Ideas Are Things

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One guy I’m always inspired by is Jan Chipchase, who does more for Nokia’s credibility than any of their products. Here he observes how small things are more likely to spread more rapidly than big ones, making them closer relations to ideas than to things:

Today we’re comfortable with the rapid dissemination of information and ideas from one side of the globe to the other. What’s in Tokyo today can be in Tehran tomorrow and vice versa.

When physical things reach a certain size – being pocketable seems about right, their ability to be picked up and moved around increases considerably. All things being equal small objects much like ideas, travel further, travel faster. They are put into bags, pockets and inevitably are introduced to people in far off lands. And if those people in far off lands like and value them enough, the container ships follow.

Great idea, and reminds me of Negroponte’s bits and atoms shtick (sorry, meme.) Two points: Never underestimate the power of small things. People are much more likely to buy them than big ones, for the simple reason that they’re less expensive. Retailers from Body Shop to IKEA understand this, and make sure there’s lots of small things to buy in their shops so people feel they are part of the experience, even if they can’t actually afford the lifestyle itself. And of course, these little products, and the branded bags they come in, walk out of the shop and around with the customer (in places like Indonesia, the bags are recycled as prestige items in themselves.)

Second point: Jan sees all this stuff because he travels. He is the modern equivalent of the foreign correspondent; because now traditional media can’t afford them, it’s people like him whose trained and observant eye (and great camera work) captures the stuff the rest of us don’t see, either because we’re not there or because we’re not looking properly.

Jan Chipchase – Future Perfect: Further, Faster

The First Casualty

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The discovery of three suitcases of negatives belonging to Robert Capa has raised hopes that, once and for all, the authenticity of his famous photograph of a falling Spanish Replubican soldier will be settled. Some believe the photo was staged (Philip Knightley, in particular, has made it an article of faith), as this piece from Reuters highlights:

Still unknown, however, is whether the famed 1936 photograph of “The Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier at the moment a bullet strikes him down, is among those in the three battered cases, some now held together with black tape and known collectively as “the Mexican suitcase.”

Lingering questions about whether the picture might have been staged could be answered by the negatives, which are said to be in very good condition.

In fact, the truth behind this picture has already been established with some degree of certainty, and actually offers some salutory lessons we could still absorb in this New Media age.

Robert Whelan, Capa’s biographer, has written extensively of his search to authenticate the photo. His PBS version is here, in which he establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the photo is real; the man’s name, the place, and the way he died. But, intriguingly, some bits are left out of that account, perhaps for reasons of space, and appear only in this version [PDF], which I found on an Italian photographers’ website. (It seems to be a revised version of a piece Whelan wrote for Aperture magazine.)

It turns out the truth is somewhat murkier. There seems little doubt the man had been shot, and that he was dead when the photo was taken. The semi-closed position of his left hand suggests this, since anyone intentionally falling would reflexively open it to catch his fall):

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Whelan assembles other evidence to identify the place, the person and the actual incident.

The photo wasn’t staged, but the fact that the man was standing on the hillside, with Capa about to photograph him, was. Hansel Mieth, another Life photographer, wrote to Whelan that Capa and the soldiers had been “fooling around. We felt good. There was no shooting. They came running down the slope. I ran too and knipsed.” And although Capa denied to Mieth that he had asked them to stage the attack, he had “implied that he felt at least partially responsible for the man’s death – a feeling that he naturally did not wish to make public, and so he altered various details in his several accounts of the circumstances in which he had made his photograph.”

If shown in context with the other photographs in the batch, it’s clear that Capa had been asking them to stage certain manoeuvers for him to take photographs, and that their activities and shooting had attracted the attention of an enemy machine gun.

In some ways the photo must have been agony for Capa. On the one hand it became not only his most famous shot (even more famous than his Normandy landing shot) but also the defining icon of war. But the truth is that it was of a man standing still on a hillside in good humour, obliging a photographer, unaware he was in enemy sights.

So what are the lessons?

