How to Pack Right

Here’s a piece I wrote for the latest issue of DestinAsian magazine on travel strategies for uncertain times (I have a regular column called Tech Travel in the travel magazine):

The way we travel will continue to change, and we will need to adapt to it, especially when it comes to the technology that tethers us to the office or to loved ones. And, in case any of you are grumbling about carry-on restrictions, or the long snaking lines for airport security checks, or the difficulty of arriving looking fresh and gorgeous at our destination when we’re not allowed to carry moisturizer, makeup, or hair gel onto the plane, I would offer this: There are ways around all these problems.

Among the tips I offer are checking in bulkier gadgets, so long as they’re well protected, shipping luggage ahead of time, ordering smaller versions of toiletries and other necessities and having them sent straight to your hotel. The bottom line, at least with technology:

And when it comes to technology, remember that everything to do with gadgets is replaceable except the data—whether it’s documents or holiday snaps. So before you pack—back up. However long the queues, and however miserable the humiliations inflicted upon you by security measures, you’ll know at least the important stuff is safe.

I’m aware when I write these stories that there must be a lot more tips that I could offer that I just don’t hear about. I would love to hear from you if you have any. There was a good one in a recent Fortune issue quoting a guy called Dean Burri, who keeps his ties flat by putting them in folders, customizing jacket and coat pockets for tickets and sewing Velcro between shirt buttons to stop them from wrinkling.

Technorati tags: , , ,

Talking About Two Generations

 Nothing captures the intersection between the old and the new worlds, as well as the ambivalence many of us must share about the direction, than this NYT piece (there’s a version in the IHT, but they edit out several key bits for space) about the tension between the remaining members of The Who, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (bassist John Entwistle died in 2002, original drummer Keith Moon in 1978):

Mr. Townshend, always interested in new technology, announced that the concerts would be Webcast, only to retract those plans a few days later at Mr. Daltrey’s insistence. Eventually, the band made a deal with Sirius Satellite Radio to broadcast the shows as part of an all-Who channel that will continue throughout the tour.

“I don’t particularly like the world technology has created,” Mr. Daltrey said. “Has anything really gotten better with the computer, or are you just doing more and more of less and less? I’m incredibly paranoid about it, especially after what happened to Pete. I think the Internet is just an advertising device of very dubious returns.

Daltrey is referring to Townshend’s arrest on charges of possessing child pornography. Daltrey could easily be characterized here as a reactionary Who Doesn’t Get It (that could be another album title, perhaps) but it’s more complex than that. Daltrey was never the creative engine of the band but there’s no denying his personality and voice are integral to its legend. But he also has a business acumen that doesn’t always sit well in this new media world, but cannot be ignored:

“Also, I haven’t got the luxury of throwing the kind of money at it that he can,” he continued, referring to Mr. Townshend’s songwriting revenue. “I haven’t got the publishing, I’m just the singer. So I have to look at it much more hard-nosed as a business and ask if I can put a million dollars into it, and the answer is no.”

Townshend, the artist (and presumably comfortably provided for with decades of publishing revenue under his belt) can afford to be the modern visionary:

Mr. Townshend responded: “Roger likes things that are finished, and with the Internet, everything is a work in progress. I try not to bludgeon him with this stuff, but I can’t help it; it’s my passion.”

Impressive that these two guys managed to stay together this long, and testament to both of them. But I guess is what is most interesting is that both guys have a point. I feel caught in both camps — I still think of artists as those who labor away in garrets, cellers, studios or mansions creating something of genius, something that really lifts us out of our time and age, before delivering it to us adoring and wowed fans.

This is no longer the case with new-media influenced art, and the contrast is nowhere clearer than in the perceptions of The Who’s two remaining men about their latest offering, Endless Wire:

For Mr. Daltrey, “Endless Wire” closes a door for the band that was left open after the death of the high-flying Mr. Moon (about whom he is developing a film project, with Mike Myers committed to the role). “We were ill equipped to deal with Keith’s problems at the time,” he said. “If we’d known then what we know now about rehabilitation, we wouldn’t have lost him. So it always felt that if that had really been the end, it wouldn’t have been right. With this album, now there can be an ending. I don’t want it to be, but it can be, and I’m at peace with that.”

