Tag Archives: Christmas

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.

How to Abuse Social Media and Lose Friends

I’m sure they’re not the first to do this, but I really hate it: referral marketing.

SingTel, Singapore’s main phone operator, is encouraging Singaporeans to spam their friends via email, twitter, Facebook and SMS.

The sad thing is they’ll have to do this a lot to get anywhere. You get 1 point for every tweet post a day, and 1 point for every post on Facebook a day. If you get a friend to sign up for the program you get 10 points.

Get in the top five and you get to win a Macbook or an iPhone.

Given the top guy already has 742 referrals, I’m pretty sure that means someone is going to have to send out 7,420 tweets to get close. (The rules aren’t clear on this.)

As you can see, however, it’s appallingly popular. Ten in the past minute:

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Ugh. Any of my Facebook or twitter friends do it and they’re off my Christmas card list. 

And companies that don’t understand social media, who think it’s just another spamming channel, need to get a wake-up call. That’s you, Singtel.

Win an iPhone with SingTel Youth Buddies

Think Hard Before You Get Linked In

I’ve been trying to remove a contact on LinkedIn who proudly claims to be one of the best linked people on the planet. Why that’s a good thing I’m not sure, but I noticed I was getting LinkedIn spam—spam to my own email address, but coming via LinkedIn–from this person, so I tried to remove him

Turns out that it wasn’t enough. This morning I got an email from another guy claiming to be the best connected person on the planet (“(he is one of the most linked people in the world”) who said I had been referred to him by none other than the LinkedIn spammer guy I thought I’d removed eight months ago. He wrote:

If so, then please accept my connection request. Since I presently have over 8,900 first tier connections, I cannot send an invitation to you because I have exceeded my limit. Therefore, to connect with me and to benefit from the millions of total connections that I have, click here: [LINK DELETED] and enter my email address [EMAIL DELETED].

So what gives? How come someone I removed from my LinkedIn network is able to refer me to someone else who has somehow been able to get my email address despite not being my buddy, nor connected to a buddy of mine? I’m asking LinkedIn about this, but I also wanted to know what happened to the original spammer I’d deleted. Was he still in my system?

Turns out he is.

Removing a connection in LinkedIn is not, it turns out, the same as removing a contact. It seems to work like this (and I might be wrong, because the explanations on LinkedIn are contradictory.)

The FAQ says you remove a connection via the Remove Connections link:

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which takes you to a separate list:

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What you’ll notice about this list is that, unlike your Connections list, it’s not alphabetical. Well it is, in that you can jump straight to a letter (M, say) but within that list the contacts are not in sub-alphabetical order. A cynic would say this is an extra deterrent to connection-pruning, but I’m not a cynic so I won’t say that.

But you might notice this:

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Huh? Good that the connection won’t be notified that they’ve fallen off your Christmas card list, but how come they’ll still be on my list of contacts? And  how does it square with this other note, on the same page, that says:

Note that once this action is completed this individual will not be able to be added back as a connection.

So the person you’ve gone to all this trouble to remove will still be in your contact list—no way that I can see of removing them from there—but you can’t change your mind and then re-add them back as connection. You can, however, re-invite them, and, indeed, they will remain in your contact list as a constant reminder.

(Just out of interest, how do you re-invite someone to be a connection who didn’t know you’d banished them before? How do you explain that, exactly? “Sorry, I hated you before, but now I don’t hate you anymore?” Could be a good lyric in there.)

Confused? So am I? But here’s the kicker: Does the fact that he’s still in my contacts, and that he’s out there, apparently, recommending me to other LinkedIn spammers, mean I’m still in the LinkedIn spammer’s list of connections?

I suspect it does, because he’s still in my list of connections (but not in my Remove Connections list, if you’re still with me) and he’s still listed as 1st in my list of connections—meaning we still have a connection.

In other words, unless this is a glitch, it is impossible to remove a connection from LinkedIn once you’ve established one.

I’m going to ask LinkedIn to shed light on this. But if it’s true, it should give you pause for thought before you accept a connection via the otherwise useful service. It’s one thing to build one’s network. It’s another to find you have no control over that network—and who in that network might use the information you put there—once it’s built.

