Measured vs Spewed: The New Reviewers

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The walls of elite reviewers come tumbling down, and it’s not pretty. But is it what we want?

I belatedly stumbled upon this piece in The Observer by Rachel Cooke on a new spat between editors, reviewers and blogger reviewers, and not much of it is new. There’s the usual stuff about how bloggers are anonymous (or at least pseudonymous) and the usual tale of how one writer got her spouse to write an anonymous positive review on Amazon (why hasn’t mine done one yet!) to balance against all the negative stuff.

As Tony Hung points out, the piece gets rather elitist by the end, although I have to like her description of Nick Hornby, a great writer and careful reviewer: “[H]is words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write.” Measured vs spewed is a good way of putting it. It’s also a good way of thinking about the two very different beasts we’re talking about here.

There are two different kinds of reviews, serving two different purposes. The point here is that there are two different kinds of purposes here. If Nick Hornby likes a book, I may well buy it because I like Nick Hornby’s work. Of course, I’ll also enjoy his review as a piece of writing in its own right; chances are he’s put a huge amount of effort into it. It’s all about who writes the review. (And we need to always keep in the back of our mind the tendency, noted down the years in Private Eye, that reviewers in big name newspapers often seem to end up reviewing books by people they know, often rather well. It’s a small world, the literary one.)

If I’m reading about a book on Amazon I’m less picky about who and more about how many, and what. If 233 out of 300 people like a book on Amazon I am going to be more impressed than if 233 out of 300 people hated it. I’ll scan the reviews to see whether there are any common themes among the readers’ bouquets or brickbats. Take Bill Bryon’s latest, for example: Most reviewers loved it, and quite a few fell out of their chair reading it. Take Graeme Hunter, who writes: “Bill has managed yet another work of ‘laugh-out-loud’ ramblings, but this is his first to make me cry at the end.” That tells me that regular readers of Bryson are probably going to like it. But not everyone. One reviewer, J. Lancaster, wrote that while he was a big fan, he found the book “slow and ponderous and lacks the wit, insight and observation of, well, all his other books.” That tells me something too: Don’t expect to be dazzled all the way through.

Now note that these reviewers have attached their real names. They’re not anonymous, pseudonymous or fabrications of someone’s imagination or close family. Their writings may not be that literary, but that’s not what I’m looking for in an Amazon review. With Amazon, I’m looking to mine the wisdom of the crowd — the aggregate opinion of a group of people all with the same interest as myself in mind: not wasting our money on a dud book.

Compare what they write to the two snippets of blurb from big name publications on the same Amazon page:

New York Times
‘Outlandishly and improbably entertaining…inevitably [I] would
be reduced to body-racking, tear-inducing, de-couching laughter.’

Literary Review
‘Always witty and sometimes hilarious…wonderfully funny and
touching.’

Useful, but not much more useful than the Amazon reviews.

The bottom line is that reading a review on Amazon is like polling a cross section of other people who’ve read the same book. It’s like being able to walk around a bookshop tapping strangers on the shoulder and asking what they think of the book you have in your hand. Their responses are likely to be as spewed as an Amazon or blog review. But it doesn’t lessen their value. If all you want to know is whether the book is worth reading, you may be better served than some ‘measured’, self-conscious professional review.

This is the difference that the Internet brings us. It’s not either/or, it’s about consumers having more information about what they’re buying, and having a chance to give feedback on what they have bought. That all this is a little unnerving to those writers used to being far removed from the book-buying mob, and the pally/bitchy relationship they have with reviewers should come as no surprise. My advice: get used to it.

PS I spewed this piece out in 27 minutes. (You can tell – Ed)

Loose Bits, Nov 28 2006

From my PR intray, some surprisingly interesting little odds and ends:

LocalCooling is a 100% Free power management tool from Uniblue Labs that allows users to optimize their energy savings in minutes and as a result reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. The software “automatically optimizes your PC’s power consumption by using a more effective power save mode. You will be able to see your savings in real-time translated to more evironmental terms such as how many trees and gallons of oil you have saved.”

