Sending Files Without the Sleaze

Until recently I’ve tended to recommend YouSendIt for folk who want to send large files to each other. But not anymore. I found myself inundated with two full-page casino pop-ups and those awful bouncing ‘alerts’ when I had to download a file just now, which doesn’t impress me. In fact I noticed that I was complaining about this to myself about a year ago, so I’m guessing this is a consistent thing.

The Independent may think it’s good, but I’m afraid I don’t. They may have 500,000 users, but I’m not going to be one of them until they get rid of the sleaze. And in the meantime I’d recommend checking out, which does the same thing, in a nicer interface, with no sleaze. I’m also going to seek comment from YouSendIt.

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What’s RSS to You?

I’ve been playing with RSS feeds for a few years but nearly always find myself struggling for a strategy to stay in control of them. Most of the time I hardly make a dent in the unread posts, so my favorite reader for them is one that can let me mark lots of posts as read without feeling too guilty. But maybe it’s just me.

This led me to wonder how other people use them, and, well, whether they use them. It’s one technology that seems to have taken off, given all the RSS buttons you see around the web, but I sometimes wonder just how many people are actively getting their information from RSS and how.

I’m hoping your answers might shed light. The survey’s here. There’s no registration required, and nothing weird is collected about you. It’s all on one page so there’s no boring clicking through to do. And it’s in a lovely green shade, which I think you’ll like/hate. Plus, I’ve tried to leave space for you to leave your responses that don’t fit the choices I give; if there’s not enough space, or you just really hate surveys, please feel free to write to me direct. If you’re amenable to me contacting you by email with follow-up questions about your responses, please throw your email address and name into one of the answers.

Thanks in advance to those of you who do answer. Feel free to pass it on to others who might be interested. Results will be published at some point, in some form or another.

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Podcast on Making Music

Here’s something I recorded for the BBC World Service Business Daily show on recording music digitally. Email me if you’d like the transcript. (This podcast is a big file than normal; it’s longer, and it’s in stereo, because there’s a song in there. If you don’t like long podcasts and big files, I suggest you skip it.)

If you want to subscribe to an RSS feed of this podcast you can do so here, or it can be found on iTunes. My Loose Wire column for The Wall Street Journal Asia and, can be found here (subscription only; sorry.) 

Thanks for listening, and comments, as ever, welcome. 

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441

South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741

East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941

West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*

Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*

Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132

Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132. 

My pieces usually appear on Wednesdays. But also Tuesdays.

LOL? Not If You’re Dating By SMS

Technology can be a dangerous place for relationships. You’ve really got to know your lingo. And stay up to date with it. From this morning’s Sunday Jakarta Post (afraid this piece is not available online, but the Web site is here), which always has an amusing column at the bottom of the first page, we read of “Miss Twinky’s” difficulties with men who seem to have lost the art of chivalrous behavior. She was introduced by SMS to a guy who maintained a dialog via the medium, right up until he invited her for a date:

It was not much of a surprise that our first date would be at the movies but the real shock came from his last SMS that day; “You can choose the movie and venue. I’ll pick up the bill or do you want to share it? LOL” (Lots of love.)

I was stunned. I didn’t know how to reply and lost all interest to meet or get to know him.

And there the relationship ended. And with good reason. What kind of sleazeball would try to split the bill on a first date? Only, hang on a minute. Does LOL really mean “Lots of love”?  For those whose familiarity of acronyms predates the Internet, it may well mean that. But for regular users of Instant Messaging, or even SMS, it doesn’t. It means “Laugh out loud”. I suspect the writer might have been trying to tackle the problem of whether it’s chivalrous or patronizing to pick up the tab on a date before it happened, by making a joke. Of course he may not have been, but I think he might be granted the benefit of the doubt.

Another budding relationship crashing onto the rocks of technology.