The Worm and Tide Turn

It’s funny how things have changed. Before the days of the web, if someone offered you something for free you’d be all grovelly and the offerer would be all haughty. Like watching those matrons jostling and bashing each other with handbags at the Christmas sales, the sales assistants standing by assessing their nails.

Now, at least online, we’re frustrated and angry if things don’t work out the way we like, even if we aren’t paying for it. When Facebook had the effrontery to start trying to make some money from us we all went ballistic, including moi. Of course, that was partly about privacy, and about ownership. We are gradually becoming aware that everything revolves around our desire to spend, and so, finally, the customer is king. Or at least our data is.

We are slowly waking up to the fact that everything that is pitched to us as a reward is actually a lure: a customer “loyalty” card (loyalty by whom to whom? The company to the consumer? I think not). And a freebie is often a pair of handcuffs in disguise: A free TV when you sign up for a 24 month contract? (Try saying no to the TV but yes to a 12 month contract instead.

The truth is that we are being increasingly mined for our proclivities, and in so doing are being swamped by a cornucopia of gifts in the hope that we’ll give up some of our secrets. The web is the purest version of this: Every Web 2.0 service that has been launched has been free, or, at least partly free. I can’t think of one genuine Web 2.0 (and I don’t mean the faux Web 2.0 offerings, which try to look and feel like Web 2.0 but, like 40-year old men wearing sneakers and jeans cut a little too trendily for their age, give themselves away easily.

Swamped by this pile of freebies, our time becomes the most precious commodity to us. We realise we are in the ascendant and can flit easily from one service to another because so many exist and because we have to reach quick decisions about whether any merit our attention. Given this, you’d think that Web 2.0 services would be really careful about that initial experience (what folk like HP call the OOTBE — the out of the box experience.)

But it’s not always so. One service I signed up for wouldn’t accept the first password it sent me; I had to reset it and then it worked (my message to their support team went unanswered.) A second, webAsyst, wouldn’t recognise its own CAPTCHA codes:

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it told me, only to admonish me:

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There are two lessons here.

Web 2.0 is about speed. The interface — large fonts, interesting colors, fast loading pages or AJAX — is all about matching the speed of our online lives. So these obstacles undermine those efforts. Get that first impression right, because we won’t hang around.

Web 2.0 is also about user friendliness. If something doesn’t work, give the user some options about how to fix it, and, if you can, concede that it may be your own poor coding at fault rather than the poor user. In the webAsyst case, all the usual rules are broken:

  • the CAPTCHA doesn’t work.
  • the error message doesn’t have an OK button or anything to indicate what I might do next.
  • there’s no way to refresh the CAPTCHA to give me a different set of numbers to try (yes I tried replacing the 0 with an O with the same result.)

The result? I don’t bother with webAsyst anymore and I smell a 40 year-old man struggling to look cool in a 20 year-old’s getup.

Google Talk as a Contact Database

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(This is a shorter version of a longer post at my sister blog, ten minut.es, which take a 10 minute look at new and old products, services and websites.)

One of the most undersung corners of the Google empire, in my view, is Google Talk, the search giant’s chat application (non Windows users can launch its gadget browser version.)

For one thing, it’s so uncluttered it makes every other chat application look like the aftermath of Christmas dinner. It’s smooth, fast and the sound quality is good. But what I think it’s best for are the features that aren’t really features. (Most of these won’t be useful if you don’t use Gmail.)

For example, searching for a contact’s email address is faster in GTalk than other applications I can find. Outlook is so slow it’s horrible and Google Desktop won’t really help you since the email address you’re looking for, if it appears at all, will be via an email address or something, even if you’ve set Google Desktop to index your contacts:

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Google Talk does this much better. So long as you’ve selected the Add people I communicate with often to my Friends List (Settings/General)

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GoogleTalk will add these names to its list, so that when you start typing their name in the search line their names will appear below, even if they’re not a Google Talk user:

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Move your mouse over one of the entries and their contact details will appear:

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Clicking on the email address (in blue) will either create a new message in Gmail or a new message in your default email client, depending on whether you’ve selected Open Gmail when I click on email links or not in your Settings:

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Now you have a quick way of scouring your contact book and creating emails. It’s possibly only marginally quicker than clicking on Compose Mail in Gmail, but I find Google Talk so fast it works well for me.