Sim CityElectronic Arts Inc. today announced SimCity for mobile, which “lets mobile phone users create and manage the growth of a living city in the palm of their hands. Originally created by Will Wright, SimCity is now available on major U.S. carriers.” Not sure how this works, as there’s nothing yet on EA’s site. It does sound a bit like milking a cash cow or is it flogging a dead horse? 

free spam filterCyberDefenderFREE is “a full internet security suite that can operate  standalone, or complement existing security software to add an existing layer of early-alert security to the desktop.” As far as I can work out, this is a competitor to Windows Defender although it seems to include a collaborative element, where users report either manually or automatically dodgy software and sites they’ve come across. I think.

Phone as Beacon

The idea that your cellphone may become a beacon of your availability took one small step closer yesterday, although you’d be forgiven for not noticing amid all the post-turkey bloat.

The theory is this. Cellphones have gotten smarter, but they still miss one vital ingredient that computer users have had for years: presence. Anyone using an instant messenger, from ICQ to Skype, will know that they can indicate to their buddies, colleagues and family whether they’re at their computer, in a meeting, dead, or whatever.

I’m not available. Leave a message

This is useful information: It’s a bit like knowing whether someone is at home before you phone them. But this only works if the computer is on, connected to the Internet and the user has the software installed and sets their ‘presence’ accordingly.

Think how more powerful this concept would be if you carried it with you: if your cellphone could transmit to friends, colleagues and family whether you were available — and even where you were. This is not that hard to do, via the same instant messaging programs that now operate only on your PC. This is the vision of companies like instant messaging developer Followap, bought yesterday by a company called NeuStar, which handles a lot of cellphone number traffic via its directory services. (Followap press release here.)

The problem remains twofold: how to get all the instant messaging users onto their cellphone, and how to make these services work with each other, or interoperate. After a decade of these services, few still allow a message sent from one service to reach another. NeuStar, according to Frost & Sullivan analyst Gerry Purdy, has been developing the standards for mobile instant messaging, or Mobile IM, not just in terms of Session Internet Protocol (which sets up the communication between two users) but also for interoperability and directory standards.

Clearly NeuStar, positioned at the hub of cellphone traffic, are well placed to see the potential of Mobile IM and to act on it. Followap have the software and the ears of some cellular operators. I should have spotted that both companies occupied booths next to each other at Singapore’s recent 3GSM Asia confab, and were busy singing each other’s praises. (I wrote something about Followap in my weekly column earlier this month, tho subscription only, I’m afraid.)

Of course, it’s going to be a long march to persuade the big players like Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft to share their IM traffic with each other (something they’ve not yet managed to do on the PC) but also with cellular operators, but something like that needs to happen if Mobile IM is going to take off. Says Mr. Purdy in his most recent note (sorry, can’t find this online): “And, maybe – just maybe – the NeuStar-Followap combination will lead to the Holy Grail in messaging – where all portal users and wireless subscribers will be able to freely IM each other. That would be huge.”

It would be huge, but don’t underestimate the power of SMS. Gerry sees SMS as having inherent limitations — 160 characters only, lack of message threading — but these aren’t necessarily downsides. The character limit has never been considered a real burden for most users, who either enjoy the brevity or else can simply send a longer message and have it split. As for message threading, this is a simple software problem that is being fixed in many phones. Mobile IM will only really take off if it is cheaper than SMS and includes powerful features that extend the use of the phone to a device to signal one’s availability, or presence.

For me the best thing about the Followap demo I received was that by switching your phone to silent your buddy list presence was automatically switched to ‘Do not Disturb.’ Immediately, all your buddies/colleagues/family know you not available without having to do anything. Now, that’s a glimpse of the future.

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Loose Wire Bits, Nov 27 2006

Some bits and pieces:

How to Poison Someone on the Cheap

Intrigued and disturbed by reports that the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko may have been killed by radiation poisoning, I couldn’t help wondering how something like that was done? How easy would it be to get your hands on Polonium-210, the chemical element? Quite easy, it turns out.