Mr. Townshend, characteristically, disagreed with that assessment. “It doesn’t feel like closure; it feels completely new,” he said. “Closure implies that we couldn’t do it again, couldn’t do another album with the same quality and dignity.

Townshend is as impressive as he is combative. Perhaps he’s right. Or maybe while his passion is the impermanence of the Internet, Daltrey’s passion is that of a man looking back and seeing something that has gone, never to return.

The Blog-Browsing Worker

Is blogging kept alive by office-bound shirkers?

Some blogs get huge amounts of comments, which always makes me wonder: When do people actually find the time to write these things? I can understand folk adding a comment if it’s something work related, but if it’s a blog about soccer, this can hardly be considered vital to the office’s wellbeing. I was gobsmacked (UK English for ‘knocked back in my seat’ or ‘you could have knocked me over with a feather’), for example, to see nearly 250 comments on one blog posting over at The Guardian’s sportblog on whether or not Liverpool’s manager Rafa Benítez is “making a dog’s dinner” of his team. Vital stuff, as you may imagine, but 250 comments?

The good thing about The Guardian’s blog system is that each comment shows the time when the comment was posted and where the author is located. (This latter bit of information could be faked, of course, but let’s assume for the sake of argument it’s not.) So when do these people post their comments — on their own time, or their bosses’? (Perhaps this question has been better addressed in surveys elsewhere; if so, I’d love to hear about them, and will just regard the following experiment as a midly diverting pastime. I’ve seen less focused surveys by AOL, Advertising Age, CNET, Websense and The Guardian, but nothing that specifically mentions blogging or commenting.)

Allowing for time zones, and based on precisely one blog entry, I’d say the latter. Commenters generally seem to be doing it from work. Assuming a work day from around 8 am to 12 pm, a lunchbreak of around two hours (yeah I know that’s laughable, but we have to assume that someone reading and commenting on a blog between 12 pm and 2 pm may be on their break), then working from 2-6 pm, that’s where most of the action is, whatever timezone you’re in (this blog entry also has comments from as far afield as Canada and New Zealand.) Then for the hell of it I divided the rest of the day between 6 to 10 pm, as a sort of recreational period, and then 10-12 pm as a sort of post-pub haze, when we used to watch crazy kats on Open University but now surf the web. Then there’s the midnight to 8 am period, a twilight zone for commenters.

This is what it looks like, starting at midnight:

0-8       6.6%
8-12    20.3%
12-2    16.2%
2-6      39.0%
6-10      7.5%
10-12   10.4%

Or as a Sparkline:

Based on this very limited example (where comments — as usual — deteriorate into a slanging match between a few individuals) it’s clear that most commenting is done on work time, with the Post-Prandial Surf the most popular period. Despite the generous two-hour lunch window offered in the survey, fewer people made comments during that period than during the pre-lunch morning period, suggesting lunch time is too important to waste on reading blogs. And even if you only take the 8-12 and 2-6 periods as worktime, that still accounts for nearly two thirds of the comments. I’d say, based on this, the workplace seems to be the preferred blog-reading/commenting locale.

An Unlikely Blogger Expelled

Although it’s not good for Sudan, I think it’s good for blogging: CNN reports that 

The government of Sudan on Sunday gave the top U.N. official in the country three days to leave, marking the latest hurdle in international efforts to bring peace to the nation torn apart by civil war.

Sudan expelled Jan Pronk, the top U.N. envoy to Sudan, who has openly criticized Khartoum as well as rebel groups on his Web log.