Well, actually, strictly speaking, neither of us might be right. Chances are he meant what I think he meant: Wikipedia has it usually meaning Laugh out loud, though it does acknowledge its meaning as “lots of love” predates the Internet. There are other possibilities, though: The Wikipedia page on LOL lists “laughing out loud” at the top, and puts “lots of love” a seemingly lowly seventh, after a Loyal Orange Lodge, Lloret de Mar, Lands of Lore, Legend of Legaia and Love of Life, a soap opera. So it is conceivable our misunderstood and maligned Lothario might have been referring to two games, a soap opera, a coastal town in Catalonia or a Protestant fraternal organization.

And that’s just the start. The Free Dictionary lists 62 of different meanings of LOL (I think. You count), so he could have been making a reference to the Ladies of Lallybroch (a good name for a brothel, but in fact a community for fans of Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander series), Lawyers on Line (a wild bunch, I should imagine), Lewd Obscene Language (which should definitely rule him out for future dates), Longitudinal Output Level (ditto, for reasons of boredom), Love of Literacy (a worthy goal, but not necessarily something to bring up on the first date), or Lower Operating Limit (this at least has potential, if we’re talking alcohol levels).

If I were Miss Twinky I would drag his number out of the trash and start finding out what this guy really meant, or might have meant. At least the conversation would make a more interesting date than a movie. And we, more broadly, should learn a lesson from Miss Twinky’s discomfort. Acronyms and smileys do not travel well between people who do not yet understand or know each other. So they should be avoided. (I’ve always added three periods to my instant messaging and SMS messages, thinking they conveyed a sense of flowing conversation, softening any possible statement so it did not look like I was trying to have the final word. Turns out my Canadian friend thought I was being sarcastic. We’re still friends, but only after exceeding our Lower Operating Limits at Bugils several times.)

A lesson, then: We should vow not to allow an acronym, a smiley or period marks to come between us, and we should give the benefit of the doubt if we are not completely confident of their meaning. (Google is a good place to start educating ourselves.) And for Miss Twinky, I hope that maybe you’ll give your mysterious acronymizing date a second chance.

Bald-headed Britney and the Lost Art of Linking

I think we’ve missed a big trick with links. You know, those underlined words on a web page that take us somewhere else. They’ve been around a while now, so you’d think we’d have explored them a bit, built a little etiquette around them, what to do, what not to do when you link to something else. After all, by turning a word, an image or a button into a link you’re building a door into another world, sort of.

Links are great, it’s just we don’t know how to use them. When we come across a link like this, we’re automatically thrown into confusion: Where does the link go? Do we click on the link and stop reading what we’re reading? Do we not click on the link and keep reading and make a mental note to come back and click on the link later and yet never do? Do we click on the link and open it in a new window? A new tab? A new computer? And then what happens?

Sure, something similar happens in newspapers. You come to the end of the page, and there’s a link to what we professional journalists call The Jump. As in DRUGS, continued on page 4. CARS, continued on page 5. TEDIUM, continued on page 7. UK satirical magazine Private Eye realised these links’ comic possibilities by adding Continued on page 94 at the bottom of its sillier pieces until the term entered the lexicon itself. Wikipedia explains the phenomenon with its usual literalness (“No issue of Private Eye has ever run to anywhere near 94 pages.”)

But this doesn’t induce the same confusion as online. What are we supposed to do when confronted with a link that doesn’t explain where it’s going? When I insert a link under the words “Wikipedia explains” above, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out I’m linking to the Wikipedia entry on Private Eye. But most of the time that doesn’t happen. Most of the time we have no idea what words are linking to what. Don’t bother clicking on any of those links; I was just trying to make a point. Which is this: Words or phrases with links on that aren’t clear where they’re going would be like marking doors with obscure labels like ’open’ or ‘Ffortescue was here’ or ‘door’. (And don’t get me started on those links that look as if they’re going one place and actually go to another internal page, like the company links in this page at Webware.)

