Tag Archives: commentator

Radio Australia topics, Nov 7

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

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Follow football on your cellphone through vibrations: a team in Scandavia has come up with a way to convey movement of a ball via vibrations. This would allow folks wanting to follow a soccer game with the phone in their pocket, in theory.

This is how it would happen, as far as I can understand it: someone would watch a game and input data whenever the ball was kicked. This data would translate into vibrations—short if the ball is in midfield, longer and more insistent as it got nearer the goal. The researchers claim that users quickly figure out what is happening and can follow a game pretty well.

Reminds me of when I was a kid trying to follow a soccer match on a bad radio: You kind of guessed when things were getting exciting by the rise in crowd noise and the voice of the commentator.

Obama’s victory has quickly translated into an opportunity for bad guys. Sophos reports that 60% of malicious is Obama related, including what looks like a link to his acceptance speech, but which is in fact a trojan which, among other things, captures keystrokes and sends information back to the Ukraine. Obama-related malware has even been seen in the sponsored ads appearing on Google News.

EA has made another boo-boo: some copies of its Red Alert 3 CDs are missing a character on the serial number. “Try guessing the last character,” explained the support site until someone pointed out that this was dumb and encouraging amateur cracking.

Lost in translation: The continuing saga of Welsh being a language that non-speakers are never going to be able to guess at took another twist with a sign that, in English, reads  “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only,” but which in Welsh reads “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

I don’t think I need to explain more, except to say that the sign has been removed—apparently by the council that installed it. What Welsh truck drivers made of it has not been recorded.

Photo credit: BBC

An End to Profanity

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We all want to encourage our grandparents, children, and others of a sensitive disposition, to venture online. But not if they end up on a video-sharing web-site like YouTube, where the comments appear to have all been written by people in extreme emotional pain, or a Facebook group, where robust language is considered de rigeur.

And how about those online gaming sessions, where you can pit your Xbox skills against someone you’ve never met? What’s made this more fun in recent years is the advent of services that let you speak to the other people you’re playing with at the same time. Great, except for the fact you might find, in the words of one web-site, “the profanasaurus on the other end of the mike is a schoolboy still at the age where yelling random insults at strangers seems amusing.”

Technology, belatedly, is coming to the rescue. Microsoft—maker of the Xbox–has just received a patent for something called an “automatic censoring filter” that can remove undesirable speech in real-time. The undesired word or words would be made unintelligible or inaudible. Of course, many of us would be happy to apply this kind of technology in our daily lives, at home or in the office.

Which, to a certain extent, we can. If you use the popular but not overly popular Internet browser called Firefox, you can install an extra add-on which allows you to do your own web-page censoring. It’s quite simple, really: just choose the words you don’t want to encounter in your daily browsing, and when they appear on a page they’ll be replaced by a gap, or by words of your own choosing. (You can find more details here: http://is.gd/4m1L)

A comment on YouTube, for example, would now look something like this: hey you [charming expletive], why don’t you [charming expletive] my [charming expletive] you [charming expletive]. It’s not Shakespeare, but it won’t make Gran blush and you can still catch the writer’s drift.

All these ribald comments, however, may be a thing of the past. A cartoonist called Randall Munroe recently drew a comic strip in which someone writes a computer virus forcing people who leave sophomoric comments on YouTube to listen back to what they’ve written before they post it. Needless to say they realize how stupid they sound and stop. (You can find the comic strip here: http://xkcd.com/481/)

YouTube seem to have taken the idea to heart, and have now added a button below the box where you add your comments that says Audio Preview. Press it and a robotic voice will read back what you’ve typed in the box. (And yes, it will include any profanity you care to include.) The hope? People adding absurd and insulting comments may realize how puerile they sound before they hit the post button.

This is an excellent ruse, but I fear that those people who think vulgar language is a form of rapier wit are already lost. The battle would seem to be to try to help those who make poor choices in their online interactions only when under the influence of alcohol. These might involve impassioned declarations of love or hate for ex-partners, say, or recommendations to bosses about where they might put their staff assessments, that would never have been made in the cold hard light of day.