  • The truth matters. Some have suggested it doesn’t matter whether the photo was staged. It does. This kind of thinking has always confused me; when I investigated a story about Internet photographs of rape victims from the Indonesian riots in 1998, a lot of those hosting the alleged photos said it didn’t matter; what mattered, they said, was whether the rapes occurred. I couldn’t disagree more; what matters is whether the reader/viewer can be sure that what they’re seeing/reading is what it purports to be. This is even more important now with the Blurring of Branding, where we are as likely to get our information from individual-run blogs as we are from big media.
  • The truth is always murkier than we imagine it is. I would have thought Philip Knightley, who wrote The First Casualty about war correspondents, might have dug deeper on this, given the book has gone through countless revisions. Whelan’s work on Capa is by contrast a model of tireless investigation and I believe that he’s gotten as close to the truth of this photograph as we could hope to get.
  • Staging anything is dangerous. Capa may have felt partially responsible for his death although he may not have really been so. But anyone who has been in a situation where they’ve moved an ornament, asked someone to pose in a doorway, encouraged a guerrilla to check out the next hill against his better judgement, must know the feeling: any kind of interfering may lead to unforeseen consequences. The best, the only, course of action is never to interfere and never to suggest to a subject, whether as a journalist or photographer, to do anything they weren’t about to do anyway. Capa carried that burden for the rest of his short life. Any journalist, citizen or otherwise, must be aware of that.

The First Casualty

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The discovery of three suitcases of negatives belonging to Robert Capa has raised hopes that, once and for all, the authenticity of his famous photograph of a falling Spanish Replubican soldier will be settled. Some believe the photo was staged (Philip Knightley, in particular, has made it an article of faith), as this piece from Reuters highlights:

Still unknown, however, is whether the famed 1936 photograph of “The Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier at the moment a bullet strikes him down, is among those in the three battered cases, some now held together with black tape and known collectively as “the Mexican suitcase.”

Lingering questions about whether the picture might have been staged could be answered by the negatives, which are said to be in very good condition.

In fact, the truth behind this picture has already been established with some degree of certainty, and actually offers some salutory lessons we could still absorb in this New Media age.

Robert Whelan, Capa’s biographer, has written extensively of his search to authenticate the photo. His PBS version is here, in which he establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the photo is real; the man’s name, the place, and the way he died. But, intriguingly, some bits are left out of that account, perhaps for reasons of space, and appear only in this version [PDF], which I found on an Italian photographers’ website. (It seems to be a revised version of a piece Whelan wrote for Aperture magazine.)

It turns out the truth is somewhat murkier. There seems little doubt the man had been shot, and that he was dead when the photo was taken. The semi-closed position of his left hand suggests this, since anyone intentionally falling would reflexively open it to catch his fall):

image 

Whelan assembles other evidence to identify the place, the person and the actual incident.

The photo wasn’t staged, but the fact that the man was standing on the hillside, with Capa about to photograph him, was. Hansel Mieth, another Life photographer, wrote to Whelan that Capa and the soldiers had been “fooling around. We felt good. There was no shooting. They came running down the slope. I ran too and knipsed.” And although Capa denied to Mieth that he had asked them to stage the attack, he had “implied that he felt at least partially responsible for the man’s death – a feeling that he naturally did not wish to make public, and so he altered various details in his several accounts of the circumstances in which he had made his photograph.”

If shown in context with the other photographs in the batch, it’s clear that Capa had been asking them to stage certain manoeuvers for him to take photographs, and that their activities and shooting had attracted the attention of an enemy machine gun.

In some ways the photo must have been agony for Capa. On the one hand it became not only his most famous shot (even more famous than his Normandy landing shot) but also the defining icon of war. But the truth is that it was of a man standing still on a hillside in good humour, obliging a photographer, unaware he was in enemy sights.

So what are the lessons?

