Right Ears, Masked Passwords and Nail Printing

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I have actually been appearing on Radio Australia’s Breakfast Club pretty much every Friday—around 1.15 GMT–for the past year or so, but don’t always remember to post the links to the things I talk about (or intend to; there’s not always time).

Here’s to trying to remember to do it (and

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, now it’s available.)

  • Researchers in Italy have been going around nightlcubs in Chieti asking people for cigarettes. Turns out if you ask them in their right ear, you’re more likely to be successful. It’s called the right ear advantage (via the Daily Telegraph.)
  • Password masking is stupid, according to user interface expert Jakob Nielsen. Users make more errors when they can’t see what they’re typing, he says, and that makes them more likely to use overly simple ones. (Interestingly, one commenter on FriendFeed said the masking thing has less to do with fear of shoulder-surfing than of old CRT monitors, whose analog connections would give off radio noise which could be reconstituted with special equipment.)
  • Polaroid spin-off Zink has selected finalists for a competition to find novel ways to use its inkless printing (via Technology Review). My favorite: nail printing, via Singapore’s own Sonny Lim (above)
  • CEOs are media slackers, according to UberCEO.com. Most don’t have a twitter feed, a Facebook page or even a LinkedIn profile. Only Tom Glocer of Thomson Reuters seems to be doing well.  (via WIRED)

Customer Abuse in Exotic Locales, Part I

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HP have long been fighting a battle against refill cartridges, especially in my part of the world. But I think they’re going too far in this case — abusing customers and damaging their credibility and brand in the process.  

Recently I received spam in my inbox from the website www.hporiginalsupplies.com, in Indonesian, inviting me to the HP Original Supplies Zone, where it said I could receive information about original HP products. (The email said I had received it because I had participated in HP promotions before. The only way that they could have received that particular email address was through my official dealings with HP, when at no time do I recall giving permission to be spammed — which raises its own concerns.)

The email itself contained some links to HP.com but its images etc were mostly hosted on the hporiginalsupplies.com website. I could find no easy way of confirming this was a legit HP site — the website was registered by a local webhosting company called Master Web Network. So no way of telling there. And as you may have found if you clicked on the link, the home URL itself throws up only a blank page; only this one, for unsubscribing, seems to.

It took a while for the HP guys to figure it out too: They came back to me today to tell me it is legit. It’s a website for an “electronic direct mailer” or eDM for “the HP Original Rewards program in Indonesia…. HP Original Rewards is an HP loyalty program designed for Small and Medium Businesses (SMB) for the purchase of original HP print cartridges.”

To their credit, HP acknowledge that the “eDM doesn’t comply with HP’s brand standards” and have promised to do something about it. But that’s not really what troubles me. What troubles me is this:

  • Why is HP setting up website addresses with its brand name in without following the usual brand procedures — a way for consumers to check whether it is, indeed, an HP site through the usual methods.
  • Why is HP sending out spam, sorry, eDMs? OK, this is just Indonesia, but hey, we’re still people, right? I don’t like being spammed at any hour of the day by anyone, but especially not by a big player who doesn’t even bother to identify themselves properly.
  • What makes this worse is that we’re talking about HP trying to persuade people to buy non-fake, non-refilled disposables. But how would I know that isn’t a company pretending to sell legit goods? The malls and streets here are full of exactly that: HP boxes and containers full of goods that aren’t, or are no longer, legit HP products.

I can understand HP’s difficulties here. It must be hard to launch these kinds of promotions while keeping an eagle eye on agencies and promoters you may outsource the work to. But if you’re trying to get the message across to consumers that they should be buying your genuine products and not falling for fakes and knock-offs, you shouldn’t be spamming them from a domain that itself looks fake and dodgy.

You’ve Read the Column and Blog. Now Read the Book.

LwbI promise I’m not going to harp on too much about this, but today marks the moment when Loose Wire becomes not just a column and a blog (and an occasional podcast) but a book. LOOSE WIRE, A Personal Guide to Making Technology Work for You is now available for pre-ordering here.

The book is based around columns from the past six years, and is aimed at anyone who felt that, as the blurb says:

EVER GET THE FEELING that technology is taking over your life and not asking you first? When you’ve mislaid that important file or can’t connect your new camera, do you just want to hurl your computer out of the window? When your kids/friends/grandparents start talking about blogging, podcasting and RSS feeds do you nod as wisely as you can while wrestling with the urge to throw them out of the window too?