Technology can’t really save you from such poor choices, but it can throw up a few road blocks. A mobile phone service in Australia, for example, has introduced a service called Dialing Under the Influence which allows you to blacklist numbers you think you might feel the urge to call at some point during the evening when you’re not thinking as clearly as you should be.

Google has just introduced an online equivalent for their Gmail program called Goggles, that requires the sender to perform some simple math problems before sending any email to an ex or to your entire staff when you’re at your most vulnerable: late at night at weekends, for example. The thinking is that if you’re sober enough to be able to do the math, then probably your message is not going to get you into trouble. (Details here: http://is.gd/3D55)

All good helpful and public spirited stuff. Sad, though, that technology has now taken on the role of trying to save us from ourselves.

©2008 Loose Wire

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

Beware of The Away Message

By Jeremy Wagstaff

There are few things more exhilarating, I suspect, than being able to set your email account to respond with an automated message that says: “I’m on holiday. I won’t be answering your email for a while. I’m going on holiday to Barbados, and Bob Loser, my colleague, is covering for me, so call him on +1–723–7893–782. Have a nice day.”

This may feel good but it’s not always a good thing to do. Here’s why.

These auto-respond messages will be sent to anyone—anyone—that sends you an email. And that means spammers, scammers and other people who may not be your friends. Do you tell everyone in your neighborhood that you’re going away? Probably not. So why would you tell anyone who happens to send you an email?

Let’s take a real world example: A security expert I know found himself on the receiving end of a revenge attack by scammers he’d been trying to put out of business. To get payback they put his name and email address on a forged email that itself looked like a scam. The expert’s email in-box was deluged with bounce-backs—emails sent to addresses that don’t exist, or don’t exist anymore—and angry emails from those who believed he had suddenly switched sides and was now in the scamming game.

But what he also found was that he was receiving dozens, if not hundreds, of emails from addresses where the recipients have automated some sort of response informing the sender they’re out of the office. A lot of those auto-responses contained surprisingly personal information that would be very handy to someone somewhere: Who to call, where that person will be, when they’ll be back.

And not just that: the person’s full-name and workplace, details of injuries incurred that are keeping the person in question at home and companies notifying senders that the person in question no longer works there. In one case the auto-respond said the intended recipient of the email had been fired for misconduct.

So why is this a problem? Two words: social engineering. Social engineering is when a scammer uses our social habits to engineer a way past our defenses: calling up the overworked tech department, say, pretending to be a staff member who’s forgotten his password, or calling the switchboard to find out the boss’ birthday—a clue, perhaps, to her password— pretending to be a boyfriend.

In the case of the away message, all a bad guy would need to do is flood a company with emails, either guessing the email addresses, using a dictionary attack (where practically every word in the dictionary and English language is used) or else grabbing names from an online company directory. If a dozen people have auto-responds on, the information gained would be enough for a socially engineered attack on the company as a whole.

It needn’t be this sophisticated. If you send an auto-respond message saying you’re not going to be at work for the next few weeks, someone might decide that information is worth passing on to the local cat-burglar or someone at a rival company hoping to steal your customers.

Of course, this sort of lapse happens in the real world too, which should remind us how careless we tend to be. David Weinberger, a technology writer and consultant, pointed out on his blog recently that we’re quite happy about leaving signs on our hotel room door when we go out for the day:

“Often, on the back of a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign is a ‘Make Up My Room Now’ message of some sort,” he wrote.  “But, now matter how they phrase it, isn’t it the same as an “I’m Out, So This Would Be a Good to Rob Me, Especially If You Are Squeamish about Violence” sign?”

This is part of a bigger problem we’re all going to have to wrestle with. As we use online services like Facebook and twitter more and more—updating our friends with our moods, our location, our activities—our privacy is going to be compromised.

Some of us don’t mind this. It’s nice to share information with friends. But what we tend to forget is that, once digital, this information is more readily accessible, and movable, than it was before. Clever scammers—and not so clever—can piece together these bits of information to use against us in ways we have not yet fully thought through.

Take twitter, for example. It’s a great service: free, and designed to allow those of us who want to share with our friends what we’re doing, in 140 character bursts. It’s very popular: According to a web-site called TwitDir (twitdir.com) which lists all twitter users who allow their updates to be public, there are more than three million users.

