Induct Me Baby


Induction
Originally uploaded by Jeremy Wagstaff.

I really couldn’t understand from the blurb for this I found at a Singapore mall what exactly it’s all about, but I did like the idea of putting it in the “prefect place”, and the fact that “the light will open automatically when one gets up, which makes one live a fashionable life” is very compelling.

I bought three. Anyone want one?

How to Rip People Off Like Disney World

If you’ve ever visited Disney World, or some other overpriced resorts (last year I visited Warwick Castle and Legoland in the UK, both appallingly people-traps) you’ll have done what I did: vow never to come back. Of course, the companies running these places both know that and don’t care — which is why they are ripping you off royally while they can.

Seethu Seetharaman, an associate professor of management at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management, calls it a variety-seeking market and says it doesn’t just apply to tourist attractions:

Turns out that the resorts in Orlando are in a market where consumers want variety. Indeed, if a family is in Orlando for a week or more, there is little chance — at least if parents and children want to remain on speaking terms at vacation’s end — that they’ll do the exact same thing day after day. Instead, they’re likely to visit both Universal and Disney World and take in as many different rides and sights as possible; in other words, they’ll seek variety.

Seetharaman says that the same is true of people who are too lazy to shift brands: what he calls consumer inertia:

Using a mathematical model, Seetharaman, along with his research partner Hai Che, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California at Berkeley, was able to determine that the impact on price in both variety-seeking and inertial markets is similar. “The main point of the paper is that in markets where consumers seek variety, firms have an incentive to rip them off,” he says. “The surprise is that when markets are characterized by the opposite of inertia, the exact same incentive in terms of price competition that characterized inertial markets goes through as well.”

Basically, we’ll pay to go to Disney World whatever it costs, especially if we’ve already gone to Universal Studios or whatever else is within our daily trip radius. To that I’d add a couple more observations:

  • it pays to charge at least what rivals in the neighborhood are charging, because if a family has shelled out once, they’re likely to shell out again.
  • Secondly, customers may well equate price with the quality of experience; there’s no point in trying to undercut your rivals because that would imply the experience you’re offering is not as valuable as theirs.
  • This doesn’t seem to stop these kinds of resorts from trying to gain loyalty. There’ll always be some families who want to come back each year, so it makes sense to offer them a steep discount.
  • The only problem I see with all this is that while you want to have a boisterous, noisy crowd, if the queues are too long you may scare away some visitors from the whole concept. In that sense the companies are not rivals at all, but are partners in trying to lure more and more families into the idea of vacationing at these places. Which, as an afterthought, raises the question: should we be thinking cartels and price fixing?

Seetharaman concludes:

None of this comes as a big surprise to companies involved in a variety-seeking market. “The firms know this. They know this market is characterized by variety, so they know that they are going to eventually get their competitor’s previous customers,” says Seetharaman. “Knowing this they are actually trying to rip them off.”

Rice University | Explore Rice

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Poisoning the Digital Well

I’m following events in Burma as closely as most, partly because I covered the last uprising 19 years ago. Back then plain clothes officers would spread rumors about poisoned water pots placed around the city for demonstrators to drink from. Now they’re apparently trying to poison the well of pooled information, if this excellent BBC report is anything to go by:

[London-based Burma exile Ko Htike] described how he has received personal e-mails – and protesters within Burma have received mobile phone text messages – spreading false information and rumours, for example about military crackdowns on protesters.

The channel the protesters use to get information out is straightforward, but involves huge risks. Burma is not a place to take any kind of risk: the reach of the government is long, and their mercy small, even if their tech savvy is weakened since the fall of Khin Nyunt.

I worry this protest won’t be enough, however. Sometimes all the information in the world isn’t enough to stop repressive regimes being repressive.

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Burma cyber-dissidents crack censorship

Turn It Off, Turn It On Again

Having spent the best part of a day trying to do something very basic, and yet failing, here’s another public service announcement for anyone having problems connecting their router, wireless or otherwise, to a cable modem:

  • If you have a cable Internet connection, but only through one computer, and nothing seems to correct the problem, you probably need to unplug the ethernet cable from your computer and turn off your cable modem.
  • Turn it off. Leave it off for a minute, and then turn it back on again. Reconnect the cable.
  • Chances are it will now connect. If it doesn’t, either you didn’t leave it turned off long enough, or something more sinister is afoot. But it worked for me.