If you’re in the U.S., or have someone with a U.S. PayPal account you could shell out $70 and buy it online at United Nuclear (“Supplying the science hobbyist, industry, government, schools & universities since 1998”), a New Mexico company with a fun attitude (“If you’re looking for a clean, accurate, certified radiation sources, here they are…”).

If you don’t want to wait that long, head down to your local photography store and buy a  StaticMaster Anti-Static Brush – 3″, whose ionizer is powered by alpha-energy from Polonium-210 ion sources. Cost: about $40. In fact you don’t need to buy the whole brush; you could just buy a replacement Polonium cartridge. According to this article, hold a StaticMaster against any glow-in-the-dark toy and you can see the polonium inside the cartridge glow.  

I don’t know enough about this kind of thing to say how you would then use this stuff to poison people, and perhaps the quantities aren’t enough. But while the StaticMaster is supposedly safe and that Polonium 210 has been used safely for decades, this may be because it’s sealed: The later website, AngelFire warns: Whatever you do, DO NOT abuse the physical integrity of the sealed sources. Po-210 is a dangerous inhalation and ingestion hazard!

It sounds as if getting your hands on Po-210 isn’t quite as tricky as it sounds. How you would then administer it, I don’t know.

Yahoo’s Sleazy 360°Turn?

All my posts these days seem to be rants. Phishing toolbars that don’t work. PR people peddling the same old tired story line. Sorry about that. I’m not really an angry person. But anyway, here’s another: Yahoo!, I fear, is playing fast and loose again with my privacy and the truth.

As have other folk recently, I received this morning an email from Yahoo! 360 Alerts saying

Jeremy W,
Your Yahoo! Messenger contact wants to add you as a Friend in Yahoo! 360°. As Yahoo! 360° friends, you and can stay in touch through blogs, photos and much more.
On Yahoo! 360°, you always control who sees your content. If you do not accept the invitation, nothing happens, and can only see your public content.
Accept or decline the invitation by going to:
http://360.yahoo.com/friends/waiting_room.html

Click on the link and you find a list of your Yahoo! messenger buddies who are using the Yahoo! 360° service (a sort of community thang.) You’re encouraged to add the person as a friend (although to its credit Yahoo! has the default option as ‘decide later.’ Click ‘submit’ and you’re taken to another page of content from some of your buddies who are using the service. There is no ‘Messenger contact’. There is no ‘invitation’. (Unless you think Yahoo is your buddy. My argument is that it ain’t.)  

Needless to say, it’s all a ruse to draw you further into the Yahoo! realm. Nothing wrong with that, except that

  • the original email is misleading. It makes it sound as if some specific person has invited you to join a specific service. The etiquette in such cases is to accept, or at least to see what the invitation is all about. So it’s deliberately misleading in that it’s leveraging a social aspect of the Internet to suck users further into a service. It’s not too much to call this spam.
  • I received this email because I supposedly subscribed to Yahoo! alerts. I can find no evidence for this despite an hour’s digging around the Yahoo universe.

Actually, this is just a thin end of a large wedge. Yahoo!, I fear, and others are moving back into the personal information harvesting business.

Here’s the sorry tale of what seems to be  happening: The email tells me I got the email because “You received this email because you subscribed to Yahoo! Alerts”, something I wasn’t aware of. I’m able to click on a link which allows me to ‘unsubscribe’ from this alert but that doesn’t tell me how I ended up on this alerts list and whether I’m going to get any more. The ‘alerts’ homepage doesn’t look familiar and it’s a tad suspicious that the alert was the only I ever signed up for. This all sounds very spammy to me: the illusion of being able to unsubscribe from something you never subscribed to, with no guarantee you won’t be subscribed to something else whenever the spammer, sorry, Yahoo, feels like it. 

So I tried to take a more structural approach, accepting the offer in the email

To change your communications preferences for other Yahoo! business lines, please visit your Marketing Preferences.

This link to Marketing Preferences in the email — and on pages such as the privacy page and the Marketing help page — isn’t a link to that page at all but a link to a page that, as it puts it:

Please visit your Yahoo! Account Information pages to view or edit your marketing communication preference.