And that’s the thing. The default setting—the way things are configured when you sign up—your tweets, as your updates are called, can be seen by anyone. Anyone can ‘follow’ you—meaning they can track all your updates, without asking you permission first.  In short, anyone on the Internet can, in theory, stalk you.

OK, now I know that I’ve said twitter is a good thing. It is. And so is Facebook. All these services allow us to connect with people—friends in real life, friends we know only online. But we need to be smart about how we use them.

If you use twitter, check to see who is ‘following’ you and if you don’t recognize them, challenge them or block them. The same goes for things like Facebook. Don’t just accept anyone who asks as your ‘friend’, and if you can’t bring yourself to say no, limit what they can see of your details. (The default on Plurk, another popular service in Asia, allows only your friends can see your updates.)

And, lastly, be smart about what you put online—whether it’s a twitter update, a Facebook moan about your boss or in your email auto-respond message. If you can’t decide where to draw the line, just think of the sleaziest person you know, and ask yourself: Do I feel happy sharing this information with them?

I leave it to you to decide whether to boycott the “Please make up room” signs on your hotel room door.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at loosewireblog.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

The Lucrative Loneliness of the Chinese

By Jeremy Wagstaff

At what point do social networks on the Internet start to supplant ones in real life?

Take China, for example. It’s a relatively big example, so it’s worth taking.

According to a recent article in Web in Travel, an online travel publication, China now has two generations of one-child families, and, in the words of Harry Hui, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo International, “one of the loneliest generations in the world.”

Of course, he’s saying this like it’s a good thing, because marketers love lonely people (they can sell them chocolate and other kinds of comfort food, for example.) But more interesting for me were the implications for technology as a kind of security blanket.

Here’s how it looks to Hui. “Within those born in the post-80s, there are 470 million and their world is very different. The Gang of Four is a thing of the past. The Cultural Revolution is an art movement. They are brought up by their grandparents because their parents were working. They live in one household, shaped by three generations.”

Hui paints a picture of young people isolated by a missing generation and an absence of siblings—and presumably a shortage of cousins. Unsurprisingly, then, they’re turning to social networks, where they gather friends they are likely to know only online: “Friendster has more virtual friends in China than anywhere else,” said Hui.

If this is true—I’m not quite clear how Hui came by this information—it would seem to paint a picture of a disoriented youth pressured to get on but without the usual support network of real-life friends to help them. He quotes a China Mobile survey which seems to confirm this over-dependence on technology: “The mobile phone is more important than boyfriends or girlfriends for 90% of the younger generation,” he says.

It’s not as if China is alone in embracing technology. Indonesians have become big users of cellphones—and mobile browsers, proving they’re not just using them to send text messages, but have leapfrogged the Western model by adopting the cellphone as their primary computer—and the Philippines has also become a massive user of Friendster.

But I suspect each example tells a slightly different story. Technology is moulded to the needs of people. Social networks fit the cultural requirements of a society. And societies are different. If people are stuck in traffic all day, then mobiles become more important, a la Indonesia. (You also see a lot of usage of SMS, because people need to communicate short bursts of information to one another when they have little control over the speed of their movements, so to speak.)

In China, I guess, what we’re seeing is a combination of this: a generation that is comfortable with the mobile phone but lacking the physical social network that their parents had. In this case, maybe social networking is fulfilling a slightly different need: online friendships aren’t just a continuation of real-world ties, but relationships that are created and defined online. That’s the relationship.

This will all grow and expand massively as our cellphones become more powerful, do more for us. Juniper Research last month predicted that the number of active users of mobile social networking sites is expected to rise from 54 million this year to nearly 730 million in 2013.

Most of that is going to be in north and Southeast Asia, but don’t forget India: that, Juniper says, will become the largest region for mobile dating services by 2010. I rest my case that every society bends technology to its will.

Marketing people are clearly waking up to all this. But so should we.

You can’t help wondering what happens next in a place like China. If a nation of single children marry and have one child themselves, who in turn grows up and has one child with another single-offspring person, at what point does technology move beyond just being a crutch to being the cultural gate itself, through which all friendships, romances and connections evolve?

