Digital Deliverance

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Last Friday’s Asian WSJ, and the online edition (subscription only, I’m afraid), published a feature I’d been working on for a while: The digital divide. I focused on Newmont’s mine in Sumbawa, in eastern Indonesia, and the company’s limited success in introducing e-business to the locals:

Newmont’s supply-system project is typical of many around Asia — by the private sector, by governments, by grass-roots organizations and international agencies — that attempt to improve the lot of ordinary people by giving them access to technology. But some people are skeptical that top-down projects like this give the people what they really need. In particular, can the dreams of big organizations really match the needs of ordinary individuals, especially when, as is often the case, those individuals aren’t asked what it is that they actually want? The digital divide often reflects wider social issues, and bridging it may represent little more than applying a Band-Aid to a deep-rooted problem.

Of course, Newmont and the company that is responsible for the technical side of the project feel it is a success, which is why they pointed me to it. But it was clear from what I saw on the ground that it has a long way to go to achieving the goals I had been told it had already achieved. A great example of not believing a press release. You have to see it with your own eyes. But not everyone can afford the airfare. Luckily the Journal shelled out for me to go down there and see for myself.

The story took me in all sorts of different directions, though far too few to get a real picture of things. I was quizzing one guy and being somewhat skeptical, I suppose, of the claims made by what I’ve heard call “photo opportunity projects” — big money spent by companies on telecentres in the bush — usually a room with lots of new PCs, the air-conditioning to keep them cool, a big mast to carry a fast Internet connection to a village that doesn’t even have water or basic sanitation. The guy’s answer surprised me.

He said I was the first journalist to ask him more critical questions: “It’s interesting you called us,” he said. “In the past a lot of calls from reporters who are very excited about the technology and want to write about ‘technology saved the world’ type articles, you’re the first to come to us with [questions like] “Are these projects really working”?’

He went on:

In the past you saw a lot of hype about the potential for technology. It’s  a very seductive story – the idea that technology like the Internet can fundamentally change the lives of people who are bringing in a $1 a day. But that needs to be mediated with a certain amount of realism… There might be a sudden kind of backlash against these projects. Although I do think there’s lot of potential for technology, it just needs to be done in a very careful realistic way.

(He was speaking on the record but I’ve not done a detailed check on my notes so these words may not be a verbatim quote, so I won’t name him.)

He concluded that my questions were “an indication the worldwide community is becoming more mature about these kinds of projects.” I would be flattered to think so, but I’m not so sure. Most of these projects are in faraway places — even ones in Indonesia I wanted to check up on I couldn’t reach, either because of cost or time. When they’re opened, with great fanfare, journalists are flown in at great expense and everyone involved gets the press they want. But who goes back to check?

One conclusion I reached from doing the story is that not enough people write about what is a huge topic. Technology permeates our developed (and developed pockets of the developing) world lives in ways we rarely stop to count or critically evaluate. Another is that when we do cover it we journalists tend to assume it’s all good — as if any kind of new technology is better for everyone than no technology, and that the intentions, the motives, behind any such introduction are good.

Well, frankly, they’re not. In most cases the company or institution behind it has much less interest in the suitability of the project than their own internal goals — publicity, places to dump money that’s already been earmarked for corporate social responsibility, even just testing out technology in new environments. Rarely, if ever, are the local people consulted and their wishes really listened to and taken into account. Of course, knowing whether these projects are worthwhile in the long run would require independent folk — journalists, academics — visiting them and measuring their progress or lack of it against the original targets. But most of us can’t afford to do that, so we rely on the companies or institutions themselves to post updates.

It’s telling, to me, that most don’t. I found it very hard to get a sense, an honest appraisal, of what had happened to the projects I looked at. Which to me is evidence that a lot of these projects can’t be considered a success.

Digital Deliverance – WSJ.com

The Gadget Gap

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This week’s WSJ.com column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about what I call The Hole — the absence of decent devices in terms of size, weight and functionality between the smartphone and the notebook. To me it’s not just about cramming everything you can into a smaller device, it’s about making something that people enjoying having with them when they’re away from their computer:  

The recent excitement about the iPhone illustrates, among other things, that we have a more emotional relationship with our gadgets than some manufacturers allow for. It’s all about an experience — the physical feel of the device, the elegance of its interface, the interaction with it. The more connected we become, the more important this will become, because those devices serve as conduits to the worlds and communities we inhabit online. The lesson? Filling the Hole means taking the lessons we’ve learned with cellphones, iPods and iPhones and applying them to devices that are a little larger, not the other way around: trying to cram our workshop tools into something smaller.