Now, I know this is stupid of me not to think of, but in my defence I was out of sorts:

  • the modem was new, the setup was new, and I didn’t have a lot of faith in my Netgear WiFi Travel Router, mainly because I hadn’t used it for cable modem-ing. Nowhere in all the set-up palaver did it mention turning off your cable modem.
  • So I dashed off to buy a Linksys WRT54GC something or other. The installation CD wouldn’t run on my laptop, so I downloaded their impressive sounding troubleshooting software, EasyLink Home Networking Tools (note to self: anything with ‘easy’ in the name isn’t).
  • None of the EasyLink products worked for me, so I was reduced to copying the contents of the installation CD (which for some odd reason, worked fine on a Mac) to a USB drive and running the router set up from there. This is far more information than you’re interested in getting, but I’m trying to show that I wasn’t completely useless. This didn’t work either, by the way. The Linksys software just sits there like a useless lemon telling you that it’s not connecting. (Another note to self: The term ” wizard” for installation and troubleshooting software is vastly overused. Of course, they don’t take into account turnips like me, but they pretend they do. I don’t know which is worse.)
  • I have a Mac sitting around looking pretty, so I thought I’d give Mr Jobs a chance. He was no better. Couldn’t connect, but neither did he offer the sort of sage, grounded advice I’d expected: “Turn stuff off and turn them on again.” I guess, once again, Mac dudes are too smart for that kind of trash talk.
  • Finally I called up the guys who installed the modem, got bounced through a voice menu, until a sweet, albeit automated, voice said “If you’re having problems installing a router to your cable modem, switch off the modem first. Then reconnect. Have a nice day.” And hung up.
  • Now one final point: the modem in question doesn’t actually have an off/on switch. Or a reset switch. And nowhere in the manual could I find the words: “From time to time you may feel the need to switch the modem off and on again, to see whether that helps. Good idea. It might. We don’t know why exactly. If we did, we’d have mentioned it, and put an on/off switch in. But we felt that by putting one in that might have implied our products were not as cool as we like to think they are, so we haven’t put one in. Please don’t throw this manual or the modem across the room in frustration at hours of wasted productivity because this fact was not mentioned, as that voids warranty.” So I switched off the modem, counting to 20 in Thai, just because I can, and turned it on again.

So the little sweet-sounding lady was right. It all worked like a dream after that. So the moral of the story is: Don’t assume anything on the part of the products you’re testing. Just because your cable modem — or any other appliance — doesn’t actually have an on/off or reset switch doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to turn it off. In fact turn everything off once or twice. Who knows, everything might work better that way.

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Thaksin Needs Your Help


For those of you who thought the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was living it up in Europe buying soccer teams, you’re wrong. He’s having serious financial problems and needs your help, according to this email I just received in his name:

Good day.

This may appear a bit surprising to you but very sensitive; as a matter of urgency, I am desperately looking for a foreign partner whom I can trust to handle some investment or fund movement under is control for security reasons. I am Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, Former Thailand Prime Minister, I went on exile for some months over allege assassination of me and my family, and was charge for corruption and purchasing of Government lands. They also confiscate (froze) my 21 bank accounts, wealth and money I deposited with a bank firm in Thailand,

See the web link for more details:
http://www.voanews.com/burmese/2007-06-16-voa4.cfm

I have pleaded to be allowed to live freely, and with dignity, but Mr. Surayud has urge my assassination when returned to my own land for abusing the rule of law, been the current Prime Minister in power I have known objection than to remain on exile. While in exile, I have decided to move the fund I deposited with a security firm here in Europe for a reliable business purpose and also gain access to fully support the less privilege which the government of my country is against. I am calling your attention for partnerships deals towards assisting me invest this fund under your custody for security purpose till the accusation levy against me is cleared off.

All further communication of this transaction would be referred to my lawyer in your next mail to scrutinize the legitimacy of my partner (you), and also assign to you the legal protocol and modalities of this transaction.

Yours Sincerely,
Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra
thakshinw@tiscali.co.uk

Please see what you can do. Of course, there’s an off-chance this could be one of those scams, but I’ve read it carefully and checked the VOA link, and it rings true to me. Really.

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Xdrive’s New Clothes

AOL is unveiling a new media sharing and storage service, BlueString, which gets a positive write-up from Rafe Needleman at Webware. I remain more skeptical (I give it a ten minut.es write-up here.)