In short, what happens when Facebook becomes not just a reflection of one’s world, but the world itself?

Yes, we mould technology to suit us, but we need to be alert to the possibility of the reverse: that it defines us.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

Curing the Inbox Twitch

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Sorry, say that again?

Research indicates we’re bad at recovering from interruption: In a study last year, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. As the Herald points out: People who check their email every five minutes waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.

Assuming you’re like me and don’t have any holidays, that’s more than 18 days a year of wondering what the hell you were working on before you opened that chain email about Sarah Palin’s collection of moose-fur slippers.

So how do you avoid this?

Well, I’ve talked before about keeping an empty inbox. That’s worth sticking to: It’s a lot easier to scan an inbox that’s nearly empty than one that’s full. (These are the kinds of profundities you get when you sign up for the Loose Wire column.)

But it’s even better not to scan the inbox at all. But I know this is not easy: I’m a compulsive email checker, and I really wish I wasn’t. What we’re really admitting, when we check our email—whether on a computer or a mobile phone—is that we’re not really in control of our lives.

We’re basically waiting for something: news, instruction, affirmation, confirmation, degradation, a sense of belonging, a distraction. Even a Dear John letter. Anything, basically, but what we have right in front of us. Anything than finishing off what we’re actually doing.

You’ll know this because on those rare occasions when you’re on a trip to the boondocks, and you have no phone signal, you’ll notice that the clouds haven’t darkened, the heavens haven’t opened, the sky, basically, hasn’t fallen. You’re still alive. The office still exists. You haven’t been fired. (And if you have, sorry about that. Maybe you should have checked your email more often. Just kidding.)

The other time you’ll notice that email absence isn’t necessarily fatal is when you’re working on something and you achieve that great moment of flow—when nothing can distract you and you’re on fire. Not literally of course; you’re just able to push aside all distractions and get on with what you’re doing.

This is why computers suck. They’re designed to be intrusive—to destroy flow. Your Microsoft Outlook has, as standard, a little icon that sits in the corner of your screen to inform you when an email arrives. This is basically the software’s way of telling you: “This computer is designed to help you work, but also to set your priorities for you. We know best. We know that a piece of spam we failed to identify as spam is more important to you than keeping your train of thought from coming off the rails.”

Well, this isn’t right. It doesn’t sound right, and it’s a sure sign that you haven’t figured out that YOU CAN DISABLE EMAIL NOTIFICATION. (See the little brown Outlook icon in the bottom right hand corner of your screen? Right click that and make sure that Show New Mail Desktop Alert doesn’t have a tick next to it.)

Now you won’t, or shouldn’t, get any more notifications of incoming emails. (If you’re not using Outlook you may have to hunt around to find out how to disable pop-up notifications. Thunderbird, for example, has its settings inside the Options/General tab.)

Of course, you still need to check your email. But unless you’re in a high-pressure job that demands to-the-second response times like air traffic control or running relatively large countries (in which case email overload is probably not going to be top of your list of irritating disruptions) you should be able to read your email when you feel like it, not when someone else does.

I, for example, recommend looking at your inbox not more frequently than every 15 minutes. It gives your hands a rest from the computer, and it yet it gives you enough time to pour your concentration into what you’re doing for a good stretch. If you can manage 30 minutes, go for it.

If your boss doesn’t feel you’re responding quickly enough, you may have to either tweak her or tweak the intervals between email checks.

The other way to limit email distraction is not to just respond to stuff. Cut down the emails you send and you’re less likely to get lots back. If you use a Blackberry, for example, don’t reply on the device unless you really have to; wait until you get back to the office.

Divide those incoming emails into those you need to, or can, respond to immediately without taking up lots of time. Those you can reasonably delegate, those you don’t need to respond to at all, and those you can respond to later. Only the last group needs to be dealt with later in the day; set aside time for that and do them all in one go. Then dash out the door.

Don’t copy everyone on your emails, and try to discourage your colleagues from doing so. It’s lazy practice and wastes everyone’s time. Send an email only to those people who really need to read it, and don’t think you’re being smart by forwarding stuff to other people as way of cutting down your workload. Never happens. It’ll always come back to you.