This is of course a bit excitment for me, because the columns have all been written with a vague idea in my mind that the world of technology could be sliced into thin enough pieces for anyone to digest. Now putting all those pieces back together in book form reveals a kind of pattern that surprised me. Not many surprises in there for the geeks among us, but those of you wanting an accessible guide you can read in the bath might find what you’re looking for.

The book is being launched on October 1 in Bali (where else?) at the Ubud Writers Festival which is playing a host to bunch of internationally acclaimed writers, i.e., people not like me. The launch party will be on October 1, 5.30 pm at Tutmak restaurant and café. If you’re around please do drop by. There will be drinks. I will also be appearing on a blogging panel the following day at 2 pm alongside (or probably slightly behind) Deepika Shetty [Singapore], Dina Zamen [Australia/Malaysia] and Sharon Bakar [Malaysia]. There will also be a launch later that week in Jakarta, and then maybe one later in the year in Hong Kong.

OK, no more plugs, I promise. Well, not too many.

Spark That Line

I’m a fan of sparklines, Ed Tufte’s graphical depiction within text of numerical data (it’s more exciting than I’ve made it sound). Here’s a couple of updates: First off, The Hardball Times is using them to show a month of scores of the major U.S. baseball teams:

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The bars are win (up) and loss (down). But also they’ve packed in a bit more information there: horizontal lines denote home games while gray bars represent games decided by two runs or less. You can see it better here:

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Nice work, guys. Meanwhile one of the best sparkline makers on the block, the Microsoft Office add-on SparkMaker from Nicholas Bissantz, is now into version 3.0. Sparklines will now update automatically when data in the original spreadsheet changes. The images are now scalable and more easily tweaked, and look better in print. Other tweaks are in there which I look forward to playing with.

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In short, sparklines are a great way to pack useful and yet otherwise boring looking information into a visual display that fits into, or alongside, ordinary text. One day it will be big. It deserves to be.

Book Launch Parties. Not Just For Authors

The NYT/IHT has a piece by Rachel Donadio on how the New York literary set is now eschewing book launch parties, apparently because they have belatedly realized they don’t actually create much of a buzz for books. No mention of the rise of print on demand, the e-book or successes like 37 Signals’ recent instant bestseller Getting Real.

But what I liked was the ‘Luvvie’ moment at the end, when Fran Lebowitz, veteran partygoer and writer, suggests that parties shouldn’t just be held for writers:

The line you hear most often today is that the book party is “just for the author.” And why not? “When you finish a book – not that I have a lot of experience finishing them – it’s such a Herculean effort that you feel that you deserve everything,” Lebowitz said. “It’s like coal mining. The only people I feel sorrier for are coal miners. And they never have parties; they sometimes don’t live through the day. But I’m sure if you ask them each day when they come out of the mine if they think they’d want people passing around canapés, they’d say yes.”

This raises all sorts of interesting issues. Beyond the wonderful image of a soot-blackened miner emerging from the gloom and looking forward to a beer and a soak being accosted by a waitress proffering a champagne flute and a platter of hors d’oeuvres. First couple of days it might be fun but it might wear off. I do like the idea though. What other professions might it work for? Car mechanics? (“I’m home, dear. Sorry abot the axle grease on the doorknob. Ooo! A surprise party? For moi? And foie gras!” Accountants, emerging from behind their computer screens to a tickertape parade celebrating their dizzying work on the Flubelstein Account? (“Drink up Johnson. We’ve got some dancing girls jumping out of an oversized ledger in the next cubicle.”) The possibilities are endless.

The Long Tail of the LongPen

Writer Margaret Atwood launched her LongPen invention over the weekend, allowing authors to sign books over the Internet. As CTV.ca, Canada’s CTV news reports, a technical glitch marred the LongPen’s first test:

Atwood and fans had to wait while the invention got some final adjustments. When it came back to life, she used the LongPen to sign a copy of her new book, The Tent, for Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury. While Atwood talked with Newton over a video linkup, the LongPen mirrored her hand motions and signed Newton’s book. She then signed books for her Canadian fans in Guelph, Ont., far across the Atlantic Ocean.

The idea here is a simple one: Atwood got sick of the demand of book tours, especially when she was being asked to be in more than one place at the same time. Finding that no device existed which allowed her to sign books without actually touring, she set up the Unotchit company in 2004. She hopes the LongPen can also “help authors sign books for readers in places not normally on promotion tours, such as small towns or countries.”