(It may not mean anything, but the Web Archive, which archives much of the Internet, has no record of the Marketing Preferences page in question, http://subscribe.yahoo.com/showaccount, since April 28 2006. Could it be that Yahoo changed its policy then, and has not updated its own internal links since? )

If I click on the Account Information link I’m taken to a page of personal details where I’m asked to enter my postcode. In fact, if I enter no postcode I cannot go any further unless I choose an obscure country which Yahoo doesn’t know or care about:

Needless to say, the account information page is no help, and is in fact an effort to prise further data from you.

Once you’ve been forced to hoodwink Yahoo! into thinking you live in Zimbabwe, you’re taken to another account information page, nowhere in which is there any link to Marketing Preferences or anything else that sounds like it could let you opt out of the spurious 360 degree thang. By then I’m beginning to perspire from frustration.

Click on ‘Finished’ and, while half wishing it meant either you or the whole Yahoo! website was sucked into a black hole, you’re taken to your personalized homepage, which once again has no mention of marketing preferences. ( Digging around for help is no help, since there are only a bunch of questions there and no option to search for more.) Realizing children were born in less time than it was taking me to opt out of more Yahoo! alerts I gave up; I never could find the marketing preferences page.

In the end I find all this a bit misleading and unworthy of an institution like Yahoo!. Of course, this is nothing new: Back in 2002 users fumed over unilateral changes to Yahoo!’s marketing preferences page which reset the default for all users to opt in for spam. Seems like Yahoo might be again playing fast and loose in a bid to bolster sagging consumer interest.

The bottom line: Is what they’re doing in accordance with their privacy policy? I fear not. In their privacy page they say:

We reserve the right to send you certain communications relating to the Yahoo! service, such as service announcements, administrative messages and the Yahoo! Newsletter, that are considered part of your Yahoo! account, without offering you the opportunity to opt-out of receiving them.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of these cover getting spurious invitations from Yahoo! messenger buddies. I’m going to ask Yahoo to comment once the Thanksgiving turkey is done. Yahoo has some great services, but misleading me into signing up for another one is not the way to my heart.

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Those Darn Thanksgiving Eve Pitches

 Jeff Jarvis has an amusing tirade against the lame Thanksgiving eve stories of TV (“The lead story is that the roads and airports will be crowded this morning. Now that’s news!”) to which I’d add: how about the lame PR pitches this time of year about the dangers of shopping online? I’ve had half a dozen this year and I don’t even pretend to live in the U.S. Here’s a sampling (all follow with pitch to talk to client, needless to say):

  • As Black Friday and Cyber Monday near and the holiday shopping season kicks into high gear, consumers still appear to have the jitters when shopping online through unfamiliar, lesser-known merchants. (Pitching online security software)
  • With approximately $56.6 billion stolen so far in 2006 as a result of personal ID theft, all shoppers should be aware of ways to make their online experience more secure. (pitching a fingerprint reader)
  • With recent research suggesting that 60% of consumers terminated or considered terminating a relationship due to mishandling of their private information and new laws in place that levy stiff fines against organizations that have consumer data slip through their networks, it is more important than ever for retailers and payment processors to secure and safeguard consumer data. (Pitching data privacy service)
  • As Black Friday approaches, identity theft is not the only concern keeping shoppers offline this holiday season – trustworthiness of the retailer, non-delivery, quality of merchandise, and shipping costs are all concerns, especially when buying from smaller, independent online retailers (pitching online security software; actually same product as the first one, different pitcher and angle)
  • The 2006 holiday shopping season kicks off today. This is also the high season for pick-pockets, department store thieves and Internet marauders. (pitching something or other, I’ve forgotten.)

Yadayadayada. It goes on. Not an interesting or original line among them. Admittedly, I’m not desperate for story ideas, but these are a) so lacking in imagination and b) so steeped in the assumption that us journalists write the same kind of story as each other, year in, year out, I want to weep.

So if you find yourself reading tired stories about the ‘dangers of shopping online’ stories in your mainstream media diet, you’ll know where the idea for them came from. I better start working on mine to be ahead of the rush.

