The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a column I wrote back in November. I’m repeating it here because of connections to astroturing in the HBGary/Anonymous case.)

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

Data, WikiLeaks and War

I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of the WikiLeaks thing. Nor am I going to look at the bigger implications for the balance of power between governed and governing, and between the U.S. and its allies and foes. Others have written much better than I can on these topics.

I want to look at what the cables tell us about the sorting, sifting and accessing of this information. In short, what does this tell us about how the world’s most powerful nation organized some of its most prized data?

To start, with, I want to revisit a conversation I had sitting in the garden of a Kabul pub called the Gandermack a few weeks back when it struck me: the biggest problem facing NATO in winning the war in Afghanistan is data.

I was talking to a buff security guy—very buff, in fact, as my female companions kept remarking—who was what might have once been a rare breed, but are now in big demand in Afghanistan. He was a former marine (I think), but was also a computer guy with an anthropology or sociology degree under his black belt somewhere. This guy knew his stuff.

And he was telling the NATO forces where they were going wrong: data management.

The problem, he explained, is not that there isn’t enough of it. It’s that there’s too much of it, and it’s not being shared in a useful way. Connections are not being made. Soldiers are drowning in intelligence.

All the allied forces in Afghanistan have their own data systems. But, I was told, there’s no system to make sense of it. Nor is there one to share it. So data collected by a garrison from one country in one part of the country is not accessible by any of the other 48 nations.

On the surface it seems this problem was fixed. In the wake of 9/11 U.S. departments were told to stop being so secretive. Which is why we got to WikiLeaks–one guy apparently able to access millions of classified documents from pretty much every corner of the planet. If he could do then so could thousands of other people. And, one would have to assume, so could more than a few people who weren’t supposed to have access. To give you an idea of the trove unearthed, WikiLeaks has released about 1,000 so far, meaning it’s going to take them nearly seven years to get all the cables out. Cable fatigue, anyone?

So, it would seem that the solution to the problem of not having enough pooled information is to just let anyone have it. But that, it turns out, isn’t enough. That’s because what we see from the WikiLeaks material is how old it looks.

I spent much of the early 1980s trawling through this kind of thing as a history student. Of course, they were all declassified documents going back to the 1950s, but the language was remarkably similar, the structure, the tone, the topics, the look and feel. A diplomatic cable in 2010 looks a lot like a cable from 50 years ago. In the meantime communication has gone from the telegraph to the fax to email to blogs to the iphone to twitter to Facebook.

This, to me, is the problem. It’s not that we’ve suddenly glimpsed inside another world: We would have seen a lot of this stuff at some point anyway, though it’s useful to see it earlier. Actually we can take some succour from the fact that diplomats seem to be doing a pretty good job of reporting on the countries they’re posted to. Journalists shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve relied on diplomats for a while. (And they might rightly feel somewhat aggrieved we now do this to them.)

No, the problem that WikiLeaks unearths is that the most powerful nation on earth doesn’t seem to have any better way of working with all this information than anyone else. Each cable has some header material—who it’s intended for, who it’s by, and when it was written. Then there’s a line called TAGS, which, in true U.S. bureaucratic style doesn’t actually mean tags but “Traffic Analysis by Geography and Subject”—a state department system to organize and manage the cables. Many are two letter country or regional tags—US, AF, PK etc—while others are four letter subject tags—from AADP for Automated Data Processing to PREL for external political relations, or SMIG for immigration related terms.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with this—the tag list is updated regularly (that last one seems to be in January 2008). You can filter a search by, say, a combination of countries, a subject tag and then what’s called a program tag, which always begins with K, such as KPAO for Public Affairs Office.

This is all very well, but it’s very dark ages. The trouble is, as my buff friend in the Kabul garden points out, there’s not much out there that’s better. A CIA or State Department analyst may use a computer to sift through the tags and other metadata, but that seems to be the only real difference between him and his Mum or Dad 50 years before.

My buff friend made a comparison with the political officer in today’s ISAF with a political officer (sometimes called an agent) back in the days of the British Raj. Back then the swashbuckling fella would ride a horse, sleep on the ground and know the Afghan hinterlands like the back of his hand, often riding alone, sipping tea with local chieftains to collect intelligence and use it to effect change (in this case meaning extend the already bulging British sphere of influence.) He would know the ins and outs of local tribal rivalries, who hated whom, etc. All of it stored in his head or in little notebooks.