Pronk has been running a blog for nearly a year and while it doesn’t look like your average blog (really long posts, no external links, no comments, blogs numbered as if they were official UN documents) it’s an impressively direct account of the Sudanese conflict. His third post started as follows: 

This week the seventh round of the Abuja talks between the Government of Sudan and the rebel movements will start. Will it be the last one, producing a peace agreement before the end of the year? The chances are diminishing.

Not the sort of mealy-mouthed stuff we’re used to from senior UN officials. And it’s probably upset the UN as much as it’s upset the Sudanese government. But if so why had the UN not closed him down earlier? Pronk, according to UPI, did not offer any disclaimers, but the UN has since made clear he was writing in a personal capacity. The UN has “no rules barring blogging specifically, though employees face restrictions when publishing articles and participating in interviews.” It seems Pronk was probably senior enough, and his comments uncontroversial enough, for no one to mind too much. Until last week.

What I like about it is that reporters tend to meet these kind of people in the field, and it’s great to hear them sounding off about the situation, but rarely are their words captured in sufficient quantity for their great background knowledge and high level involvement in such diplomatic processes to be read by a wider audience. I’ve not followed the tragedy in Darfur much beyond what I read in the papers, but Pronk’s year-long posts are a diary of immense and satisfying detail about the process, peppered by great photos, that are worthy of more than the word blog. 

Take this one, for example, from June 28

There is a significant risk that the Darfur Peace Agreement will collapse. The agreement does not resonate with the people of Darfur. On the contrary, on the ground, especially amongst the displaced persons, it meets more and more resistance. In my view it is a good text, an honest compromise between the extreme positions taken by the parties during the negotiations in Abuja. That is why the UN, like all international partners, has endorsed the agreement. However, in politics objective rational calculations will always be confuted by subjective emotional perceptions and aspirations. And those perceptions are that the agreement does not meet the expectations of the people in Darfur, has been forced upon them and, rather than meeting the interests of all parties somewhere halfway, only strengthens the position of the government and a minority tribe, the Zaghawa.

That too me is very clear writing, reflecting his knowledge of the situation on many levels. Not every situation could allow a senior figure involved deeply in the political process to write so frankly and openly, but wouldn’t it be great if they could? This to me is the real potential of blogs and citizen reporting. Someone who really knows what is going on telling us about it.

PS: Jan Pronk has a reputation of sorts in Indonesia, my current abode. He earned the lasting enmity of then president Suharto by

Continue reading An Unlikely Blogger Expelled

Wire Mesh and Lost Souls

You have to love the Internet. It brings you into contact with all sorts of unusual people, the likes of which I haven’t encountered since my days of being driven by tuk-tuk around the sois of 1980s Bangkok. Here’s Linda, for example, who just asked to be my buddy on Skype, introducing herself thus:

Me! A Chinese girl! My main work is to sale wire,wire mesh and wire rods!If you need my service, please contact me unhestantly!

I just don’t know when I’m going to need wire, wire mesh or wire rods so I’ve added her to my contact list. Now I can see the commercial benefits of Skype.

And then there’s my blog. Frankly, it drives me nuts, but two years ago I wrote about how awful some Nokia service centers were, and now it’s become the Mecca for any Indian resident looking for a service center. Why me? And why India? Heaven knows, and I’ve tried to explain I’m not a Nokia Service Center, but still they come. This, for example, just now, from Sreedhar Durbhakula:

I purchased NOKIA 3120 handset before one year. Now it has created me some problem like some times I am finding the device Switchd Off. I need to switch on the set to work with it. Some times it is showing blank screen and again loading the signal lines and feature.Some times when I press some key for my operations it won’t respond and will get switched off showing me the blank screen. Please let me know what caused the problem? How much would be the cost for getting repaired.. I am in India Bangalore..If possible let me know the good customer Care Center in Bangalore..?

This is one of more than 100 comments left on that page, nearly all complaints or moving accounts from India of failed bids to get Nokia’s care and attention. Frankly I am developing a warped view of the subcontinent, as this place criss-crossed by lost souls bearing malfunctioning handsets, desperately looking for salvation in the form of a glowing Nokia logo.