Rafe is reliable on this kind of thing, so I take his word for it, but I’m nervous about AOL after a post on my blog more than two years ago became a sort of crash-site for angry users of AOL’s Xdrive product, which BlueString builds on and cherrypicks from. Complaints about Xdrive have been posted as recently as last month, in which there were three, and center on:

  • not being able to log in to access data
  • not being able to reach customer support within a reasonable time
  • charging errors
  • difficulties in cancelling the service
  • allegations that AOL customer service are not technically trained in Xdrive support
  • problems uploading and downloading files

I certainly could find no telephone number on the Xdrive website, except via a Google site search, despite the website’s claims that:

At Xdrive, we pride ourselves on providing a higher level of support than you will find with any other product on the market. Our trained customer care professionals receive ongoing education about the latest changes to Xdrive’s products and services. From walking you through registration to help you use our products, we are focused on delivering exceptional customer care.

(The number, by the way, is (866) GO-XDRIVE or (703) 433-0141, but only during the U.S. day.)

I’m afraid I can’t confirm the authenticity of any of the other complaints and allegations, but I suspect that users of BlueString might be wise to bear them in mind when using the service, and not to store anything there they haven’t got backed up somewhere else.

First hands-on: AOL’s BlueString | Webware : Cool Web apps for everyone

Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:

For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)

But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”

Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.

The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.

Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.

What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.

This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.

My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.

I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.

Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.

Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.

The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.

I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.

I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.

Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.

One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.

The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.

So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.

Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.

Seth’s Blog: Alarm clocks

Technology Makes You Fit, Not Smart

image

I’m trying to use technology as much as possible in my new environment (Singapore), and it’s not working well out that well for me. I have no useful Internet connection, my Nokia N95’s GPS locks in just in time for the journey to finish, and I’m eating off the tops of plastic containers.

Otherwise everything is going well. I’ve just been trying Streetdirectory.com’s useful tool, for example, for arranging trips by public transport. I know I’m not in tiptop condition, but I was slightly unnerved by this step in the nine-step process of going from one part of the island to the other:

You need to walk to Simei Avenue – blk 3012, (Stop Number: 96101) which is 54250m away.
View: Map

By my calculations, that’s a more than 33 mile walk. And I thought Singapore was only 30 miles wide. No wonder everyone here looks fit. And slightly wet.

I think I might take a cab.

Streetdirectory.com Travel: All about Singapore – Travel, Hotels, Vacations

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Backing up hard to do, but worth it

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Sometimes it takes something like an earthquake to realize that you’re vulnerable.

Once the ground stops shaking and you’ve begun to sense that your life — and those of your loved one(s) — are not in imminent danger, your thoughts turn to the next most important thing in your world: Your data.

Well, of course, that may not be your exact train of thought, but it’s the general direction. So much of our lives are digital these days — e-mails, music, photos, social lives — the first thing we tend to clutch when we’re in trouble is our cell phone/laptop/external disk drive.

Or at least it should be. So what should you prepare for when things go wrong and you need to evacuate, pronto?

Here, in brief, is how to do it:

Whatever can be online, should be. E-mails, for example, should be on something like Google’s Gmail (or Yahoo!, who have launched a new e-mail service that’s at least as generous in terms of storage as Google’s.)

This doesn’t mean you can’t also keep your e-mails on your own computer, but make sure they are also online. Get in the habit of e-mailing important documents to yourself, as well, so you’ve got an extra copy online.

This means you can evacuate in a relaxed state of mind. Well, as relaxed as you can be fleeing a building that is burning/falling/swaying/no longer strictly speaking a building.

Same goes with photos: Get in the habit of uploading your favorite photos to an online photo album service like Flickr (www.flickr.com), because if there’s one thing you don’t want to lose it’s family snaps.

Sign up for the Pro edition if you’ve got the cash and a fast(ish) Internet connection, since at US$25 a year for unlimited storage it’s a reasonably cheap way of backing up.

Add photos incrementally: Just get into the habit of uploading photos to your Flickr account when you upload them from your camera/cellphone to the computer (I’m assuming you do this; you do do this, right?)

Of course, online options are only good if you’re online. And, tellingly, I’m not right now because there’s a problem with the Internet — and quite a big problem, since even my trusty backup connection is down — so you shouldn’t rely exclusively on connectivity.

(The other problem is that as more of us go digital, we can’t hope to store everything online, because there’s so much of it. Our iPods store 60 GB or more these days, which is still impractical to back up online.)

In which case you need to have a hard drive backup. There are several ways of doing this, but here’s the best one: Back up everything on all the PCs and laptops in your house to one big external drive the size of hardback book, which you can then grab as you exit the building in an orderly manner.

Here’s how to do that:

Maxtor offer a pretty reasonable range of backup hard drives — the cheapest are really just hard drives in a plastic casing (good to prevent damage: hard drives are not as tough as they pretend to be.)

