.

No question Skype is big. And good: Everyone I know has it, some of them people who have resisted the Internet age on an almost Luddite scale. But I just wonder where all those tens of millions of people are. What’s the biggest number we’ve seen online? Anyone seen more than 10 million in one go?

The “Sharing Files Thing” Gets Cheaper

It’s a growing space, as the marketing types call it, and it’s not surprising that Laplink, best known for their linking of laps (shurely “laptops”? – ed), have decided to make the basic edition of their file sharing applications, ShareDirect, free. Previously available online for $40, the program can now be downloaded for nothing. It’s not a bad application — you just invite trusted contacts to view and download them from the folders you designate. “The files never leave the safety of your hard drive until you invite someone to download them from you directly. All files are protected by 128-bit encryption, and can securely travel through existing firewall settings,” as the blurb would have it.

The free version will allow unlimited ordinary transfers and 500 MB per month of what Laplink calls ’Premium Transfers’. These are transfers that pass through Laplink’s own servers without any need for altering your firewall and other connection settings. The Plus version, costing $70, lets you make 5 GB a month worth of Premium Transfers.

It doesn’t surprise me because Microsoft recently bought FolderShare and made that available for nothing. I’m working on a review of these various services so watch this space. Well, actually, this space.

A Modular Packing Expert Speaks

Today’s podcast is given over to an interview with my old friend Jim, further identity concealed, as we catch him via Skype on mission in the southern Sudan and ask him, not about the tense political situation and his efforts to bolster democracy in that troubled country, but about how he packs his underpants. Anyone with an interest in packing, or even in Jim’s underpants, should take a listen. Quality of recording unsurprisingly poor despite the great efforts of Skype recording tool Skylook.
Here’s the podcast (about 2 MB):

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Data That Blows Up in Your Face

Great idea, this one: A USB flash drive that looks like a balloon (or a handbag) and that changes size depending on how much space there is left on the drive (via the excellent infosthetics and randomly good stuff:

When empty the flashbag is small, like a sack, and then it balloons up as stuff is added, alerting the owner that it’s time to get another one or shift some stuff. What isn’t quite clear is what happens when it’s full. The blurb suggests a violent end:

When the device is about to blow up you will see the familiar error message on your screen: “There is not enough free space”.

I think the author, designer Dima Komissarov, may not quite mean that, although it does have interesting implications for data storage. People might be a bit more careful with what they load onto their storage devices if excessive downloading brings the risk of explosion. Might be worth honing the concept before it hits the shelves.

 
 

Press 4 To Give Us All Your Money

I guess it had to happen: phishers are not only trying to snag you by setting up fake banking websites, now they’re trying to snag you by setting up fake switchboards too.

Tim McElligott writes in Telephony Online that scammers “posing as a financial institution and using a VoIP phone number e-mailed people asking them to dial the number and enter the personal information needed to gain access to their finances.” Simply put, the phishers in this case aren’t directing you to a fake website where you enter your password and other data sufficient for them to empty your account; they’re directing you to an automated phone service, where you’d give the same details.

The information comes from Cloudmark (“the proven leader in messaging security solutions for service providers, enterprises and consumers”), which claims in a press release that it has seen two separate such attacks this week:

In these attacks, the target receives an email, ostensibly from their bank, telling them there is an issue with their account and to dial a number to resolve the problem. Callers are then connected over VoIP to a PBX (private branch exchange) running an IVR [an automated voice menu] system that sounds exactly like their own bank’s phone tree, directing them to specific extensions. In a VoIP phishing attack, the phone system identifies itself to the target as the financial institution and prompts them to enter account number and PIN.

As Telephony Online points out, setting up this kind of phone network is easy. “Acquiring a VoIP phone number is about as hard as acquiring an IP address or a domain name,” it quotes Adam O’Donnell, senior research scientist at Cloudmark, as saying. “Phishers figured out how to quickly and fraudulently get that information a long time ago.” An old PC with a voice modem card and with a little PBX software and you’ve got a company’s phone tree which can sound exactly like your bank, O’Donnell says.