I feel Google could go further with this. What I’d love is if it could include in its search not just names but towns and other fields stored in your Gmail contact database. If I could quickly trawl through all my Gmail contacts for specific interests (who should I chat to about satellites and medical emergencies, for example) Google Talk would become a sort of first stop for organising my otherwise untamable contact list. (At the moment the best solution for this is my old favorite, PersonalBrain, which I’ve written about before.)

It’s not perfect, by any means. The built-in Chat within Gmail seems to have features that aren’t replicated in Google Talk, which would make this a better tool. Allowing you to include your AIM contacts inside Chat is one (unless I’m much mistaken this won’t work in Google Talk). The other is that when you add extra detail to your address book in Gmail — adding a photo, say — this information appears nicely inside the Gmail Chat:

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but not in Google Talk:

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I’d like to see Google improve on this.

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My Favorite Christmas Present


  My favorite Christmas present 
  Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

It’s been a quiet but happy Christmas and I must confess I actually bought this for myself, but I love it: a small wind-up radio/torch. There’s not much call for the torch around here, but I love the sound, the feel and the low carbon footprint this little gizmo brings. Can there be anything more satisfying than cranking a handle to listen to the radio?  Plus, there’s nothing quite like listening to BBC Radio 4 at breakfast.

The Skype Revolution Wears Thin

What’s going on over at Skype? The one thing that I felt was really useful with the service, apart from all the free chats, was their Skype In service, allowing you to have one phone number wherever you were. You could set it up to forward to any phone on the planet, or your Skype account, or to your Skype voicemail, and it worked great. Now it’s gone.

Well, not gone, but they’ve had to change some of their numbers. This is the message I just received from them:

We’re very sorry to tell you that we have to change your SkypeIn number. As some of you may know, we get SkypeIn numbers from a variety of telecoms suppliers. Unfortunately, we have to return some of the 0207 SkypeIn numbers to one of our suppliers of London numbers.

This means your number will stop working from December 20th 2007. We realise the inconvenience this will cause you, and sincerely apologise.

That’s less than a month away. How on earth can you go around the world telling every Tom, Dick and Auntie Phyllis you’ve ever given your “lifetime” number to that it’s changed in that time? And just before Christmas, to boot!

To soften the blow Skype have given people affected “a new SkypeIn number and voicemail – free for 12 months on us – to thank you for your patience and to help make the changeover as painless as possible for you.” 

Nice thought, and would help, except the voucher doesn’t work. At least not for me. Just keep getting an “invalid voucher” message. So more pain and delay. 

I still talk about the Skype Revolution, where ordinary Joes can suddenly increase their tech knowledge and stay in touch with people more easily than ever before, but I’m beginning to wonder whether it isn’t time for someone smarter, quicker and better organized to take over the revolution.

Update: I’ve heard from Merje Järv- Griffiths of Skype, who offers this extra information on the dropped numbers:

As you know, Skype obtains SkypeIn numbers from a variety of telecoms suppliers.  The London-based SkypeIn numbers in question came from one of these telecoms suppliers. We spent months in discussions with a telecoms supplier to see if we could keep the SkypeIn numbers we rented from them, confident that the issue could be resolved. Hence the somewhat late notice to our users — we never thought things would get this far, given the time and effort put into resolving the situation.

Unfortunately, we have to return some of our 0207 numbers so we’re asking our SkypeIn users who are affected to change their London-based SkypeIn number.

And if any of you are having the same problems I had in redeeming the voucher, try this.

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A Read/Write Web? Sometimes

Another good piece over at Read/WriteWeb about the coming shift to the browser as the only program you’ll need, when all applications come from online. But, frankly, they’re going to have to get a lot better before that happens.

I love, for example, Google Calendar, and have foolishly started relying on it. At least, until it stopped behaving more than 24 hours ago. All I get is the above portion of the calendar application, the rest a blank page. It is the holidays, of course, so a snowy-white canvas seems somehow apt, but actually I’m still busy with stuff, and organising my life gets more complicated around these times, not less. So losing access to my calendar, and those I share, is, frankly, a bummer.