His modern equivalent may actually have the same information, but it’ll be gleaned from the occasional photo opportunity, a squillion intelligence reports, all suitably tagged, and perhaps footage from a couple of drones. If the chieftain he’s interested in coopting straddles a regional command, chances are that he won’t be able to access anyone else’s information on him–assuming they have any.

In short, the problem in the military and diplomatic world is the same we’re facing in the open world. We have a lot more information than we can use—or keep track of—and it’s not necessarily making us any smarter. Computers haven’t helped us understand stuff better—they’ve just helped us collect, share, and lose more of it.

I must confess I’ve not made much progress on this myself. My main contribution is persuading a researcher friend to use a program called PersonalBrain, which helps you to join the dots between people, things, organisations, whatever you’re trying to figure out. It’s all manual though, which puts people off: What you mean I have to make the connections myself? Well, yes. Computers aren’t magic.

Yet. It’s clear to me that 10 years down the track, I hope, we’ll finally get that writing in prose, and then adding a hierarchy of labels to a document, is no longer the way to go. Instead, we’ll be writing into live forms that make connections as we write, annotate on the fly, draw spindly threads to other parts of our text, and make everything come to life. I will be able to pull into the document visuals, audio, other people, old records, chronologies, maps, and work with the data in three dimensions.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it sounds like science fiction, something like Minority Report. But it’s not; it’s a glimpse inside the mind of our imperial political agent; how he would make those connections because they were all in his head—neurons firing transmitters, axons alive, binding synapses.

If I were the U.S. government, I would take Cablegate as a wake up call. Not at the affrontery of this humiliation, but as a chance to rethink how its data is being gathered and made use of. Cablegate tells us that the world of the cable is over.

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

(This is a longer version of my syndicated newspaper column)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world?

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Lost in the Flow of The Digital Word

my weekly column as part of the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I wrote about the emergence of the digital book, and how, basically, we should get over our love affair with its physical ancestor and realize that, as with newspapers, rotary dial phones and reel-to-reel tape decks, the world has moved on. Digital rules, and ebooks now make more sense than papyrus.

Not everyone was happy. My bookseller friends won’t talk to me anymore, and don’t even mention my author ex-buddies. One person told me I was “brave” (I think he meant foolhardy) in saying something everyone else thought, but didn’t yet dare mention.

But the truth is that a lot of people have already moved on. Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardbacks. It’s just about to bring out a Kindle that will sell for about $130. When it hits $100—by Christmas, probably—it’s hard not to imagine everyone getting one in their stocking.

By the end of next year, you’ll be more likely to see people reading on a digital device than a print version. Airlines will hand them out at the beginning of the flight instead of newspapers, along with a warning during the security demonstration not to steal them. (I was on a flight the other day that reminded people it was a serious offence to steal the lifejackets. What kind of people take planes and then steal the one thing standing between them and a watery grave?)

But what interests me is the change in the pattern of reading that this is already engendering. (The ereading, not the theft of flotation devices.) I go to Afghanistan quite a bit and it’s common to see Kindles and Sony eBook Digital Book Readers in the airport lounge. Of course, for these guys—most of them contractors, aid workers or soldiers—the ereader makes a lot of sense.

There are indeed booksellers in Kabul but it’s not exactly a city for relaxed browsing, and lugging in three or four months’ worth of reading isn’t ideal—especially when you can slot all that into one device that weighs less than a hardback, and to which you can download books when you feel like it.

Those who use Kindles and similar devices say that they read a lot more, and really enjoy it. I believe them. But there’s more. Amazon now offers applications for the iPhone (and the iPad) as well as the Android phone and the BlackBerry. Download that and you’re good to go. 

The first response of friends to the idea of reading on a smart phone is: “too small. Won’t work.”

Until, of course, they try it. Then opposition seems to melt away. One of my Kabul colleagues, no spring chicken, reads all his books on his iPhone 4. When the Android app came out a few weeks ago I tried it on my Google Nexus One.

And that’s when I realized how different digital books are.

Not just from normal books. But from other digital content.

I look at it like this: Written content is platform agnostic. It doesn’t care what it’s written/displayed on. We’ll read something on a toilet wall if it’s compelling enough (and who doesn’t want to learn about first-hand experience of Shazza’s relaxed favor-granting policies?)

We knew this already. (The fact that content doesn’t care about what it’s on, not how Shazza spends her discretionary time.) We knew that paper is a great technology for printing on, but we knew it wasn’t the only one. We also knew the size of the area upon which the text is printed doesn’t matter too much either. From big notice boards to cereal packets to postage-stamps, we’ll read anything.