I’m a bit slow off the mark posting this, so I’ve already received some interesting mail from readers. One points me to the the Pepper Computer (pictured above), saying they covert the device because they:

Typically watch TV with the family in the evening. There are many times I want to check out email or want to follow up on something I see while watching the news, etc. Instead of lugging out the laptop plopping it on the coffee table and making it look like I’m not paying attention to the family, I thought it would be cool to just pick up a small web device and do it right there on the spot. Plus you have the convenience of it being a remote control. No remote clutter and it serves a valuable purpose earning a coveted space on the coffee table. (With high end remotes costing $500+, the Pepper Pad seems even more reasonable!)

Another, Daniel Gentleman of Tabletblog.com, points to the power of instant-on in such gadgets as Nokia’s N800:

This is why people still use the awful browsers and email clients on smartphones. They’re simply ready to work as soon as you pick them up. This feature is often overlooked yet critical in that gadget gap.

Very true, and something I’d omitted to mention in my piece.

“How’s the Review Going?” Spam

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At a conference I have been attending I was asked to explain to PR folk there what journalists want. Apparently, by the time my session came around, the PR folk had been put off by several previous journalists who had presumably used clear language to express what they want because most didn’t turn up. Wisely, since the three who did either nodded off, feigned stomach convulsions and left the room or got overly fresh with their BlackBerry.

This didn’t stop me ranting and raving like a lunatic about how PR people don’t often understand what we want. One thing I didn’t mention is the Bane of the Follow-up Email. These are emails sent (often automatically) in the period after a journalist expresses interest in a product sufficiently to download it, or receive further details on it, or whatever. From then on the PR person will send a weekly email — exactly the same one, each time — asking for a status update. Forever, or until the PR company no longer represents the client, or the PR person dies, or the company they work for gets shut down for being a spammer.

Now, not many PR agencies do this, but those that do seem impervious to the irritation this causes folk like me. Imagine if every PR agency did this: A journalist’s inbox would be so full of these things they wouldn’t be able to do any reviewing at all. So my policy is never to reply to them for fear of encouraging the practice. But, frankly, it is no better than spam, and it leaves the journalist (well, this journalist) in a frayed and hostile mood, which can’t be good for the company or the product the PR person is being paid to promote.

So, please, no mindless follow-up emails unless it’s to offer fresh (and relevant and useful) information, and certainly no automated one that goes out every week. We’ll get to your products when it suits our schedule, not yours, and if you start to bombard us we’ll probably ditch the idea of writing about your product in a fit of petulance.

Getting Ecards from Worshippers

You got to give scammers credit where credit is due. This latest wave of e-card spam at least exhibits some imagination on the part of the sender:

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At first it was from a friend, then a colleague, then a classmate; now it’s neighbors and worshippers sending you ecards. Good on them. I must confess I don’t worship that often, and I haven’t spoken to my neighbor since the Korean-funded mistress moved out from next door, so they’re not likely to dupe me. But they might dupe someone. (If I got one from from a Fellow Technology Columnist, I might bite.)

Which would be bad, because the links contain a variant of the Storm Trojan, according to Urban Legends, which will turn your computer into a zombie and do some scammer’s bidding.

All this must be really hurting what is left of the e-card greetings industry (when was the last time you received an e-card? A real one, I mean?) Indeed, a press release from the Greeting Card Association warning users about these scams offers advice to recipients that is so tortured it’s hard to imagine anyone would bother following it:

For consumers who are unsure if an e-card notice is legitimate, the Greeting Card Association recommends that they go directly to the publisher’s website to retrieve an e-card, rather than clicking on a link within the e-mail.
— Manually type the name of the card publisher’s website URL into your browser window.
— Locate the “e-card pick up” area on the publisher’s website.
— Take the card number or retrieval code information contained in the e-mail and enter it into the appropriate box or boxes on the publisher’s e-card pick-up area.
— If you are unable to retrieve the e-card, you will know the notification was a scam, and that it should be deleted.

Seriously. Who is going to do all that? My advice: if you care enough about the person, send them a real card. Or leave something on their Facebook wall.

The Gecko in the Machine

 (This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. If you’re an editor interested in subscribing to the service, drop me a line. Regular readers of the blog, meanwhile, will be familiar with some of the themes here)

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I found myself reading the words of one Timo Veikkola one morning.

Frankly, before then I did not know that Timo existed, although I do know of his colleague at Nokia, Jan Chipchase. Not only do these men have far more interesting names than I, they also have far more interesting jobs: peering into the way we use technology and how we might use it in the future.