Which is why I like MTV’s website and their coverage of Britney Spears going Rehab AWOL again. OK, so the links don’t go outside the site but to other MTV stories, but I both admire the fact that MTV explains what they’re linking to in the link, and the, er, clarity it throws on Britney’s recent lifestyle deviation.

This time, her family and manager intervened, and announced yesterday that Spears had voluntarily entered rehab (see “Britney Spears Checks Into Rehab”).

Now that’s a link that explains itself. Actually it explains itself so well you don’t really have to click on it. Plus it really bolsters the bald (sorry) assertion that precedes it. You’ve got to hand it to MTV . No silly, teasing but vague headlines for them. These guys probably moonlight at Wikipedia.  Like this one:

After returning from her first trip to rehab, Spears made a shocking public appearance Friday night, debuting her newly shaved head at a tattoo shop in Sherman Oaks, California (see “Britney Spears Shaves Head, Gets Tattoo”).

or my personal favorite (The combination of story and the title of the link would not look out of place in Private Eye itself):

“She is obviously in a lot of pain and needs help immediately,” agreed Doreen Seal, the mother of Jason Alexander, a longtime family friend to whom Spears was briefly married (see “Britney On Her Marriage: Vegas Made Me Do It”).

Maybe it’s just Britney’s story naturally lends itself to links that make sense. But I would wager that it’s more MTV’s excellent linking that leaves us in no doubt of what we’re clicking on. I’m going to take a leaf out of their book and practice safe Link Labeling from now on (see “Loose Wire on Linking: Britney Made Me Do It”)

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Twittering in the Forest

I was a bit rude about Twitter in my last WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid), about the Web 2.0 satire Useless Account:

I can’t have an online conversation these days, for example, without someone telling me to use Twitter, a fabulously popular way to broadcast your current activity (and I mean current, as in “ear cleansing while waiting for YouTube to load”) to anyone interested, via your blog or cellphone. (Yes, I have signed up. No, I don’t use it much. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, so the idea I’d actually be in a position to tell anyone else is unlikely. But how long will I hold out from using it? Probably not long.)

Of course, I’m probably on the wrong side of history here. Scoble et al love it. He has 469 followers (in case you have better things to do with your time, Twitter allows you to ‘follow’ other people’s twitterings, to basically see everything they write in their twitter account.

In fact, the ‘follower’ moniker is somewhat apt — Web 2.0 has become very religious, what with all these A list bloggers and product evangelists. People follow Scoble in the way they might have followed some mystic. (Of course I’m jealous! I’m not being followed by anyone except that mangy cat from the warung and some weird person who thinks I’m writing this blog for him.)

Anyway, Twitter probably tells us more than we’d like to know about this particular slice of Internet history. Robert says:

Anyway, I find I keep coming back to Twitter. It’s an interesting way to keep in touch with the lives of your friends, or followers, as it were.

It’s not as if this is not a bad idea. I’m into the idea of presence — being able to broadcast your availability so that those trying to reach you can fit their schedules into yours — and vice versa. Set your Skype note to “in a meeting and about to rush for a plane” and friends will know that you probably don’t want to yack on the phone about Britney Spears’ new hairdo. But Twitter probably takes this a bit too far — instead of it being a tool to fight distraction, as presence tools are — it becomes a tool of distraction, where one obsessively updates, and monitors others’ updates, to the exclusion of all else.

I prefer the assessment of Shawn Oster who suggests that in fact Twitter is about people feeling

they’re being heard. Everyone wants to feel unique and to feel like they matter, that they’re being noticed. Blogs are a great way to do that but now that there is more pressure to make your blog actually mean something instead of just an online diary people are looking for an easier way to still be digitally heard.

Probably truer than we’d like to admit. We’re firing these little messages out into space, and by building around us a network of friends and followers we’re feeling connected and noticed. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a reflection of what constant communication is doing to us: we don’t feel ‘validated’ unless what we’re doing is somehow observed and noted by others. The old tree falling in the forest thing, I guess: If no one heard it fall, did it make a sound? If no one knew we went out for milk and newspapers, did we?

