Tag Archives: assistant

My War On ATM Spam and Other Annoyances

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(This is a copy of my weekly syndicated column)

You really don’t need to thank me, but I think you should know that for the past 10 years I’ve been fighting a lonely battle on your behalf. I’ve been taking on mighty corporations to rid the world of spam.

Not the spam you’re familiar with. Email spam is still around, it’s just not in your inbox, for the most part. Filters do a great job of keeping it out.

I’m talking about more serious things, like eye spam, cabin spam, hand spam,  counter spam and now, my most recent campaign, ATM spam.

Now there’s a possibility you might not have heard of these terms. Mainly because I made most of them up. But you’ll surely have experienced their nefarious effects.

Eye spam is when something is put in front of your face and you can’t escape from it. Like ads for other movies on DVDs or in cinemas that you can’t skip. Cabin spam is when flight attendants wake you from your post-prandial or takeoff slumber to remind you that you’re flying their airline, they hope you have a pleasant flight and there’s lots of duty free rubbish you wouldn’t otherwise consider buying wending its way down the aisle right now.

Then there’s hand-spam: handouts on sidewalks that you have to swerve into oncoming pedestrian traffic to avoid. Counter spam is when you buy something and the assistant tries to sell you something else as well. “Would you like a limited edition pickled Easter Bunny with radioactive ears with that?”

My rearguard action against this is to say “if it’s free. If it’s not, then you have given me pause for thought. Is my purchase really necessary, if you feel it necessary to offer me more? Is it a good deal for me? No, I think I’ll cancel the whole transaction, so you and your bosses may consider the time you’re costing me by trying to offload stuff on me I didn’t expressly ask for.” And then I walk out of the shop, shoeless, shirtless, or hungry, depending on what I was trying to buy, but with that warm feeling that comes from feeling that I stuck it to the man. Or one of his minions, anyway.

And now, ATM spam. In recent months I’ve noticed my bank will fire a message at me when I’m conducting my automated cash machine business offering some sort of credit card, or car, or complex derivative, I’m not sure what. I’ve noticed that this happens after I’ve ordered my cash, but that the cash won’t start churning inside the machine until I’ve responded to this spam message.

Only when I hit the “no” button does the machine start doing its thing. This drives me nuts because once I’ve entered the details of my ATM transaction I am usually reaching for my wallet ready to catch the notes before they fly around the vestibule or that suspicious looking granny at the next machine makes a grab for them. So to look back at the machine and see this dumb spam message sitting there and no cash irks me no end.

My short-term solution to this is to look deep into the CCTV lens and utter obscenities, but I have of late realized this may not improve my creditworthiness. Neither has it stopped the spam messages.

So I took it to the next person up the chain, a bank staff member standing nearby called Keith. “Not only is this deeply irritating,” I told him, “but it’s a security risk.” He nodded sagely. I suspect my reputation may have preceded me. I won a small victory against this particular bank a few years back when I confided in them that the message that appeared on the screen after customers log out of their Internet banking service—“You’ve logged out but you haven’t logged off”, accompanied by a picture of some palm trees and an ad for some holiday service—may confuse and alarm users rather than help them. Eventually the bank agreed to pull the ad.

So I was hoping a discreet word with Keith would do the trick. Is there no way, I said, for users to opt out of these messages? And I told him about my security fears, pointing discreetly to the elderly lady who was now wielding her Zimmer frame menacingly at the door. Keith, whose title, it turns out, is First Impression Officer, said he’d look into it.

So I’m hopeful I will have won another small battle on behalf of us consumers. Yes I know I may sound somewhat eccentric, but that’s what they want us to think. My rule of thumb is this: If you want to take up my time trying to sell me something because you know I can’t escape, then you should pay for it—the product or my time, take your pick.

Now, while I’ve got your attention, can I interest you in some of those Easter bunny things? They’re actually very good.

Disappointed, But Looking

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Back in early 1987 I was lured into a store on the Tottenham Court Road by a window display of computers. And I’ve been disappointed ever since.

Well, actually they were called Word Processors. Made by a company called Amstrad which to my ear sounded impressive, a railroad-meets-violin mix of Amtrak and Stradivarius.(I only found out later it’s short for Alan Michael Sugar Trading, which isn’t quite as impressive.)