The fact that Google hasn’t offered a real person to fix this problem for me — the automated email I get says “Due to the large volume of emails we receive, we may not be able to respond to your email personally. Please be assured, however, that we read all of the emails we receive, and we use your feedback to improve Calendar” — means that I am stuck. Probably for Christmas, now, probably for New Year too. If I forget to turn up to something between now and then, blame Google.

Emre Sokullu in his piece talks about how a Google Operating System being “such a small system, that the number of possible problems will be very limited.” I don’t know much about operating systems, but I know enough about what goes wrong on a computer to know that anything on a computer is not a small system, and that it will go wrong. (Look at the cellphone for example: Every person I talk to with a smart phone and their first complaint is about hanging and resetting.)

Google is playing with us when it gives us great tools but leaves us hanging when they don’t work. Of course, the tools are “free” so we shouldnt’ expect too much, and they’re always in Beta too, right, so we should know what we’re getting into. (Everything in Google is in beta except for search, just in case you thought your Gmail account was a real product.)

I, and you, should learn the harsh lesson here: Anything online is only accessible when you’re connected and the service is running. Anything offline is accessible so long as you have your computer and the program is working. I know which one I’ll stick with for now. Everything online? No thanks. Not until it’s cooked.

Loose Wire the Stocking Filler

Still looking for the perfect Christmas present? My publishers are offering a one-off three for two deal on the Loose Wire book. I know I’d say this because I wrote it, but readers really are saying that they are buying the book for relatives both already schooled in the art of technology, but also for those who, well, aren’t. So we really are reacting to customer requests to offer a kind of bulk family discount — one for junior, one for granny and one for mom. And, at least until Christmas, you can get free delivery in the US, UK, Singapore and Indonesia. Order them here.

Seasons’ PR Greetings

It’s that time of year: Lots of Christmas greetings messages from PR folk. I don’t want to sound like Scrooge, but I’m never quite clear why they bother with these things.

Nokia sent me a link to a flash message with lots of phones doing stuff and thanks for “my continued support for Nokia”. A nice sentiment, though I’ve never thought of what I do in those terms, and I suppose I’d much rather have an answer to my now six-week old request for Nokia to do something about the piles of angry comments left on my blog from customers in India. Some of them are poignant, like messages from the afterlife or some terribly tragedy being played out online.

Yesterday I got one from Veena Meksol, who from her IP address is writing from Bangalore, and writes “sir, pl give me nokia service centre in bangalore, my hand set is just 5 months old but from 2 days i am not able here,” and then the message ceases. Heaven knows what happened to Veena, but I’d happily sacrifice a Flash-based Christmas card or six if Nokia could track her down end her agony.

 My problem is that I can’t really distinguish between a PR greetings card and spam, especially when spammers’ subject fields look remarkably similar . Is there any difference? And what is the correct protocol when you receive one? PR turnover is so high, most of the names mean nothing to me, which is presumably why some of them attach photos to them. They’re all extraordinarily good-looking, I have to say:

 I’m just not sure I’ve actually met any of them, or even communicated with them. The problem then is that I feel guilty. I don’t want to be one of those hacks that treats flacks like, well, flacks. On the other hand, who sends Christmas cards with pictures of themselves looking, well, great, if not to lure the recipient into some sort of trap?

Anyway, I knew the season had hit a fresh low when I got a box from the PR of a certain company which contained a card (thanks, guys!) and, buried amid the packaging, a small box of chocolates from Norman Love. The mouthwatering blurb that accompanied the chocs was impressive — “Norman Love Confections welcomes you to your first step in a delectable journey into the world of fine, handsome chocolates,” it began. All this may well have been true — including the assertion that each of the six chocolates was “an edible work of art” — but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the chocolates had not weathered the 10,000 km trip from Silicon Valley to Indonesia that well.

Frankly, they looked as if someone had sat on them, half eaten each of them, spat them out, sat on them again and then sprinkled the contents of their computer keyboard over them before putting them carefully back in the box and retying the ribbon. Maybe that’s the message the PR company intended to convey? If so, I’m surprisingly cool with that.