  • The truth matters. Some have suggested it doesn’t matter whether the photo was staged. It does. This kind of thinking has always confused me; when I investigated a story about Internet photographs of rape victims from the Indonesian riots in 1998, a lot of those hosting the alleged photos said it didn’t matter; what mattered, they said, was whether the rapes occurred. I couldn’t disagree more; what matters is whether the reader/viewer can be sure that what they’re seeing/reading is what it purports to be. This is even more important now with the Blurring of Branding, where we are as likely to get our information from individual-run blogs as we are from big media.
  • The truth is always murkier than we imagine it is. I would have thought Philip Knightley, who wrote The First Casualty about war correspondents, might have dug deeper on this, given the book has gone through countless revisions. Whelan’s work on Capa is by contrast a model of tireless investigation and I believe that he’s gotten as close to the truth of this photograph as we could hope to get.
  • Staging anything is dangerous. Capa may have felt partially responsible for his death although he may not have really been so. But anyone who has been in a situation where they’ve moved an ornament, asked someone to pose in a doorway, encouraged a guerrilla to check out the next hill against his better judgement, must know the feeling: any kind of interfering may lead to unforeseen consequences. The best, the only, course of action is never to interfere and never to suggest to a subject, whether as a journalist or photographer, to do anything they weren’t about to do anyway. Capa carried that burden for the rest of his short life. Any journalist, citizen or otherwise, must be aware of that.

We’re All Information Gatherers Now

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When we talk about the future of newspapers, the future of education, the future of media, and the future of learning we tend to ignore the most important aspect. We tend to focus on information delivery and not on the nature of information seeking. We think, somehow, that we still need to get the same kind of information to people, but just in a different way. But the bigger shift is how the Internet has changed what kind of information we’re looking for and how we go about finding it.

A British Library report on the future of libraries [PDF] hits the nail on the head:

Library users demand 24/7 access, instant gratification at a click, and are increasingly looking for “the answer” rather than for a particular format: a research monograph or a journal article for instance. So they scan, flick and “power browse” their way through digital content, developing new forms of online reading on the way that we do not yet fully understand (or, in many cases, even recognise.)

A page later, the report says:

In general terms, this new form of information seeking behaviour can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile and it is clear that these behaviours represent a serious challenges for traditional information providers, nurtured in a hardcopy paradigm and, in many respects, still tied to it.

 John Naughton at The Observer helps put this in context:

What Marshall McLuhan called ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’ – that universe of linear exposition, quiet contemplation, disciplined reading and study – is imploding, and we don’t know if what will replace it will be better or worse.

This is true, of course, not just of libraries and academia. It’s true of newspapers and pretty much any medium that delivers information. The Internet has forced us, encouraged us, to develop scanning techniques way beyond the simple quick-reading skills of old. Now if I’m looking for information on the Gutenberg Galaxy I can do so quickly on Wikipedia simply by selecting the words on the page, right-clicking and selecting Search Google for… in the pop-up menu. Time taken: 2 seconds. (Indeed, Naughton and The Guardian/Observer could be considered somewhat backward by not providing the link in the piece itself.)

This ability to secure, and appetite for, quick access to snippets information (what I guess we used to call “gobbets“) is part and parcel of the web and of the lives of those who spend any time on it. Why hunt for a dictionary if you can look it up on your cellphone/laptop/fridge display? The impact is still not properly understood or studied, however. If we satisfy our curiosity so easily, does our curiosity grow in all directions, both in breadth and depth, or does it flit from flower to flower like a bumble-bee in summer?

The British Library research seems to suggest the latter. Using words like horizontal, bouncing, checking, viewing, promiscuous, diverse and volatile seems to suggest we’re entering a world where people are fickle and their attention spans short. Once the initial curiosity is satisfied (“What the hell is a gobbet?”) the reader moves on, following the Serendipidity of the Hyperlink.

On the other hand, the word seems to suggest the readers have built-in safeguards against misinformation and inaccuracy. Our scanning skills are honed beyond merely being able to take in a page of information quickly. We — or most of us; Facebook seems to presenting a challenge, if all the gullible messages my friends send me are representative — are able to judge the source of information too, based on the layout, design and style of a web page and its contents.