But this column isn’t about them. It’s about you and your computer. Timo and Jan made me realize that often we focus on the minutiae of computing, as if that’s where the whole thing stops.

It’s as if we’re car owners who blame the car for our being stuck in traffic. It’s worth remembering that if we are not happy with our computers, it’s not all the computer’s fault.

First off, I can understand why you’re frustrated. Computers don’t work very well (though a lot of Mac users, and even Windows Vista users, convince themselves that their particular computers do). The truth is they don’t, because computers don’t help us think better.

They are merely tools, when they should be more than that. They help us send e-mails. They help us download and listen to music. They help us draft long resignation letters we never send. They help us crunch numbers.

All of this would make the early developers of the computer initially excited (“All that computing power in the head of a pin! Back in my day we had to make do with the computing power of a toilet brush in a box the size of Angkor Wat”). They were also, quickly, disappointed (“So everyone has these computers in their homes, bags and hands, and they do WHAT with them?”).

But it needn’t be like that. Computers can be used for good stuff. Here’s how:

* Collecting stuff: Computer hard drives are big enough now for you not to worry about storing stuff (unless you take 5,000 videos and photos a day, in which case you may want to consider an external hard drive or six.)

The trick about collecting stuff — whether it’s words, pictures or audio — is to organize it. After all, you want to find it again quickly. So, if you’re not a Mac user (who has Spotlight) install Google Desktop, which will index your hard drive and let you find stuff as easily as if it were on the Web.

But that shouldn’t be an alternative to organizing your stuff. Each batch of photos you store on your computer should have its own folder, usually organizing by date (for example, 20070722 as today’s date is best).

If you’re saving information you find on the web, save it to one place. I use something called MyInfo, an outlining program that includes a button you can install in your Firefox browser, which makes it very easy to save anything you read online.

* Brainstorming: there are some great tools out there to help you brainstorm, but in my view the best are those that bring mind mapping to the computer. (A mind map is a drawing where the central idea is put at the center of the piece of paper, and other ideas are added to it, floating off like branches.)

If you’ve not done mind maps I recommend them; if you’re a big computer user then it makes sense to do them on your computer. (Mindjet’s MindManager works on both Macs and Windows; for Mac users there’s also NovaMind, which looks promising.)

* Think stuff up: The computer won’t think for you, but it will do the next best thing — help you recall things you forgot. You’re probably aware of the fact that however smart you are you won’t be able to remember what you want into the kitchen to get. Most of what we do, read, hear and say is forgotten within minutes. This is where the computer can help.

But whereas it’s great about storing stuff, it’s not good at recalling things that we don’t know we knew. Search is great if we know what we’re looking for, but for that tip-of-the-tongue stuff I’d recommend something else: PersonalBrain.

PersonalBrain is a program that I have bored my friends with for several months now — it works on Mac, Linux and Windows, and has a free version available.

It looks odd, and will take some getting used to, but think of it as a place to throw everything you know into. You add “thoughts” and then you link those thoughts to other thoughts: The more the merrier.

For Timo Veikkola (the Nokia guy) I added a thought called “Timo’s predictions” and “Timo’s ideas”. To the latter I added all the ideas I liked, including one “travel is the best stimulant”.

This is something I know but I keep forgetting. So I linked that to another thought I had elsewhere in my PersonalBrain called “Guiding principles”.

Already linked to that thought were a bunch of ideas I had added (and promptly forgotten about) which, together, form a philosophy of sorts (if you call “Don’t write columns like this before your morning coffee because they won’t make any sense” a philosophy.)

Put simply, the brain works not by hierarchy, but by connections. We watch a movie and it reminds us we haven’t sent a letter to Auntie Marge. We find a website we like but it looks vaguely familiar: We don’t realize we actually visited the same website two days ago. We are looking for a friend in Nongkhai but can’t think of anybody, forgetting that Bob used to work there five years ago.

PersonalBrain helps you add this data when it first hits you and, more importantly, map its connections to other things so that you can find them again when you need them. When I add my friend Bob to my PersonalBrain, for example, I can link him not only to my other friends, but also to the places he’s worked at, the places he’s lived in — anything that may increase the chances of his name popping up when I might need him, but when I might not have thought of it.

PersonalBrain is the kind of software that makes you realize a) You spend way too much time using your computer to watch YouTube videos; and b) Your brain may be big, but you can’t remember anything that happened more than 30 seconds ago.

So, grumble as much as you like about your computer and what pain it causes you. But then set your sights higher and turn it into something that really complements you and the way you do things.