Anyway, maybe I should introduce them all to Linda. A wire rod or two may be just the answer.

Technorati tags: , , ,

The Real Conversation

We all keep talking about the idea of conversations — the “market as a conversation” (as opposed to the companies shouting at us to buy their stuff) and, nowadays, as the blogosphere as the manifestation of this. The problem is: A conversation between whom and whom? And, more important, what happens when the conversation starts getting spun, as all conversations do?

I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

(Because there’s so much out there already on this, I should probably point out the facts as we know them: A couple hoping to drive across the country , BusinessWeek reported, discovered that Wal-Mart allows Recreation Vehicle users (RVers) to park in their lots for free, so they decided to do that every place they stopped. They sought the approval of an organisation called Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization set up by Edelman to fight bad press against the chain. The organisation decided to sponsor the couple’s entire trip, paying for the couple to fly to Las Vegas, “where a mint-green RV would be waiting for them, emblazoned with the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo.” The group also paid for gas, set up a blog site, and paid the woman a freelance fee for her entries. The final post on the blog discloses all this, including the connection between the couple and Edelman. But until then the only evidence of a link to Wal-Mart was a banner add for the Working Families group.)

This is how I’d put the issues:

  • Can a blog written by someone with an interest beyond merely informing the reader be ever considered something other than promotion for that interest, however well-concealed or unconscious? We get all upset about PayPerPost (rightly so) but far more insidious are blogs that earn their wages in less obvious ways.
  • What happens to a conversation when it turns out to be between people who aren’t who they pretend to be? The conversation, in this case, appears to be between, not two ordinary folk casually mentioning how good Wal-Mart is on their travels, but between the PR company and their employer.
  • When is a spokesperson not a spokesperson? How should we regard Edelman’s Steve Rubel if the one thing he’s not really covering in his blog is the issue about his own company? At the time of writing the story’s been out there for three days already, and not a mention, even a “I can’t comment on this at the moment, let me get back to you.” Given that Steve is well-versed in these nuances, I’d expect him to be quicker off the mark in this case, company sensitivities and procedures notwithstanding. (Update: Steve has now, on the fourth day, posted something.)

Why do I sometimes feel we’re caught in a kind of Groundhog Day in the blogosphere, where we are doomed to repeat ourselves until we learn the lessons our forebears learned? Are we so arrogant that we think we’re smarter? The lessons are:

  • The Chinese Walls aren’t just for the Chinese. They’re for us: to protect us against conflicts of interest, snake-oil salesman, shysters and shills. These walls were built over centuries, and we shouldn’t think we’re so smart we don’t need them, however imperfect they are.
  • You write to promote your company, however tangentially, and you speak for that company. It’s not a cherrypicking job. You can’t just ignore topics you don’t like the look of. If you don’t know what the line is, find out and tell your audience asap. If the story is wrong, get your version out asap.
  • Define the conversation, and the conversationalists. Too much talk about conversations, already. It’s a nice, neutral, inclusive word. But it’s not really. Because most of the time we don’t know who’s talking, and what their real purpose is. When PR firms with clients, or venture capitalists with an interest in seeing their investments rise in value, or whatever, start to get involved they naturally want to steer the conversation a certain way. Nothing wrong with that, except they must accept that they remain on one side of the conversation. They can’t claim to be on both sides. Journalists learned this a long time ago. It’s time we all remembered it.

Palm’s Lame ‘Solutions’

This is another one of those tips that won’t help you unless you happen to be in a very specific pickle. That said, it also carries a general health warning: The more complex you make your computer and gadget set-up, the more you’re on your own.

If you’re synchronizing your Palm OS–Treo with Microsoft Outlook, you’re asking for trouble. After a while you’re likely to get the following error:

Outlook Calendar
OLERR:03-005E (0xca470057)
OLERR:03-0005
OLERR:0D-0016
OLERR:0D-000E
OLERR:0D-0004
OLERR:0D-0001
– Recovery Sync
Outlook Calendar synchronization failed

where nothing in the calendar gets synced. Even Palm’s own help page on this isn’t very optimistic:

This issue is under investigation. Since OLERR errors can be caused by a wide range of factors, we have developed a number of solutions at this point.