This latter skill may be more important in the long run. Perhaps the shift is more about our understanding of what we need to know, and the time we can dedicate to knowing it, than to any shift in our attention span or ability to absorb deep columns of information.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, in fact, was bound to come to an end sometime. We simply have too much information to digest nowadays to be able, most of us, to take a leisurely stroll through the literature. And, frankly, in academic terms, much of the literature could be better and more tightly written. (I admit, I scanned the BT report and was mildly irritated it was a) in PDF format which slows digestion, b) didn’t conform to usual layouts and c) lacked an executive summary and conclusion).

If there wasn’t much information out there, and not much access to it, I would probably be quite happy dedicating my time to knowing a lot about Chaucer or the sex life of the fruitfly, and not much else. But the Internet has taught us a valuable lesson that we, as a race, seem to have forgotten: That there is so much stuff to learn out there we should be in a mad race to learn as much as we can about it as we can before we’re run over by a Sat Nav-dependent truck.

Perhaps our generation will be the last to be stupid enough to think we know enough as individuals to be smart (or conversely, happy to wallow in our specialist expertise and general ignorance). Future generations may look back at us and ask why we were so incurious about all the things in front of us we didn’t know anything about. Right now, I’d settle for knowing why the sky is blue, how many Grand Slam tournaments there are, what a grommet is and why there seem to be so many different types of plug to go on the end of a coaxial cable.

Thank God we’re at last beginning to learn the skills necessary to find that stuff out before breakfast.

Reading:

John Naughton: Thanks, Gutenberg – but we’re too pressed for time to read | Media | The Observer

Gutenberg and the changing nature of how we read and find information

‘Google Generation’ is a myth: pioneering research

Who Needs Enemies When You Have Facebook Friends?

It might be time to remove a) all your data and b) all third party apps from your Facebook profile. Here’s why.

Add a Facebook app — SuperPoke, all that kind of stuff — and you’re required to agree to “allow this application to…know who I am and access my information.” Disagree and you can’t install it.

Now this may be fine for you. But what the application doesn’t say is that the application is also now able to access the private data of your friends. To be clear about this, I’m not talking about friends who also agree to install the app; I’m talking about all your friends, period.

And most applications do access this data, without really needing to, according to research by the University of Virginia. In other words, by accepting someone’s friendship on Facebook, you’re agreeing to allow all the third party apps they install to access your private data.

What is private data? Well, think your name, your profile picture, your gender, your birthday, your hometown location…your current location…your political view, your activities, your interests…your relationship status, your dating interests, your relationship interests, your summer plans, your Facebook user network affiliations, your education history, your work history,…copies of photos in your Facebook Site photo albums…a list of user IDs mapped to your Facebook friends. (from Facebook’s Application Terms of Service, via Webware.)

This is not good. Especially when you consider that this data is stored, not on Facebook’s computers where you and they might be able to keep an eye on it, but on the computers of the third party apps. And this is where it gets tricky.

Facebook’s response to these revelations, detailed and explored by Chris Soghoian over at Webware, is that it’s basically up to us users to gauge whether a Facebook app is kosher and going to be careful with our data. But who are these third party developers?

I explored this a bit last November, when I tried to find out who was behind one app called ATTACK! I eventually was able to, but it wasn’t easy, and it definitely wasn’t just a question of visiting their homepage (they didn’t have one, although the developers have since posted a comment there saying they hadn’t had time to set one up, and have changed certain features. It still doesn’t have a link to any webpage that might give a user any insight about who is behind the app, though the developers do provide links to their Facebook pages.)

The points are twofold:

  • Our data is vulnerable to the weakest link in the chain, which will be a friend we’ve given full access to who installs every third party app there is. Do you know who all your friends are, and can you trust them not to install every app they come across?
  • We’re endangering our friends’ security by installing third party apps.

For me the bigger issue is this. Facebook is already facing investigation in the UK for making it too hard to delete one’s personal data. So, if these third party apps are storing our data without our knowledge on their own computers, what happens to that data if we decide to delete our private data from our Facebook account, or our Facebook account entirely? How do we know what is deleted and what isn’t?

Exclusive: The next Facebook privacy scandal | Webware : Cool Web apps for everyone

Poffertjes and Power

Continuing my search for a place to plug in and work at airports, I was pleasantly surprised to find that HSBC has laid out the red carpet for its Premier account holders, at least at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport. If you have one of their fancy accounts, anywhere in the world, you and your partner can partake of their lounge services.