Working in the Brain I

I know I’ve written a lot about PersonalBrain of late, and I apologize for that if it doesn’t interest you. But partly in response to comments on an earlier post, and partly just because I think it might help, I wanted to give an example of how I use the program, in the hope it might inspire some of you to try it out, or at least to keep going if you’re trying and struggling to adapt the software to your daily life.

To me PersonalBrain is a place to dump what you know so that a) you’ll remember what it is you know and b) find a place for it amidst all the other stuff you know. You may not remember everything you know, but if you have it some place you can reach, you stand a better chance of recalling it when you need it. PersonalBrain helps you do this, and helps you link it to the other stuff you know, in ways that may surprise you.

This evening I watched a National Geographic special (yeah, another wild night chez moi) on the Lake Toba supervolcano eruption of 70,000 years ago, which may or may not have plunged the planet into a 1,000 year ice-age. I realized while watching it that I’d seen it before, but had pretty much forgotten all about it. A perfect example of how to use PersonalBrain, I figured. So this is how I did it:

First I looked for anything that was already in my brain that was volcano-related. This is what I found:

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A thought on Tracking volcanoes — not directly relevant, but enough for me to start working backwards. This is one of the beauties of PersonalBrain — you can start anywhere, building hierarchies in reverse order, or sub-branches (what are called children) or jumps — links that aren’t necessarily direct, but ones you think may prove useful in the long run. So an obvious parent (the next level up the hierarchy) here would be Volcanoes (another could be Tracking stuff).

So I add that, as the  base for the child I want to add on the Toba eruption. But before adding the Toba link, I start to think what Volcanoes may itself be a child of. Disasters seems an obvious one, so I add that. PB, though, is a step ahead of me, since it turns out I already have a thought of that name:

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So I try linking to that. It seems likely it’ll be relevant, and it is. Disasters already has as children things like Earthquakes and Tsunami. Earthquakes makes an obvious fit:

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Of course, if I’d been more on the ball when I originally added the Disasters thought I could have added the Volcanoes thought at the same time. But that’s the beauty of PB: It doesn’t really matter. It’s not about thinking — a la brainstorming and mindmaps — as about adding stuff when it occurs to you. The skill is in ensuring the names of your thoughts are helpful to you, so the hierarchy and connections emerge naturally as you add material.

So now all I have to do is add the Toba thought and enough links and material so it means something to me later. This is easy enough: A Google search of Toba supervolcano throws up a feast of interesting links. I throw them quickly as attachments into a thought (they could as easily be separate thoughts; doesn’t really matter). I also copy the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article into the notes section:

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And, just to be cute (and to make the thought stand out) I copy an image of the area as a thought icon:

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Sounds fiddly? Actually all of this takes less than two minutes.

Finally, if you have time, it’s worth adding a few extra links to what you’ve created, which will really tap into the power of PersonalBrain. Lake Toba is in Indonesia so I should add it to an Indonesia-related thought. I decided to create one called Indonesian history which I then made a child of Indonesia. (Probably could be better, but we can fix it later. Because a child in PB can have multiple parents, it doesn’t really matter.)

I could add more parents or jumps (Possible weekend destinations? Human evolution? Bad things that may happen again? Ring of Fire?), but if they don’t jump to mind at the time, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is there is now something in my brain as a marker for this new cluster of information, this nugget, this little bit of knowledge, and it’s been connected to its natural cousins. Now I know I will find it again, and, as importantly, I will find it even if I’m not looking exactly for Toba and volcanoes.

Not everyone is going to want to rush to their computer every time they watch a documentary or read a book. But if you’re anything like me, frustrated that so much of what I see, read and hear gets lost and only half-remembered, and that my brain rarely makes the connections to other things I’m half remembering, PB is a powerful aid to retaining, inspiring and making those links. And, most importantly, it’s fast and simple.

How to Flatter 100 Bloggers

Do portraits of them as ASCII art. Amit Agarwal, an India-based blogger of impeccable test and refinement, does some very cool pictures of 100 bloggers. Including that picture of me looking smarmy in the middle of the kampung:

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ASCII Art: Colored Text Paintings of Your Favorite Bloggers – Digital Inspiration

Bluetooth’s Missing Suitcase

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Remember when Samsonite launched the Bluetooth suitcase? No, well, that’s not surprising, because they didn’t. This week’s WSJ.com column is (subscription only, I’m afraid) the first in a series about finding stuff in the real world. I started with a hunt for the Bluetooth suitcase, first announced in 2002 (and weirdly, still up on the Samsonite website):

I got all excited five years ago when Samsonite announced a suitcase that used Bluetooth, a wireless technology more commonly used to connect cellphones to headsets, to carry data about the owner and alert him or her if the case was moved. Hooray, I thought: Now we’ll all know where our luggage is. Unfortunately not: The Samsonite Hardlite never saw the light of day for technical reasons, although the company says it’s still looking at other ways to identify and secure luggage.