This is techie speak for ‘no, we don’t know what’s going on either.’ And the ‘solutions’ they offer aren’t the kind of thing you could do while the kettle’s boiling. One includes a step 8:

Open each of these items and give them an and date. This can be far in the future, such as the year 2050.

Another way of saying: You could be up all night changing each calendar entry individually for entries that are going to be around longer than you are.

Needless to say, none of these options worked, though they might for you. But here’s what I suggest:

How to Fix Outlook/Treo Calendar Synchronization Problems

  • Find out whether the problem comes from your Palm/Treo or your Outlook first. To do that move all items from the Outlook Calendar into a new calendar and then trying syncing. If you’re still getting an error then the problem’s with your Palm. If you aren’t getting the error, then try restoring calendar items in chunks until you hit the problem. (More complete steps here; don’t forget to back up first.)
  • If the problem is with your Palm, delete the calendar data there (which you’ll lose, unfortunately.) Do this by installing a free program called FileZ from nosleep software and finding the Calendar database file, CalendarDB-PDat. (You might want to back up your Palm first using another free backup program called BackupMan. In fact, you should have this one anyway.)
  • Having deleted the database file, trying syncing. It worked for me.

This isn’t the only way to solve the problem, I’m sure, but it’s probably the quickest. Bottom line: These things are never easy, but should be. Shame on Palm, for example, for hinting their synchronization software just may not be good enough by concluding, after several ‘solutions’ to the problem, that:

If none of the solutions above resolves your OLERR problems, you may wish to use a third-party synchronization solution for your Outlook information.

 

Why Journalists Aren’t Loved

The first reviews for Loose Wire the book are beginning to trickle in and I’m beginning to get a sense of what it’s like on the other side of the fence. First off, you can understand why us journalists aren’t well liked: If we are pleasant to people when we interview them the interviewee goes away thinking that a good write-up is assured — what sicko would be nice to someone in person and rude to them in print? Secondly, we can so easily make mincemeat of a product, a book, a service, a company that may have taken years of sweat, toil and marital peace to create. A few clicks on our keyboard and all that seems to be undone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the growth of the blogosphere as a form of journalism, there’s a growing blur online between the subject and the writer. No longer, it seems, are writers constrained by conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest: We write about anything and anyone, whether or not we have an interest, such as a friendship, a financial stake or whatever. (And yes, lots of people declare those interests, but that doesn’t stop them writing about it.) Nowadays, smart PR people woo journalists and influential bloggers in the hope that when the time comes to write about their product/service/company, they’ll feel inspired by the friendship to write something nice, or constrained by the friendship to not write something negative. This may not be a conscious goal, of course, but the assumption can easily be proven once the article is out: Did they feel a tad hurt that they didn’t get special treatment for all that prior relationship building?

In my case, the first three reviews have been written by people I know — one of them a long-standing friend — so perhaps, like any interviewee, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that this person will do me a favor by writing something nice. Now on the other side of the fence, I can see how people might feel journalists are a two-faced bunch, being friendly over the phone or in person and then not writing something so friendly in print. But of course, our job is not about being nice, at least once pen hits paper. Then we need to think about our relationship with our readers, not with the person we’re writing about.

That said, you’d think I was setting up a posting that said the reviews were awful. They weren’t. The first batch of Jakarta reviews were not bad (the book is available on Amazon already,  but our first two launches have been in Indonesia cos that’s where I and my publisher live. More pix of the launches here.). Two of them are in Indonesian, one from the country’s largest circulation daily Kompas and one from Sinar Harapan, an afternoon paper, both of which did a fair job.