This all makes sense. Indeed, we should have seen it coming. It’ll be interesting to see how banks cope with this. Right now their argument has been that if in doubt, a customer should phone them. That no longer is as watertight an option. They could argue that customers should not respond to any email they receive, but that’s also not always true. Banks and other financial institutions need to communicate with customers.

One solution to this is the signature: Postbank last month launched a service where all its emails to customers come with an electronic signature. The only problem with this is that most email clients don’t support the service — only Microsoft Outlook. This is a bit like giving customers a lock that only works on certain kinds of door.

Perhaps banks are just going to have to pick up the phone. If customers are now under threat from automated phone trees maybe the solution is not more technology, but less? A cost the phishers are unlikely to be able to bear would be an actual voice on the other end of the line that sounded familiar and authentic. The only question then would be for the customer to establish the authenticity of the banking assistant.

Book Launch Parties. Not Just For Authors

The NYT/IHT has a piece by Rachel Donadio on how the New York literary set is now eschewing book launch parties, apparently because they have belatedly realized they don’t actually create much of a buzz for books. No mention of the rise of print on demand, the e-book or successes like 37 Signals’ recent instant bestseller Getting Real.

But what I liked was the ‘Luvvie’ moment at the end, when Fran Lebowitz, veteran partygoer and writer, suggests that parties shouldn’t just be held for writers:

The line you hear most often today is that the book party is “just for the author.” And why not? “When you finish a book – not that I have a lot of experience finishing them – it’s such a Herculean effort that you feel that you deserve everything,” Lebowitz said. “It’s like coal mining. The only people I feel sorrier for are coal miners. And they never have parties; they sometimes don’t live through the day. But I’m sure if you ask them each day when they come out of the mine if they think they’d want people passing around canapés, they’d say yes.”

This raises all sorts of interesting issues. Beyond the wonderful image of a soot-blackened miner emerging from the gloom and looking forward to a beer and a soak being accosted by a waitress proffering a champagne flute and a platter of hors d’oeuvres. First couple of days it might be fun but it might wear off. I do like the idea though. What other professions might it work for? Car mechanics? (“I’m home, dear. Sorry abot the axle grease on the doorknob. Ooo! A surprise party? For moi? And foie gras!” Accountants, emerging from behind their computer screens to a tickertape parade celebrating their dizzying work on the Flubelstein Account? (“Drink up Johnson. We’ve got some dancing girls jumping out of an oversized ledger in the next cubicle.”) The possibilities are endless.

Revisiting the Kryptonite Affair

(This post is also available as an experimental Loose Wireless

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)

Remember the Kryptonite Affair? It was back in September 2004 when a company that sold bicycle locks crashed into the power of forums and blogs and came away battered and bleeding when it failed to respond in Internet time to complaints that some of its bicycle locks could be opened with a Bic pen. Here was my take at the time (well, not exactly at the time; I was only a couple of months late). Kryptonite became a poster boy of how not to handle adverse PR when it comes via the Internet. (A Google search for BIC Kryptonite throws up more than 51,000 hits.)

But now a reassessment of Kryptonite’s response has begun with a post by Dave Taylor, a writer, speaker, entrepreneur and blogger. Dave interviews Kryptonite PR chief Donna Tocci, and concludes that Kryptonite’s response was in fact measured and swift. Instead, he says, a myth has developed around the whole incident that should be laid to rest:

Always remember that ultimately the company has to meet its market, too, not vice versa. Oh, and don’t discount the effect of mythologizing along the way too: Kryptonite handled its situation with savvy and professionalism and has recovered its position, but the “myth” of bic pens and the crushing blow of blogging has grown far beyond the reality of the situation.