I’m off to buy milk and newspapers and will report as much to my 1.5 followers on Twitter.

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The Holy Grail of Software

I was chatting with someone in the comments section of one of my blog posts and we realised tha we’re both looking for the same kind of software we haven’t found yet. One that, in my words at least, fulfil the following: to be able to store stuff in a way that is
– easy to input
– easy to organise
– easy to access
– easy to retrieve
– easy to search
– easy to view
– easy to order in different ways
– easy to visualize
– easy to export

There are outliners, mind mappers, search programs and database programs, but none of them quite does all this the way we’d like. So we thought we’d start a Google Group and try to see if we could either

a) hone the requirement. What is it, exactly, we’re looking for, and are other people looking for it too?

b) find the perfect software that does all this?

c) define what we’re looking for so well that maybe someone else comes along and develops it for us?

Anyway, if any of you are interested, please do join us at personalknowldgebase. The discussion could be an interesting one. I’d particularly love to hear from people who are developing software that they feel already does this. As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of stuff like PersonalBrain, Topicscape, MindManager, outliners like MyInfo and more Wiki-based stuff like TiddlyWiki and ConnectedText, but without wanting to offend any of you, I don’t think that any so far represent the holy grail of a program that captures what you want it to capture and gives it back to you in the way, and ways, you want it. But maybe that could form the start of the discussion.

Anyway, hope you’ll join us in this discussion. And, if this discussion already exists outside a very program-specific forum, I’d love to hear of that too.

Google Isn’t Evil, It’s Just Misunderstanding Me

Is Google evil? This video makes a convincing case. But I say: Not as much as it used to be, if my extensive research is anything to go by.

In 2004 a friend of mine stopped using Google Mail (Gmail) when she emailed a friend about getting over her ex and how her kid still talked about him, and the accompanying ads went like this:

Get Your Ex Back
Get a powerful plan for restoring your relationship with your ex. $24

I Used to Miss Him
But My Aim is Improving: Not Your Ordinary Breakup Survival Guide

How Can I Help My Child Deal With a Breakup?
Recovering from a breakup is not easy. If your child has gone …

Things nowadays are not so creepy. I wrote to my Gmail account “I think i’m over my boyfriend now that he’s my ex but my daughter still talks about him a lot. Should i be worried? “ and got these matches:

15.000 used machines
ex-stock. More than 85 dealers from Germany, Swiss, Austria

Stempel 24 uur bestellen?
on-line, met preview, op rekening, verzending dezelfde dag!

Mom’s Lip Sore Cure
My daughter Discovered how to heal my Lip Sores. Report Here

buzz off clothing
ex officio bugs won’t bite free shipping

All very useful stuff, I think you’d agree. I’m not quite sure what kind of machines the first one is offering — a memory eraser? — but I do love the second one. StempelTempel. Sounds like a nightclub. While I’m very happy for the mother in ad three, I can’t quite see what word the advertisers must be trying to match. And why would someone coping with a breakup need  Insect Shield Repellent Apparel from BUZZ OFF™? To keep off unwanted advances?

Indeed, one might argue that Google’s contextual ads are not as helfpul as they used to be. I sent a few more emails going into a bit more detail about my problems:

Since my wife left me for our 15-year old pool boy I’ve become increasingly depressed. And my libido is shot to shreds. Sometimes I feel nausea, headaches, chest pains and even my little toe is feeling blue. What should I do?

and I got nothing. No ads at all. Is there nothing in there that might prod an advertiser into trying to sell me something? One on money problems (“Since I got fired from my job flipping burgers in Florida, I’ve become increasingly worried financially. I have an overdraft and credit card debts that are clogging up the sink. What should I do?”) brought up a rather predictable array of investing ads. This one proved a bit more enticing: “I’m thinking of becoming a burglar. What do I do exactly? How do I know what to look for when I case a joint? Insurance? Broken windows?  Vulnerable old people with heart problems?”