Transparent Blogging: The Pronk Effect

We could learn some lessons about blogging, honesty, accountability and the distinction between public and private views from an unlikely source: the U.N.’s special envoy to Sudan. Jan Pronk, expelled last month for comments on a blog he was writing about the conflict, has replied to an email I sent to him shortly after he was expelled in which he answers some questions about his blog. The full transcript is below. (My original piece about his blog and expulsion is here.)

His experience and attitude, I think, offers some pointers for diplomats, politicians, CEOs and anyone holding an official position. The lessons are actually the same for any person with information that others may find of interest: try to be honest, try to be accurate, and don’t pretend that there’s some distinction between a personal and an official position.

Mr. Pronk’s blog is unusual in several ways. First off, it’s extremely clearly written (unusual, if I may say so, for someone at that elevated level.) Secondly, it pulls no punches. Thirdly, and most interestingly, he sought nor received any official permission from the U.N. bureaucracy to keep the blog. And that brings us to the fourth point: the U.N. was able to make use of his blog to point journalists asked for background about what was going on in Sudan, but at the same time insisted the blog was a personal one [Inner City Press]. Mr. Pronk sees this kind of distinction as “nonsense. First, I said the same in the press conferences which I gave in my official capacity. Second, how could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private?”

I think Mr. Pronk is right. There is no distinction between a private and personal comment if the person expressing it is known to hold an official position and that position is known. Sorry, that sounds rather pompous. But if it’s done nothing else, blogging has shown us that attempts to make these distinctions fail. We readers are not stupid, and blogs have made us even less so. We can see that Mr. Pronk’s comments about morale in the Sudanese army are not the official U.N. view. Mr. Pronk sees his blog as part of his public accountability — by informing us of the situation in Sudan he is also showing us that his knowledge and understanding of the situation are sophisticated enough to inspire confidence.

Lastly, the argument that Mr. Pronk undermined the process by not being diplomatic enough is nonsense: He may have upset the host government with his comments, but that was not his job. His job was to try to bring peace to the country. To do that he needed to show as many people as possible that he was aware of the situation on the ground, was neutral, and was trying to inform as many people inside and outside the country as possible about the situation. Mr. Pronk is, like blogging, all about transparency, and I believe he’s helped set a new benchmark for public officials which I hope a few choose to follow.

Here’s the full question and answer email:

1) What led you to start a blog?

I had two reasons. First, I like combining my work as a politician with analytical reflections on what I am doing and on the environment within which I am working.. I have always done so, by lecturing, by making extensive notes for myself and by writing articles. It helps me focussing. Blogging for me was just an extension, using another instrument. I had a second reason: to be accountable, not only to the bureaucracy in New York, but broader. I consider myself much more a politician than a diplomat. Politicians have to be accountable and transparent. I have tried to be accountable by giving rather extensive press conferences in Khartoum. However, the press in Sudan is not free to write everything they hear.

2) Did you have to get anyone’s permission or approval beforehand?

No.

3) How did you maintain it? Was it all done by yourself, or did you have someone to help you post your entries and photos?

I wrote everything myself. I send my texts and the pictures which I choose to somebody who puts it on my site. He had designed the site. I am not very skilled in those things, but it is my intention, at a later stage, to do everything myself.

4) How do you feel your blog helped? Was it a personal thing, or something you felt the peace process needed?

In the beginning not many people did read it. But gradually the circle widened. I got mostly positive reactions, though not many, say five each day. (It is different now). I also wrote to inform people in Sudan and neighbouring countries. While much to my regret I do not speak or write Arabic, there are many Sudanese who read English. These people often do only have access to official press propaganda information.

5) Were there any downsides to the blog, do you think?