An interesting perspective. But what myth, exactly? That BIC pens can’t open some Kryptonite bike locks? Yes, they can. Indeed, Donna was quoted by the NYT at the time as making the argument that arguing that locks made by other manufacturers shared the same vulnerabilities.

Then there’s the “myth” of Kryptonite’s allegedly slow and leaden response to the whole thing. Dave says a myth emerged that “the company wasn’t paying attention to the blogosphere and that it took weeks for it to learn that there was a problem”. Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid at the time was merciless in his chronology, saying that there was nothing on the Kryptonite website to suggest there was a problem with the bike locks until at least Day Seven. This is not exactly true. Kryptonite did post something within a few days on its website offering free replacements to any owner “concerned about the security of this lock” while not acknowledging there were problems with the locks, or indeed, why customers might, or should, be concerned.

But is Dave right in saying that the myth wasn’t true, since “Donna and her team were aware of the problem from the very first day”? Well, a couple of things here. Just because Kryptonite was aware of the problem from the first day doesn’t lessen the problem. Even Donna herself acknowledges that she should have posted “a note on our website about us working on the issue a day or two earlier.” Indeed, one could argue that if they did know about the problem from day one, they should have put something on their website to reassure customers, or given them some hint that there was a problem, before they started doing anything else.

Indeed, what is surprising about the whole episode was not the discovery that some bike locks could be opened with a plastic biro, but that information along these lines had been available for 12 years in the form of an article in a biking magazine. Obscure, maybe, but if the argument is that the blogosphere is just too big too monitor effectively, what about bicycle magazines? How many are there in the world? Maybe 200? 1,000? Is that too many to monitor, over a 12-year period?

The bigger point is that the issue spread like wildfire when it resurfaced 12 years on because of the Internet. That’s what the Internet does, or can do. Kryptonite’s failure was letting down its customers who looked to its website for guidance. So when Donna says “we know that the majority of the people who participated in our lock exchange program heard about it from traditional media sources”, instead of this being evidence to back up Dave’s skepticism that “a lot of blog pundits are fond of pointing to this situation as an example of why companies need to keep track of the so-called blogosphere”, I’d say it highlights the opposite.

If you visit a company website a day or two after damaging news has broken about that company’s products, and there’s no sign of any acknowledgement on the website about this, why would you then keep revisiting it until there is something there? It may not be fair, and it may not fit your schedule, but the Internet requires an in-time response, even if it’s just “we are looking into reports that there’s a problem with some of our products. If you’re concerned, drop us an email and we’ll get back to you.” It’s not rocket science.

So, Dave is right in that Kryptonite will forever be associated with PR problems in the Internet age, and it’s good to get a bit of balance in there. But perhaps the myth he is pointing to is that Kryptonite as a company and brand were permanently hobbled by the episode. Donna — who still has her job — agrees, saying the brand is not “as damaged as the blogosphere would have you believe”. She gives no sales figures. But she also acknowledges that the tubular lock — the source of all the problem — no longer exists as a Kryptonite lock. Indeed, more than 380,000 of them have been replaced. She’s a good PR person: she portrays this as a positive, a sign of the company’s logistical skill. But how could one argue the demise of one’s main product, and the expensive replacement of hundreds of thousands of units, as a good thing? I’d say that it’s a pretty fitting testament to the power of the Internet. On balance, I’d say, the “myth” stands.

Revisiting the Kryptonite Affair

Remember the Kryptonite Affair? It was back in September 2004 when a company that sold bicycle locks crashed into the power of forums and blogs and came away battered and bleeding when it failed to respond in Internet time to complaints that some of its bicycle locks could be opened with a Bic pen. Here was my take at the time (well, not exactly at the time; I was only a couple of months late). Kryptonite became a poster boy of how not to handle adverse PR when it comes via the Internet. (A Google search for BIC Kryptonite throws up more than 51,000 hits.)