Anyway, I was working on a history thesis at the time, and as I glanced in the window thought I saw the potential of a computer to help me. That in itself was smart. But my mistake was—and remains—the notion that somehow I could bend the computer to my will.

I can’t. And it won’t. Or rather, we users are always hostage to the guy who writes the software that runs on the computer. A computer has to compute something, after all, and it computes what the software tells it to.

I guess I didn’t realize this when I asked the guy in the shop to tell me what the Amstrad PCW8512 did. I was collecting historical data on Thailand and Vietnam in the 1960s at the time and my tutor had taught me the importance of getting things in the right chronological order. (Simple advice: You’d be amazed how many historians don’t bother with such niceties.)

So would the PCW8512 help me do that?

“It lets you write letters,” the assistant said.

That sounds good, I replied, but would it, for example, create a table that let me put in dates and big slices of text and sort them?

“It has 512 kilobytes of RAM,” he said. “And two floppy disk drives.”

I’ll take it, I said.

And I’ve been unhappy ever since.

This is the problem, you see. We don’t buy what we need, we buy what’s available. I couldn’t then, and I still can’t, get a computer to do the things I want to do, I have to do what it wants me to do.

Sometimes this is good. Sometimes we don’t have a clear idea of what we want to do. No one went around saying I’d love to be able to swish, pinch and shake my device but when the iPhone came along everyone decided that was what they wanted to do. Nobody said “I want a device a bit smaller than a drinks tray that mesmerizes me on the couch so I forget who I’m married to and to feed the kids”, but doubtless the iPad will dazzle both users and Wall Street.

But heaven help you if you have a specific problem you want your computer to fix.

I remember when, four years after my Amstrad experience, I decided to buy a computer running Windows. I clearly hadn’t learned my lesson. I asked the guy in the shop to show me how to organize the windows in a specific way and keep them that way for the next time I used the computer. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“It has a 20-megabyte hard-drive,” he said.

I’ll take it, I replied.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of great programs out there. I love PersonalBrain for finding connections between ideas, people and things, and Liquid Story Binder is great for writing books. Evernote is great for saving stuff. ConnectedText is useful as a sort of personal database with cross-referencing. But they are all someone else’s idea of how to work. Not mine.

They don’t say to me: Tell me how you work, and how you want to work, and I’ll make the computer do it for you.

I have a vision of a computer, for example, that will let me throw anything at it and it will know what to do with it. This has a date on it, and some key words I recognize, so it needs to be added to a chronology, unless it’s in the future in which case it’s probably for the calendar.

In my wildest dreams I imagine a computer that just lets me start drawing on the screen and the computer can figure out I’m drawing a table. That what I put in there is text, but also drawings, calculations, images. Software, in short, that does what I want it to do, rather than what it thinks I should do.

That, in short, was my mistake on the Tottenham Court Road. I thought that thing I saw in the window was an intelligence, a thing that make me more productive at how I was already working, or wanted to work,

Turns out I was wrong. Turns out it was just a souped-up typewriter. Turns out that unless we all become programmers, we’ll never actually bend computers to our will.

And, yes, 23 years on, I still haven’t found a program that lets me add, sort and filter chronologies easily. I’m still looking though. Disappointed, but looking.

The Size of the Future

(This is a guest post from a friend and long-time colleague, Robin Lubbock of WBUR, who will be contributing to Loose Wire Blog. You can read his blog, the Future of New(s), here.)

Why don’t you buy hard-back books? Either they are too expensive, or too big. They are too big to comfortably hold in one hand. So if you’re sitting in bed trying to read you’ve got to find a way to prop the thing up. Not a hurdle you can’t overcome. But an inconvenience.

Now think about the reader of the future. It’s the same issues. Size, readability, and cost. Any lessons you’ve learned from book reading, apply them to the electronic book and you’ll be imagining the electronic reader of the future.

So why hasn’t anyone made a good electronic book yet?

I was in Staples the other day and an assistant asked me what I wanted. I said “I want something about three or four times the size of an iPhone which I can use for browsing the Web when I’m in bed.” He said they had nothing like that, but he wanted one too.