There’s been a lot of criticism about this. How dare an author sign by remote control? How can authors be close to their readers if they don’t even turn up for book tours? I only know a couple of famous authors, and my understanding is that book tours take up a ridiculous amount of time for very little actual purpose. Book signings are either crowded or empty, radio interviews inane and pointless, and all this saps the energy of the writer who would, presumably, be much happier back home penning their next tome.

The only problems I can see with this are if the gadget goes wrong and makes a mess on someone’s new book, or if the author mishears the intended dedication. I think on the whole it will add to the mystique. Who has ever met an author hero and found her/him to stand up to our expectations? Much better to be a hazy image on a screen and a disembodied pen scratching over a page of a proferred book. Plus it will, in theory, allow smaller booksellers to get a slice of the book-signing action, as well as authors with only a small but loyal audience to get a glimpse and a signature out of their heroes.

Novel Writing Online, And A Cartoonist Goes POD

Couple of interesting developments in the publishing world: first off, Techno-literary Blogger Writing Open Source Novel, which is pretty much self explanatory:

J Wynia, a web consultant, writer and geek is writing an open source novel called “Inheritance” and documenting the process on his web site as part of National Novel Writing Month. The event itself has participants writing a 50,000 word (approx 175 pages) novel during the month of November. Participation has grown from 21 people in 1999 to approximately 60,000 this year. J is using this year’s program as a platform for experimenting in alternatives to the traditional publishing methods for fiction using Creative Commons licensing, web publishing and print on demand publishing.

“The current model of book publishing is outdated. The more and more I thought about a system where writers are convinced by lottery-like promises of multi-million copy bestsellers, to beg and plead with New York publishing houses for approval, and the average author makes less money for the effort than the average convenience store clerk, I was convinced that there’s got to be a better way,” says J.

Hear, hear (PS, anyone interested in a book on a now obscure Southeast Asian expresident?).

Then there’s more movement in the growing print on demand world, with the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartoons, who has become the first top-rank cartoonist to publish a print-on-demand compilation of her work. Signe Wilkinson’s cartoons are syndicated to newspapers by the Washington Post Writers Group. They are available at multiple sites online including her own site, http://www.signetoons.com, and as part of the Cartoonist Group, http://www.cartoonistgroup.com. “One Nation, Under Surveillance” is published by the Cartoonist Group and is available through www.Lulu.com and many bookstores.

How To Trace The Source of a Hard Copy

Good piece by AP on a Electronic Frontier Foundation report saying that tracking codes in color laser printers have been cracked. The report points to dots embedded in Xerox’s color laser printers that appear on the printed page, which can then be traced back to particular printers:

By analyzing test pages printed out by supporters worldwide and by staffers at various FedEx Kinko’s locations, researchers found that some of the dots correspond to the printers’ serial numbers. Other dots refer to the date and time of the printing.

This is done, AP says, to foil currency counterfeiters, but could just as easily be used by governments to track down criminals or dissidents. This is not just the typewriter trick, where a document could be traced back to a particular typewriter, or make of typewriter, by quirks in the typeface and letter alignment. Although that is a part of it: by comparing two documents it is possible to conclude they are from the same printer, which would poleax a suspect accused of being behind a document just by printing something from their printer.

But although the article doesn’t mention it, I assume these tracking codes could also allow people to track down a suspect, by looking at the serial number and following the distribution of that printer. Unless the purchaser chose to cover his tracks, it shouldn’t be too hard to trace the printer through the country, town, retailer and credit card receipt. (With the time stamp included, it should be possible to track down the customer even if the end user is in a public printshop.) I’m guessing here, but it all seems plausible.

It’ll be interesting to see where EFF goes with this. Me? I’m no dissident but I’m not crazy about anyone being able to trace back what I print out.

 

Recycling Publishers’ Rejection Letters

I’ve been looking at Printing on Demand recently — more of which anon — and was pleased to see there’s now a way to recycle publishers’ rejection letters By Printing Them On Toilet Paper:

Now, authors whose work has met similar rejection are getting the chance to put it behind them and simultaneously start to get even — thanks to a website that lets them print their rejection letters onto rolls of customized toilet paper.

Lulu (www.lulu.com), a site that enables anyone to publish and sell their own book, eBook, calendar . . . and now toilet roll, without some lofty editor first having to grant permission, is offering the groundbreaking new service — at http://www.lulu.com/tp — to highlight that it does not reject any legal and decent material.