This is about as close as we came to the idea that the wireless technologies we now take for granted — Bluetooth, WiFi, infrared, cellphones, GPS — would actually help us stay in touch with the important things in life, like our stuff. Which is a shame. I would love to be able to ping all the Bluetooth gadgets in my house via my cellphone and know where they are. One Bluetooth headset has been missing for years.

I then take a look at what’s available. But what intrigued me was: what happened to the Samsonite case? This is what Samsonite PR came up with:

It seems from what I can gather this collection was in the end not launched. The reasons seem to be quite numerous – the cost to the consumer would have been significant, a lot of mobile phones were not compatible with the technology at the time, and today would still require additional memory.

Another person I contacted had this to say:

Basically the project did not make it to the market because of several reasons.

About 10 pieces were made for field testing, but there were issues on the standardisation. At the time Bluetooth technology was still at an early development stage and not yet standardised, so for a product to be able to ‘talk’ to another wasn’t that straight forward and obvious. Therefore after the field testing it was decided that the benefits for the consumer just weren’t sufficient. At the moment there are no plans to resurrect the project.

Which I found interesting. To me, back in 2002, the suitcase made all sorts of sense. Bluetooth, cellphones, missing suitcases: who wouldn’t have gone for something like that? But Bluetooth has always been a bit of a devil when it comes to anything other than really basic connectivity. Even Mac users have been heard to complain of connecting Bluetooth devices to their laptops.

Would today’s Bluetooth be able to cope with with this kind of concept now? Is it already doing so? Or would security concerns — how long would it take before someone puts together software to reprogram the data on a Samsonite suitcase so it gets diverted to Luang Prabang?

Brain Withdrawal

I’m really getting into using PersonalBrain, the newly launched version of a decade-old program that should have swept the world by now. But there’s a downside to relying on one piece of software so much: When it goes wrong, you’re adrift.

Luckily the guys at PersonalBrain are looking into it, but I had to stop using mine about 24 hours ago when I noticed weird things happening. My brain is now on their operating table and I’m praying I’ll get it back soon because I just have no appetite to do anything meaningful without it.

PersonalBrain fills that hole I’ve often felt existed between having ideas, finding snippets of information or encountering websites, companies, people and books I encounter in my day. Before I would not know quite where to put them so I could find them when I needed them, and invented dozens of systems to try to solve the problem. None worked very well, because they all relied on me remembering what I’d added and where.

As you may have found, most of what we know doesn’t fit neatly into a structure — that PR guy we met last night? Should we put him under PR, or the companies he handles, or the fact that actually he was much more interesting on credit card fraud, and he could definitely be lured out on a date with one of the legions of single females we seem to know?

And what about that idea you had in the bath this morning, where you wondered aloud whether the plethora of news stories on global warming was evidence of a) a sudden increase in global warming, b) a sudden increase in journalists’ interest in global warming, c) a sudden increase in editorial commitment to educate the public about global warming d) a pathetic hope on the part of editors that global warming stories may sell more papers or e) a sort of new tacit agreement between media and public that now we all agree that climate change is happening, we need to be reminded of how clever we are? If you’re not sure, where are you going to put that in your database? Future media? Future of newspapers? Cynical ploys? Global warming? Great ideas you have in the bath that don’t sound so great when you’re not?

The answer: with PersonalBrain you can put it anywhere, and, more importantly, have a higher chance of finding it again. Quickly PB envelopes your processes and shifts them into a different gear. Which is why it’s sooooo hard to function when your file gets corrupted and needs to go in for surgery. (Yes, it’s worrying that software can do this, but we should have gotten used to it by now. I’d much rather there was software that wasn’t perfect but which reached for the stars than some more basic mush that always worked but never transformed how I worked.)

So. I’m brainless, gormless, mindless, whatever you want to call it until the doctors call. Next time I’m going to back up my brain every hour and hope this doesn’t happen again. But I’m excited, too, that I care enough about a piece of software and how it can help me that I feel so bereft. I haven’t felt like this since Enfish Tracker Pro.

Update: An all nighter by the PersonalBrain people and my brain is back, fixed and missing half a dozen thoughts (out of 7,000). I’ve been assured the problem is being investigated and future versions of the software will include an automatic backup option each time the program is closed.