But now a reassessment of Kryptonite’s response has begun with a post by Dave Taylor, a writer, speaker, entrepreneur and blogger. Dave interviews Kryptonite PR chief Donna Tocci, and concludes that Kryptonite’s response was in fact measured and swift. Instead, he says, a myth has developed around the whole incident that should be laid to rest:

Always remember that ultimately the company has to meet its market, too, not vice versa. Oh, and don’t discount the effect of mythologizing along the way too: Kryptonite handled its situation with savvy and professionalism and has recovered its position, but the “myth” of bic pens and the crushing blow of blogging has grown far beyond the reality of the situation.

An interesting perspective. But what myth, exactly? That BIC pens can’t open some Kryptonite bike locks? Yes, they can. Indeed, Donna was quoted by the NYT at the time as making the argument that arguing that locks made by other manufacturers shared the same vulnerabilities.

Then there’s the “myth” of Kryptonite’s allegedly slow and leaden response to the whole thing. Dave says a myth emerged that “the company wasn’t paying attention to the blogosphere and that it took weeks for it to learn that there was a problem”. Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid at the time was merciless in his chronology, saying that there was nothing on the Kryptonite website to suggest there was a problem with the bike locks until at least Day Seven. This is not exactly true. Kryptonite did post something within a few days on its website offering free replacements to any owner “concerned about the security of this lock” while not acknowledging there were problems with the locks, or indeed, why customers might, or should, be concerned.

But is Dave right in saying that the myth wasn’t true, since “Donna and her team were aware of the problem from the very first day”? Well, a couple of things here. Just because Kryptonite was aware of the problem from the first day doesn’t lessen the problem. Even Donna herself acknowledges that she should have posted “a note on our website about us working on the issue a day or two earlier.” Indeed, one could argue that if they did know about the problem from day one, they should have put something on their website to reassure customers, or given them some hint that there was a problem, before they started doing anything else.

Indeed, what is surprising about the whole episode was not the discovery that some bike locks could be opened with a plastic biro, but information along these lines had been available for 12 years in the form of an article in a biking magazine. Obscure, maybe, but if the argument is that the blogosphere is just too big too monitor effectively. Fair argument, but bicycle magazines? How many are there in the world? Maybe 200? 1,000? Is that too many to monitor, over a 12-year period?

The bigger point is that the issue spread like wildfire when it resurfaced 12 years on because of the Internet. That’s what the Internet does, or can do. Kryptonite’s failure was letting down its customers who looked to its website for guidance. So when Donna says “we know that the majority of the people who participated in our lock exchange program heard about it from traditional media sources”, instead of this being evidence to back up Dave’s skepticism that “a lot of blog pundits are fond of pointing to this situation as an example of why companies need to keep track of the so-called blogosphere”, I’d say it highlights the opposite.

If you visit a company website a day or two after damaging news has broken about that company’s products, and there’s no sign of any acknowledgement on the website about this, why would you then keep revisiting it until there is something there? It may not be fair, and it may not fit your schedule, but the Internet requires an in-time response, even if it’s just “we are looking into reports that there’s a problem with some of our products. If you’re concerned, drop us an email and we’ll get back to you.” It’s not rocket science.

So, Dave is right in that Kryptonite will forever be associated with PR problems in the Internet age, and it’s good to get a bit of balance in there. But perhaps the myth is that Kryptonite as a company and brand were permanently hobbled by the episode. Donna — who still has her job — claims the brand is not “as damaged as the blogosphere would have you believe”. She gives no sales figures. But she also acknowledges that the tubular lock — the source of all the problem — no longer exists as a Kryptonite lock. Indeed, more than 380,000 of them have been replaced. She’s a good PR person: she portrays this as a positive, a sign of the company’s logistical skill. But how could one argue the demise of one’s main product, and the expensive replacement of hundreds of thousands of units, as a good thing? I’d say that it’s a pretty fitting testament to the power of the Internet. On balance, I’d say, the myth stands.