So when I saw photos of a group of proposed readers in an article by John Markoff in the New York Times this weekend I thought my dream had come true.

But Markoff has a different view. He says he also used to think he was looking for a mid-sized reader for the Web. He went over some of the issues. But he reached the conclusion that although chip power means that you can’t get book performance out of a phone sized reader yet, people could be comfortable reading newspapers on a three-and-a-half-inch screen.

I took his implication to be that if people are happy with a small screen for reading newspapers and blogs, there will be no call for a mid-sized reader.

But I still want one. And I still believe the company that successfully develops a tool that has the same benefits as a novel, in usability, portability and ruggedness, will make a fortune.

Soccer 2.0

image 

Photo: The Offside

In Soccer 1.0 the manager is king. But an Israeli football team is experimenting with a sort of crowd-sourcing, wisdom-of-the-Kop type approach, where fans monitor the game online and suggest starting line-up, tactics and substitutions.

Reuters reports from Tel Aviv that “diehard football fan Moshe Hogeg was so upset when star striker Lionel Messi was left off Argentina’s side for a World Cup match against Germany last year that he teamed up with an online gaming company to buy a club where fans decide over the Internet who will play and in what position.” Hogeg’s company, an Israeli social network for sports fans called Web2sport, teamed up with online backgammon website Play65 to buy Hapoel Kiryat Shalom, a team in Israel’s third amateur division.

Fans log on to the team’s website and make suggestions and vote in poll which are monitored by an assistant to the coach. Ahead of the season’s opening match some 6,000 people tried to log on to make suggestions. The team lost 3-2 to Maccabi Ironi Or Yehuda in injury time.

Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t think crowd-sourcing is going to replace the genius of Wenger, Mourinho or Ferguson. On the other hand, as a Spurs fan, I certainly think manager Martin Jol could do with some help.

Press Release: The First Web 2.0 Football Club in the World

Protect Your Privacy With Twiglets

laplink

I really hate being asked for lots of private details just to download a product. In short: People shouldn’t have to register to try something out. An email address, yes, if absolutely necessary.

But better not: just let the person decide whether they like it. It’s the online equivalent of a salesperson shadowing you around the shop so closely that if you stop or turn around quickly they bump into you. (One assistant in Marks & Spencer the other day tailed me so closely I could smell his breath, which wasn’t pleasant, and then had the gall to signal to the cashier it was his commission when I did, without his help, choose something to buy.) I nearly put some Marks & Spencer Twiglets up his nose but that branch doesn’t sell them.

Anywhere, latest offender in this regard is Laplink, who ask for way too much personal information just to download trial versions of their products, including email address, full name, address, post code, company name. Then they do that annoying thing at the end of trying to trick you into letting them send you spam with the old Three Tick Boxes Only One of Which You Should Tick if You Don’t Want To End In Every Spammers List From Here To Kudus Trick:

laplink2

Rule of thumb there is to tick the third one in the row because it’s always the opposite of the other ones. As if we’re that stupid.

The other rule of thumb is never to put anything accurate in the fields they do require you to fill out. Not even your gender. Childish? Yes, maybe, but not half as childish as their not trusting you enough to decide whether you like the product on your own terms and not fill their spamming lists.

Of course the better rule of thumb is not to have anything to do with companies that employ such intrusiveness and trickery, but we’d never do anything then.

Technorati Tags: ,

Podcast: Online Shopping

From the BBC World Service World Business Report: Online shopping

Here’s an excerpt from the original WSJ.com piece (subscription only, I’m afraid):

Why does buying stuff online still look so similar to buying offline?

First, Web sites still use the whole browsing-shopping basket-checkout metaphor, an approach that even real world shops are trying to get away from. Then you have in-your-face promotions, top 10s, on-sale items, buy-two-get-one-free offers, which to me don’t sound that different to your average supermarket gimmicks. Amazon has made some steps forward, such as pointing out that purchasers who bought a certain product have also bought other products, and allowing users to search for text inside books. But these are hardly huge leaps. After all, couldn’t we look inside books in a bookstore, or ask an assistant for suggestions about similar books?

And for those looking for links, I mentioned Etsy in the piece; a couple of others worth checking out are Kaboodle and Wists.