So it should come as no surprise that reading on a smartphone is no biggie. The important thing is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as flow: Do we lose ourselves in the reading? Do we tune out what is around us?

Surprisingly, we do. Usually, if I’m in a queue for anything I get antsy. I start comparing line lengths. I curse the people in front for being so slow, the guy behind me for sneezing all over my neck, the check-in staff for being so inept.

But then I whip out my phone and start reading a book and I’m lost. The shuffling, the sneezing, the incompetence are all forgotten, the noise reduced to a hum as I read away.

Now it’s not that I don’t read other stuff on my cellphone. I check my email, I read my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. But it’s not the same. A book is something to get absorbed in. And, if you’re enjoying the book, you will. That’s why we read them.

So it doesn’t really matter what the device is, so long as the content is good (and this is why talk of turning ebooks into interactive devices is hogwash. All-singing, all-dancing multimedia swipe and swoosh is not what flow is all about—and what books are all about.)

This is what differentiates book content from other kinds of digital content. We’re actually well primed to pick up the thread of reading from where we left off—how many times do you notice that you’re able to jump to the next unread paragraph of a book you put down the night before without any effort? Our brains are well-trained to jump back into the narrative threat a book offers.

There’s another thing at work here.

Previously we would only rarely have considered picking up a book to read for short bursts. But the cellphone naturally lends itself to that. You’ll see a few people in queues reading physical books, but the effort required is often a bit too much. It looks more defiantly bohemian than cozy. Not so with the phone, which is rarely far from our grasp.

This is one reason why friends report reading more with these devices. They may carve the process into smaller slices, but the flow remains intact.

And one more thing: The devices enable us to keep several books on the go at once. Just as we would listen to different music depending on our mood, time of day, etc, so with books we switch between fiction and non-fiction, humor, pathos, whatever. Only having a pile of books in your bag wasn’t quite as practical as having one by your bedside.

Now with ebooks that’s no longer an issue.

This is all very intriguing, and flies in the face of what we thought was happening to us in our digital new world: We thought attention spans were shrinking, that we weren’t reading as much as before, that we were slaves to our devices rather than the other way around.

I don’t believe it to be so. Sure, there are still phone zombies who don’t seem to be able to lift their gaze from their device, and respond to its call like a handmaiden to her mistress. But ebooks offer a different future: That we are able to conquer distraction with flow, absorb knowledge and wisdom in the most crowded, uncivilized of places, and, most importantly, enjoy the written word as much as our forebears did.

Praise be to Kindle. And the smart phone.

Breaking Out of Those Silos

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If you’re looking for the future of news, a pretty good example of it is at UK startup silobreaker, which isn’t a farm demolition service but a pretty cool news aggregation and visualization site. In other words, it lets you look at news in different ways. And it’s caught the attention of Microsoft, who today announced it had select the company for its Startup Accelerator program.

The website itself looks pretty normal on first glance–news on the left, three columns of stuff. But look closer. Four boxes on the right offer different sorts of information: a trends chart showing “media attention” (presumably the number of mentions in the news) of different Windows products:

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Another shows the relationships between Rio Tinto, other companies, topics and cities:

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And my favorite, a map showing all the places where things are happening in the news. Move your mouse over them and details will pop up in a small box:

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Drop down lists of topics along the top of the website allow you to select your area, and it’s a satisfying range to choose from. Open the terroism page, for example, and you get a bunch of stories on terrorism, as well a map of hotspots (already zoomed in on the Middle East and Central/South Asia), and a trend map showing how media interest in terrorism in Afghanistan has risen markedly in recent weeks against that of Iraq and the U.S. Who knows how accurate this stuff is, and where it comes from, but it’s still an interesting way to slice and dice the data:

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Not everything works quite as it’s supposed to but there’s still lots of quality in here, and it puts pretty much every other news site to shame. And it’s not even as if these elements are particularly new; I’ve long sung the praises of newsmaps and mindmaps as a way for online newspapers to get with the program, and it’s frankly been disappointing that so few have tried these things out.

How Technology Shrinks and Amplifies Distance

Two pieces in the NYT/IHT that weren’t about technology, but kind of are, illustrate how technology can shrink distance but also grow it.

First off a piece by Geoff D. Porteran analyst in the Middle East and Africa division of the Eurasia Group, explores how African would-be immigrants to Europe are now making their way to Europe via the Canary Islands, some 50 miles off the coast of Mauritania. Until technology came along, this was a very risky business: The Atlantic is big, and the Canaries are small, making it hard for sailors in small fishing boats to find them.