As a matter of act, no. I was told that many in he UN bureaucracy did not like this, but I did not consider that important. SG Kofi Annan never mentioned the blog, until a day before I was declared persona non grata. In writing my blog I tried to be clear, but even-handed and honest, not making up stories, but providing information which had been checked. Of course it is always difficult to combine, in one text, news with commentaries. That is the eternal dilemma for a journalist. However, I am not a journalist. I am a politician. It is the duty of a politician to provide opinions on the basis of facts. In my position I had to combine a political approach with the attitude of a diplomat. Some may say that I was not successful. However, that has nothing to do with blogging. I had to combine the two approaches also in press conferences. (By the way, it has been said that my blog only reflected my personal opinion. This is nonsense, for two reasons. First, I said the same in the press conferences which I gave in my official capacity. Second, how could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private? I have always maintained: ‘’It is not important where you say something, but what you say. If you want to criticize, don’t criticize the channel, but the message”.)   

6) Did anyone ask you to close down the blog prior to the recent fracas?

No.

7) What are your plans for the blog?

My strength was that I could write on the basis of my experiences from the field, as a direct witness. I do not have that opportunity anymore. Moreover, after 1/1/2007 I will no longer be Special Representative of the SGUN. That would make anything I write less authoritative. However, I do intend to continue blogging, writing about issues which I consider important and about which I have gathered some expertise: international relations, foreign policy, UN, climate policy, human rights policy, peace keeping, international development cooperation. But I will do so in a different capacity, say, as an academic.

Google Earth as Harbinger of Doom

Researchers are using Google Earth, the New York Times/IHT reports, to look for evidence of giant tsunamis, signs that the Earth has been hit by comets or asteroids more regularly, and more recently, than people thought:

This year the group started using Google Earth, a free source of satellite images, to search around the globe for chevrons, which they interpret as evidence of past giant tsunamis. Scores of such sites have turned up in Australia, Africa, Europe and the United States, including the Hudson River Valley and Long Island.

Chevrons are huge deposits of sediment that were once on the bottom of the ocean; they are as big as tower blocks and shaped like chevrons, the tip indicating the direction from which the tsunami came. 

I love the idea that academics use a tool like Google Earth to — possibly — puncture one of the greatest myths of the human era: that comets only come along once every 500,000 years.

Scientists in the working group say the evidence for such impacts during the last 10,000 years, known as the Holocene epoch, is strong enough to overturn current estimates of how often the Earth suffers a violent impact on the order of a 10-megaton explosion. Instead of once in 500,000 to one million years, as astronomers now calculate, catastrophic impacts could happen every few thousand years.

There are a couple of other quirks to this story. The working group of misfits is cross-disciplinary — there’s a specialist on the structural analysis of myth in there — but only formed when they bumped into each other at a conference. How more efficient it would have been had they been blogging; they might have found each other earlier. (Perhaps they met before the blogging age; there’s a piece on the subject here from 2000.) 

The second quirk for me is that the mythologist (actually Bruce Masse calls himself an enviromental archaeologist) reckons he can pinpoint the exact date of the comet which created the Burckle Crater between Madagascar and Australia using local legends: 

Masse analyzed 175 flood myths from around the world, and tried to relate them to known and accurately dated natural events like solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions. Among other evidence, he said, 14 flood myths specifically mention a full solar eclipse, which could have been the one that occurred in May 2807 B.C.

I love the idea of myths; I see them as a kind of early Internet, a way of dispersing knowledge using the most efficient tools (in those days, this meant stories and word of mouth.) We tend to think of myths as superstition and scare mongering, but in fact in many cases they are the few grains of wisdom that get passed on from generation to generation.  They often get contorted in the telling, the original purpose — to warn — sometimes getting lost. 

Like the Moken sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea, most of whom were spared the 2004 tsunami because they “knew from their tribal lore that this was a warning sign to flee to higher ground”, according to Reuters. On the Acehnese island of Simeulue, similar lore, dating back to the 1907 tsunami, tells islanders that “if the land is shaking and shoreline is drained abnormally, they have to go to very high land.” Only seven people out of 80,000 islanders died. 

Based on this, the idea of trying to pin down the comets, the craters and the chevrons by exploring local myth makes a lot of sense. I like the idea that is being done alongside using something as modern, and as freely available, as Google Earth. I guess I’m just not happy about the implications for us current planet dwellers. 

Source: Ancient crash, epic wave – Health & Science – International Herald Tribune (graphic here)