Emails, of course, aren’t the only distraction. Nowadays we tend to allow our personal life into our work life: web mail (Yahoo, Gmail, MSN) and even instant messaging services such as Skype. Facebook and social networks are one vast attention distorter. We managed quite well without them a couple of years ago; now we physically wilt if we can’t see what item Paul has stuck on his head today.

Now there’s nothing wrong with these things, well not too much, but they break up your concentration as badly as email. So don’t let them. Don’t have Facebook or web-mail accounts open in your browser when you work—not least because Facebook now includes a chat feature which lets your friends see you’re online and logged in and will almost certainly ping you for a chat.

Set aside time to do your personal email and Facebooking but make sure that it’s only a few times a day; anything more frequent and you’ll be as distracted as those highly caffeinated laptop users in Starbucks who kid themselves they’re working.

(The other modern distraction are status update services like Twitter. These are real productivity killers. They’re great for staying in touch with people, and feeling connected, but once again, set boundaries for yourself.)

If you have any say about how your organisation is run, consider proposing some alternatives to email. Wikis are a great way to move non-urgent information around. Instead of sending everyone an email about how the entertainment committee are considering a suggestion that toilets be fitted out with ambient lighting to improve bowel movement, put it on a department wiki, so employees can check it themselves from time to time. Not everyone needs to know right here right now.

In short, the smaller your inbox and the smaller your colleagues’ inboxes, the less distracted you’ll be. And hey, I didn’t check my inbox once writing this. God knows what has happened in the meantime. Better check.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

Scaling Business Card Mountain

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One day everyone will be beaming/Bluetoothing their business cards to people, or sending them via email as soon as they get home from the Taiwanese Horticulture Convention. But for now we’re stuck with mountains of them on our desk, waiting for that moment that never comes when we might actually do something about them.

I’ve seen a lot of solutions to this problem, and none of them work particularly well. The most common seems to be the ‘Farm It Out to Your Assistant’ routine, which works well if you’ve got an assistant, but doesn’t really help him very much, since he’s going to have to type all those details in somewhere.

I’ve recommended before investing in a scanner, and that’s still a good option. Fujitsu’s ScanSnap lets you scan bundles of about 10 cards in one go, and does a pretty fair job of converting the images to text—what’s called optical character recognition, or OCR.

From there it’s a small step to moving the resulting files into Outlook, or whatever program you use to store these things.

But this still means you’re stuck with waiting until you get back from the convention or kayaking expedition, or wherever it was you gathered the small pile of business cards. By then you’ve forgotten who these people are, or you’re too tired to do anything about filing them away. Soon another convention comes along and the pile builds up.

Your network is rotting before your eyes.

This is made even more absurd by the fact that actually online networks, both for business and pleasure, are blooming. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, Plaxo, all operate for the sole purpose of making your network of friends and business contacts more efficient.

But name cards seem to still operate in a analog world of their own.

Here’s how I get around this problem. It’s not perfect, but it saves time and means that the leads and contacts you make are strengthened and you can find all the details you need when you need them.

First off, make sure you get a card or a name from the person. If they don’t have one, which often happens, see whether they’re up to sending you their business card digitally. Most phones nowadays make this relatively easy.

Nokia, for example, let you send a ‘business card’ to other users via either SMS text message, multimedia (MMS, a kind of email), Bluetooth or infrared. Be prepared by making sure that you have your own contacts in the phone, along with (preferably) a photo, your business title and address—all the things you’d hope would be on a business card.

(The photo is a good way of reminding other people who you are. I’m sure you’re a very memorable person and the life and soul of every party, but it’s worth hammering home the point. This photo will eventually sit on their phone and in their contacts program, so make sure it’s a good one.)

Be ready to beam these details to someone else—find the contact, select options and then send business card—and help the other person find theirs if they don’t already know how.

Chances are, however, the other person won’t be up to doing this, so just make sure you’ve got their name right, give them your card and ask them to email their details to you.

Chances are they’ll forget, so when you get back to your computer Google them (or look them up on sites like LinkedIn, or Zoominfo, or Wink.) Grab that data and make your own Outlook entry (a great tool to make this easier is Anagram—getanagram.com—which is smart enough to fill out the fields in a contact file automatically.)