Still, chasing fish stocks is different from finding a small cluster of islands in the middle of the ocean. At least it was until battery-powered, handheld GPS units became widely available.

Over the past several years, GPS technology has become smaller, more user-friendly and – most importantly – cheaper. A simple unit costs little more than $100. And because GPS uses satellites, they work as well on Fifth Avenue as they do 50 miles off the coast of Mauritania.

With the new oceangoing canoes outfitted with handheld GPS units, the Canaries were no longer so far away nor so hard to find for the Africans.

Cheap GPS has shrunk the distance between Africa and Europe, perhaps not for the better if boats are still getting lost, and the illegal immigrants are simply caught and turned back. Perhaps it merely creates more business for snakeheads. But there’s no denying that GPS has become a tool of the masses, even in the developing world, and that that carries with it huge implications for the size of the world and the shrinking of distance.

But sometimes technology has the opposite effect. Another IHT piece, by author and diplomat Judith M. Heimann, explores how U.S. airmen shot down over Borneo in 1945 quickly learned the local Dayak language and helped turn the local people into a formidable guerrilla force. Ms. Heimann’s point is that those individual airmen who were isolated from their comrades learned Dayak faster, and stands in contrast to the soldier of today in Iraq or Afghanistan:

And now, as I read the newspapers, I cannot help noticing how in today’s unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers’ and leaders’ current lack of success in co-opting the local people contrasts with what was achieved by a small number of American airmen 60-odd years ago.

How come this difference? And what can we learn from it?

The difference may well be directly related to the number of soldiers involved. The airman who was the quickest to learn the local language and to become a competent survivor, was the one who was alone in a Dayak village for months before meeting up with any of the other Americans.

The slowest to become capable of helping themselves and being part of an effective anti-Japanese unit were those in the biggest group – four American flyers.

Think about it. When do you learn a new language most easily? When you have no choice.

Compare this with the gizmos every soldier today carries — communications devices, sustenance, translation gadgets, night vision goggles — and you realize that while such devices may sometimes save him, they also isolate him from the sort of contact with local people and culture that turned a disastrous flight over Borneo into a successful grassroots campaign against the Japanese. Here technology merely creates a gulf, a sort of shield where the soldier remains dependent on his devices and reduces the chances of building the kind of bonds those stranded airmen did with the headhunters of Borneo.

‘Guests’ can succeed where occupiers fail – International Herald Tribune

Why Is The Bush Campaign Website Blocked?

I know it’s not particularly new, but why is George W Bush’s website inaccessible outside the U.S.?

Netcraft reported last week that the site could not be reached except by users in North America. Even entering the numbered IP address appears to have been blocked. (GeorgeWBush.co.uk works fine, as does GeorgeWBush.org, but then they’re not exactly under Bush’s control.)

Netcraft’s Prettejohn is quoted by the BBC as speculating it could be an effort to ensure the website stays online during the last few days of the election campaign. But what about all the overseas voters? A Bush campaign spokesman is quoted as saying that it was done for security reasons.

To me what is lacking in coverage of this issue is the notion that the blocking may actually have an impact on the election. In 2000 Bush’s victory was certified only after overseas ballots were counted. Of course, many overseas Americans have already voted, but both parties are urging last-minute voters to fill in absentee ballots and fax them home.

AP reports that “The complicated issue of counting absentee ballots also added to the confusing array of new machines and new state voting regulations prompted by the debacle of the last race for the White House.” States, AP says, have “differing and confusing rules about deadlines for such ballots. Some states, for example, allow absentee votes to be counted days after the election, provided they are postmarked by Nov. 2. Others mandate that mailed ballots received after Election Day do not count.” On top of that, election officials in more than a dozen states missed the recommended deadline for mailing absentee ballots overseas, meaning soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan might not get them in time to vote.

In light of this looming absentee ballot issue, why would Bush’s campaign risk losing votes by closing down the site? One argument is they’re short of money, but I can’t believe that. Another is fear of too much traffic — but then add more servers. Fear of being brought down by a Denial Of Service (DDoS) attack? Makes sense — and it may have been sparked by any earlier outage blamed by some on such an attack. But with both candidates chasing every vote they can it just does not make sense to me.

If it was just blocking the DNS name (georgewbush.com) that would make sense. But why block the IP number too (not originally blocked; it seems to have happened later)? How many users are going to access the website that way? It seems to be a deliberate attempt to block every single overseas user. Which to me means they fear a DDoS attack. Another weird episode.