Expect a whopping 500 gigabyte drive to cost you less than $200. Attach the drive to a USB port and you’ve now got a seriously large drive attached to your computer.

Then buy a program called Acronis True Image ($50 from here) and make a backup image of all the computers in your house.

(An image is a sort of snapshot of your computer. It’s faster than backing up individual files, but will still allow you to restore individual files or folders if you need to.)

It’s a little tricky to set up but you’ll get the hang of it, since you’re going to be backing up once a week. (Yes, you are.)

If you think this is too much for you and that the only data you really need to save are a few documents, then get a USB flash drive (those little sticks you can put on a key ring.)

Prices have fallen to the point where they’re a cheap option now for up to four gigabytes. I would recommend the SanDisk Cruzer micro, not only because they don’t have removable caps (which always get lost) but because they include software that make backing up important files easy. (Stick the drive in a USB slot and follow the instructions.)

A word of warning: Think hard about what data you’ve got and what you want to save. It’s easy to forget stuff hidden in an obscure folder.

Get into the habit of saving important files — whether they’re attachments, photos, spreadsheets or whatever — into the same folder. It’ll make finding them to back them up much easier and quicker.

Oh, and try not to wait until the building is swaying/filled with smoke/has moved down the street before actually doing the backing up.

Trust me: You can’t count on thinking as clearly as you might expect.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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Beginning of the End of TV as We Know It?

image
Noddy does a noddy shot (photo from five.tv)

The Guardian reports that Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director, has performed “noddy shots” on TV interviews that he did not personally conduct for his arts series Imagine.

Noddy shots, in case you don’t know, are those silly cutaways to the interviewer reacting, or not reacting, to the interviewee. In most cases they’re faked — recorded after the interview is over — although this is the first time I’ve heard someone allegedly reacting to someone he hasn’t even interviewed. This probably doesn’t represent a TV first, but it certainly marks the beginning of the end for a lot of hackneyed, silly and anachronistic TV stunts.

The Guardian quotes a BBC source as saying Yentob “often does not conduct all the interviews on Imagine – even though he appears nodding or reacting to them… [S]cenes featuring Mr Yentob reacting to some of the more peripheral figures and experts featured in his programmes were edited in even though he was not actually present. Editing work on the programme later gave the impression that he was present.”

Interestingly, the BBC source “robustly” defends the technique as standard:

“Everybody does it – it is a universal technique,” he said. “The important point is to ask – does this change the meaning of what you are doing and the answer is no it does not.

“If you had everybody who did interviews featured in them you would have have 11 or 12 people nodding at different times which is getting into the realms of the ludicrous. This is standard practice across the industry.”

Er, surely that’s not the point? Surely the point is that the interviewer is pretending to be somewhere he’s not? Surely the viewer is entitled to assume, from the shots of someone nodding/shaking head/looking skeptical/sympathetic/bored/aghast, that they’re actually in the room, presumably facing and listening the person they’re reacting to?

Another channel, Channel Five, the Guardian says. has already banned some of what it calls “rather hackneyed tricks” in its bulletins. Among these are the staged questions (sometimes called reverse questions), where the interviewer is filmed asking questions of the interviewee, usually to an empty chair long after the interviewee has left the building. The BBC Newsnight program has already banned introductory ‘walking shots’ in which a reporter and interviewee are shown walking before a cut to the interview.

I hate these shots too; they look so lame and you can’t help but ponder what they’re really saying when they’re walking along:

“So how much am I getting for this interview?”

“Fancy coming back to my place after this?”

“Please walk a bit more quickly. I’ve got to go record some noddies for 16 interviews I wasn’t there for.”

Frankly I also hate the shots of cameramen or photographers, called cutaways if I recall correctly, which are done to break between the subject — Putin, say — doing different things but not actually moving between them. Putin speaks at press conference and then cuts ribbon on new nuclear bomb shelter, say, would look weird, supposedly, if the viewer didn’t see something in between. So the hapless editor splices in some tape of a cameraman squinting into his camera. Pointless.

The serious point here is this: Sadly this is related to a serious decline in UK TV’s credibility. As such it represents a somewhat weak response; TV news needs to look deeper into its soul to find a way back. It might start with the wider changes wrought on the media by the Web and consider how it’s going to find a new role for itself.

Dropping noddies, fake or real, is a small step. But the biggest one is going to be going back to what was great (and is great, in shows like Newsnight) about TV journalism: well-researched, well-funded, well-shot, well-produced, fearless and ground-breaking stories about stuff we care about.

BBC’s Alan Yentob in ‘noddy’ controversy | Media | MediaGuardian.co.uk

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