The only English language paper (OK, there’s another, but I’ve not seen it yet), the Jakarta Post, ran a review this morning, based in part on an interview I gave last week. The writer, young Australian journalist Jonathan Dart, felt that “it is full of useful tips and insights — but an advanced manual on modern technology it is not.” Fair enough; we make no claims to being that. His conclusion, however, is a positive one:

he’s also managed to do something which few technology writers — or species nerdus to be exact — have managed, a feat which is quite possibly a world first: He’s built a loyal fan-base of readers, many of whom would be comfortable in a social environment.

Jonathan did a pretty good job, and, I’m glad to say, didn’t appear swayed by our pleasant 90 minute chat during which I promised untold riches if he focused on my rugged good looks in his review. I’ve learned a lesson or two, though: Maybe we journalists need to manage the expectations of our subjects better — to prepare them for the reality that however much we like them as people, we’re not being paid to like them. We’re paid to represent the interests of our readers. But it might help to warn folk beforehand.

PS, thanks to the very nice and interesting Sharon Bakar, with whom I shared a panel recently, who recently wrote up her thoughts about the discussion here.

An Advertising Conundrum

I guessed this would happen eventually: through one of the advertising aggregators I use for this blog a service I’ve been critical of has submitted an ad. Do I accept it?

Advertising aggregators provide a service to companies by letting them place banner and other web ads on participating blogs. I’ve been trying FeedBurner, for example, which puts ads on my blog and at the bottom of blog postings. They’re pretty obviously ads, since they’re all snazzy and jazzed up, and they help to defray (I love using the word ‘defray’) the costs of running the blog. Not everyone likes having to put up with ads, but we’re not running a charity here.

Anyway, Xdrive, an online storage service now owned by AOL, has just submitted an ad. I knew this might happen; I’ve seen their ad appear on other blogs using the FeedBurner service. But this blog has been something of a thorn in the side of Xdrive, ever since I started writing about some user complaints about a year ago (Google “xdrive” and a Loose Wire post appears among the first 10 results. Google “xdrive problems”  and it’s top.) And things don’t seem to have gotten any better: two readers complained only last week about the service.

My first reaction was to decline the ad, something I’ve only done once before with a service that was too unclear about what it offered to pass muster (I love saying ‘muster’ too.) Why should I allow an ad for a service that may not be up to scratch? But then cooler heads prevailed. Declining the Xdrive ad would imply I had somehow endorsed the ads I had approved to run. While I’ll try not to allow ads that appear to be questionable, I don’t think readers are going to assume that every product advertised on this blog is one I suggest they go out and buy. Or do you?

Two other issues raise their heads: Should I alert AOL that they’re running an ad on a blog that has been critical of the service that they’re advertising? Or is it their lookout? (Perhaps they know this already and are trying to redress the balance. Or they see criticism as part of the conversation.)

Another: Should I make clearer what my policy is on advertising so readers are not confused? And if so, where should I put it? And what should it say? That’s something I’m going to work on, and of course something I’d be delighted to take input on from readers. I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to face this issue. The debate about balancing the needs of advertisers with the needs of a free and objective press is not a new one, and not one that, to my knowledge, has ever been entirely resolved. Maybe bloggers can have a shot at it.

Adobe Falls Behind the Blogging Curve

Amit Agarwal at Digital Inspiration points to Adobe’s new version of Contribute 4.0, which now lets you compose blog posts from within Microsoft Office. As Amit points out, who is going to shell out $150 for something which Windows Live Writer and a host of other tools let you do for free?

(These tools allow people with blogs to write their posts while they’re not online. I use them because I don’t like working inside a browser for reasons I haven’t really explored. Mainly, I think it’s because keyboard shortcuts don’t work very well in the browser-based software that players like Typepad offer. I have other grumbles: The silly restrictions on window size in which one can type, the dearth of options for inserting images, and perhaps most importantly the difficulty of moving between web pages and editor when they’re in the same browser.)

That said, Contribute is primarily web publishing software, and while blogging is now well supported with a range of good tools, updating non-blog pages is still a major nuisance. Might be worth trying out just for that.