It’s all a bit new, and, dare I say it, charmingly Indonesian: More people (three men watching one female doing the work) were involved in making my poffertjes (a Dutch batter treat popular in the former colony) than there were actual poffertjes:

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HSBC’s Poffertje-Making Team (4)

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HSBC Poffertjes (3)

But that’s not to say I wasn’t pathetically grateful. Food is never good at these kinds of places, so that the HSBC PMT (Poffertje-Making Team) took such care with my poffertjes was in itself a cause for celebration.

What impressed me, though, was that there was ample room there to work — several little cubicles, a couple of actual offices, and, blow me backwards, lots of power outlets — either in the walls, or in the floor. Like these, which pop up at the flick of a little switch. No Wi-Fi or anything, but you can’t have everything. Well done, HSBC.

20012008223

Bye Bye, Laptop?

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The day seems to be getting closer when we can do something that would seem to be pretty obvious: access our pocket-sized smartphone via a bigger screen, keyboard and a mouse. Celio Corp says it’s close.

Celio Corp have two products: their Mobile Companion (pictured above), a laptop like thing that includes an 8″ display, a full function keyboard, and a touchpad mouse. At 1 x 6 x 9 inches and weighing 2 lbs, the Mobile Companion promises over 8 hours of battery life and boots instantly. After loading a driver on your smartphone you can then access it via a USB cable or Bluetooth. (You can also charge the smartphone via the same USB connection.)

Uses? Well, you can say goodbye to coach cramp, where you’re unable to use a normal laptop. You can input data more easily than you might if you just had your smartphone with you. And, of course, you don’t need to bring your laptop.

The second product might be even better. The Smartphone Interface System is, from what I can work out, a small Bluetooth device that connects your smartphone, not to the Mobile Companion, but to a desktop computer, public display or a conference room projector  — these devices connect via a cable to the Interface, like this:

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The important bit about both products is that the Redfly software renders the smartphone data so it fits on the new display (this will be quite tricky, and, because it will carried via Bluetooth, would need quite a bit of compression. The maximum size of the output display is VGA, i.e. 800 x 480, so don’t expect stunning visuals, but it’ll be better than having all your colleagues crowding around your smartphone.)

The bad news? Redfly isn’t launched yet, and will for the time being be available only for Windows Mobile Devices. Oh, and according to UberGizmo, it will cost $500. The other thing is that you shouldn’t confuse “full function keyboard” with “full size keyboard”: this vidcap from PodTech.net gives you an idea of the actual size of the thing:

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this is the keyboard size relative to Celio CEO Kirt Bailey’s digits:

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Until I try the thing out and feel sure that the keyboard doesn’t make the same compromises as the Eee PC, I’d rather use my Stowaway keyboard.

For those of you looking for software to view your mobile device on your desktop computer, you might want to check out My Mobiler. It’s free software that purports to do exactly that for Windows Mobile users.

Pocket Lockets

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videocapture from myTreo.net

Here’s something that caught my eye from CES: D.A.V.E. from Seagate. Despite its awful name (it stands for Digital Audio Video Experience) it’s a great idea. It’s basically a small 60 GB external hard drive but it’s small (65 x 90 x 16 mm) and light (106 grams) and connects to a smart phone via WiFi or Bluetooth. The devices contain a USB port for uploading data (and presumably can use a wired connection from smartphones too, should the need arise.)

As Tadd Rosenfeld of myTreo.net puts it:

We believe DAVE is a game changer. With the introduction of 1 gigahertz smartphone processors (check back for our interview with Qualcomm about their new high end processors for Windows Mobile devices), and with the introduction of DAVE, smartphones are going to have have virtually all of the processing and storage capabilities of laptop and desktop computers. Smartphones will become simply one more way of accessing everything you have on your computers at work and home.