But once again the ads were more baffling than helpful:

Potty Training In 3 Days
Potty Training Secrets That Work Say Good Bye To Diapers Forever

5 Indigo Child Secrets
Learn the 5 Important Secrets Every Indigo Child’s Parents Should Know.

Better Than Boot Camps
Wilderness Works. Get your teen on track for the next school year.

Devices to beat children
Petition against devices being sold in the U.S. to beat children.

Where did they get the idea I had teenage kids with potty problems whom I was beating with ‘devices’?  So I thought I should sound more positive, and see whether that served up better ads. I wrote “I’m looking for some serious loving, baby. I’m thinking of going out nights, having fun and looking for a suitable partner of the right gender persuasion. It’s time to start dating again. What should I do next?” and got this:

What Is The Secret
The Law of Attraction in Action What Is The Secret

V&O Metal Stamping Equip
OEM V&O Press Distributor of metal stamping equipment

Travel Iguazu
Enjoy iguazu falls & national park 2, 3 and 4 nights packages trips

GoToAssist Free Trial
Exclusive Offer for Remedy Users! Try Citrix GoToAssist For 30 Days.

While the first one could prove useful, the second sounds like more and heavier equipment than one would really need under the circumstances. Iguazu might be a bit far to go on my first big night out, although thanks for the tip. Given GoToAssist doesn’t explain itself very well, it could be more or less anything in this context; what kind of assistance are they offering? And what, under the circumstances, is a remedy user? (Somewhat anticlimactically, GoToAssist is software to remotely assist someone with their computer, which has a few romantic possibilites, I suppose.

I think we should stop being worred about Google knowing too much about us, and worrying that they don’t enough. In my case, they seem to have gotten the impression I’m some child hitting, coldsore ridden, machinery loving diaper wearer. Time to start sending myself some emails lauding my abilities, looks, experience and lack of facial blisters.

Not Stopping Traffic? Blame Wikipedia

I’m not one to court fame, although it is flattering, I must confess, to be recognised in the street. First there’s the odd sideways look as they approach you. Then the diffident approach:
“Excuse me, are you Jeremy Wagstaff?”
“Why, yes, I am!”
“You don’t remember me, do you?
“Er, no.”
“I’m your wife.”
“Oh, yes. So you are. Sorry.”

Actually, that almost never happens. In fact, it’s unlikely to for the simple reason that no one has thought to create a page about me on Wikipedia. Of course, why should I be so presumptuous as to think I deserve one? And would I not be obsessively checking it were such a page to exist? And do I want people to know what I did that night in Bangkok in 1990 when I was chased by a woman in a car reversing at speed through heavy traffic on Sukhumwit? Probably not although I’ll tell you if you really want.

Still, there’s definitely a cultism about Wikipedia biographical entries. The organisers have had to gamekeep against congressional aides, PR companies and even the entries’ own subjects to prevent them whitewashing their past. Even one of the founders has been alleged to have indulged in a bit of airbrushing of his own past.

But my beef is this. Why, should the mood take me to search Wikipedia for my humble name, do these matches appear?

Results 1-13 of 13

I am not a rugby league footballer. I never went to the RCA, although I once won a Lego competition. I am not, as far as I know, fictitious although my lack of an entry on Wikipedia may suggest I am; my mother was born in Yorkshire but I, alas, was not, and while I suppose the Nonjuring Schism is a part of my heritage, I never went to Charterhouse and therefore cannot claim to be an Old Carthusian, let alone a notable one.

Still, given the amount of airbrushing out, and bland self-hagiographic rubbish one does find among biographies on Wikipedia, it’s probably as accurate as any other entry on a living person in the otherwise excellent online tome. In any case, it kind of captures the kind of person I sometimes wish I was: an artistic scrum half Yorkshireman playing notably in the Charterhouse First XV , not averse to a Schism or two so long as it’s Nonjuring and doesn’t leave any stretch marks. Now that kind of entry I would like.

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