True, but it seems to be taking a bit longer to come out of the traps than earlier expected. ZDNet wrote a year agao that the devices should be available in May 2007. There’s no sign of that, and in fact it sounds as if Seagate is not selling them directly, merely selling the technology. And if weight and size are not too much of an issue, Singapore’s EDS Lab Pte Ltd has had a similar sort of product in the market for some time — the wi-Drive, which connects via WiFi (not Bluetooth) measures 112 x 77 x 22 mm, and weighs 230 grams. (I’m trying to get hold of one of these.)

Another option is the BluOnyx from LSI Corporation. Describing itself as a Mobile Content Server, the BluOnyx connects via Bluetooth, SD card, USB and Wifi and allows several people to access content at the same time. The device comes in lots of different colors, is about the size of a credit card and slightly thicker than a Razr (that would be about 85 x 57 mm x 10 mm). Given that the device was announced more than a year ago, and that the BluOnyx was created by Agere Systems, which was bought by LSI last year, the fate of the BluOnyx isn’t clear. Doesn’t look like you can buy one yet.

Most of the buzz seems to be around accessing multimedia content — basically turning your device into a sort of iPod, but with the weight elsewhere. I guess that would be the main usage, though I love the idea of being able to take all my databases with me and then access them from whatever device I want. But I can see why these products don’t necessarily fly: who wants an extra piece of hardware to lose in the bottom of a bag? And while extra storage would be nice, anything with Bluetooth in it is bound to be a hassle. And, surely, the day can’t be far off when our smartphone has 60GB of storage built in?

Love the idea, can see why the reality isn’t in all of our pockets. Yet.

60 GB of Treo Storage – Editorials

When Good Things Fail

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(Update at bottom of post)

I’m never quite sure what to do when something I’ve raved about in previous columns fails on me. Do I trumpet its failure to the world immediately? Do I go through the normal customer service channels to get it fixed, or do I raise hell with their PR to ensure it gets sorted out by the best and the brightest techies they’ve got available? Do I keep quiet, assuming it’s a one-off?

Here’s the latest mishap: My Olympus DS-20 digital recorder died. Just like that. No warning, no long walk in the rain, no circumferentially advantaged person sitting on it. One minute it was fine, the next it wasn’t. No power, no sign of a flicker, nothing. And I’d only had it for about 14 months. Barely used it, actually (was supposed to be for my Loose Wireless podcasting project,which, ironically enough, was about to start an hour after I discovered the thing didn’t work.) I had recently installed some rechargable batteries in it, approved by the manual.

The thing, well actually three things, are:

  • I’ve long sung Olympus’ praises in this field. This was the fourth Olympus I’ve had; so what happens if someone reads one of my columns or blogs saying how good they are, when it turns out they aren’t?
  • Now that it’s gone bad on me, it’s not enough for it to be fixed. How can I sing its praises even if it is fixed?
  • More importantly, how can I ever rely on it or anything like it again?
  • Besides, I can’t really afford to go buying digital recorders willynilly. Do I look like the kind of person who can?

So, I’m troubled. I’m doubly troubled that there’s no PR person that I can find online at Olympus who might be able to take a good look at this situation and see whether my problem is an easy one to fix (maybe I’m forgetting to do something like turn it on, or look at it from a certain angle) and whether this is something they’ve noted a lot of (I notice the DS-20 is no longer being sold. Why?)

So, for the moment I’m rescinding all recommendations for Olympus digital recorders until I sort this out. It’s not that I don’t think they’re great; it’s just that I can’t be sure whether what happened to me isn’t going to be happening to other people’s. Given that the recordings are stored in flash memory, this is not the sort of gadget you can afford to have die on you at key moments in your life.

In the meantime I’m going to try to find a PR person to offer some insight on this.

Update Jan 21 2008: Olympus tell me the mainboard has died on the device and it would cost me US$125 to have it replaced. Since it’s possible to buy a new one for less than $100 (here, for example) I’m going to decline the offer. I’m also seeking an investigation from Olympus as to why this might have happened. Things do break, and this sort of thing happens. But I’m concerned that this happened without me actually doing anything the manual said I could do, and before I write glowingly about Olympus digital recorders again or recommend them to friends, I’m hoping to get some insight about what happened and whether it’s likely to happen to other people.