If this person is on LinkedIn etc, connect to them that way to reinforce the link and to make sure that their contact details are automatically updated to your database. (More on this in a future column.)

If they do have a name card, as soon as you get back to your room, into a cab, or somewhere you can sit down, get out your cellphone and take a photo of it. Change the camera settings to close up and make sure it’s in focus (the camera usually beeps when it’s in focus.)

It’s possible, you see, to send that photo to a service which will automatically scan the name card, convert it to text (and to a standard business card format called VCF) and email it back to you all ready to go into your Outlook or other contact database. It’s also free. (The scans will also be saved online, should you ever need them.)

The service is called scanR (scanr.com) and works with most types of phone. And it works well. This means you’re scanning the name card almost as soon as you’ve received it, meaning there’s a much higher chance you’ll remember the guy—especially if you add a few notes to the contact details (“Met at party where he was wearing hostess on his head” or somesuch.)

There’s an even faster way of doing this. If you have an account at Plaxo, a networking and contacts backup service, you can tell scanR to automatically send business cards to your Plaxo account. If your Plaxo account is synchronizing with your Outlook address book  then that’s all you need to do. Once scanned with the phone, that contact wends its way back to your address book without you having to do anything.

It may seem a long way around but until we’ve ditched this charmingly antiquated little custom from our business world, I’d suggest that it’s the easiest way to avoid Business Card Mountain.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

Ritual: The Forgotten Sweet Spot of Old Media

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Lifehacker just pointed to a four-year old entry on how to fold a newspaper:

Real Simple magazine has an old but good step-by-step guide to folding an unwieldy broadsheet newspaper for easy reading on the go. It’s really just a matter of a few well placed folds, but if you don’t already have a good folding strategy, this post is a great starting point. On the other hand, if you’re a newspaper-folding pro and your methods differ from Real Simple’s guide, let’s hear all about how you make it work in the comments.

Of course, my first reaction was the same as some of the commenters: “What?? Next we’ll be taught how to blow our nose!” But actually it’s quite informative, and I notice that it’s exactly how my dad would read the paper.

Of course, he never taught me how to do that, and I’ll probably never need to teach my kids how to do it. “Fold a newspaper? Are you insane, Dad?” Instead, they’ll be reading on their Readius:

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And that’s the point: My use of the newspaper is bound up in my memory of my father reading the newspaper. We as children mimic adults, so it was a sign of maturity for me to read the newspaper—or rather, for me to master the newspaper. That didn’t mean just reading it, but handling it—folding it, creasing it, carrying it under my arm, swishing it in the air when I turned a page, tut-tutting at the goings-on of the world.

Another moment yesterday elicited the same thought: Banished to the kitchen I was listening to the Wimbledon Men’s Final on the radio while my wife watched it on the TV. Of course, it’s vastly preferable to watch it rather than listen to it, but still the atmosphere created by the commentator on the radio was so powerful, his descriptions so flawless and compelling, that I found myself preferring it to the easy visuals of the TV.

What’s more, it took me back to those schooldays clustered around the radio listening to the second-half commentary of soccer matches on Saturday afternoon, or, radio under pillow after lights-out with the volume on 1, following an evening UEFA Cup tie between my team and some exotic-sounding team from behind the Iron Curtain. It was so magical, so dramatic, the inflexions of the commentator so perfect, I am forever transported back to those moments whenever I hear sport being described in real time on radio.

Of course my wife thought me absurd for prefering audio over visual. And I readily accept it is. But it’s like newspapers: beyond the obvious argument that some formats trump others in certain situations (newspapers over computers in the bath; cellphones over newspapers on crowded transport), there’s also the fact that we connect emotionally to the formats, not just because of habit, but because they evoke deeper feelings—to the past, to familiarity, to a sense of habit and ritual.

Most debates about newspapers nowadays are about when they’ll die out. I don’t believe this will happen, because they represent a format that still trumps others in certain situations. But beyond the practical there’s an emotional element too, and perhaps the challenge of ‘old’ media is to capture some of these emotional connections—newspapers strewn around in Starbucks, free, throwaway radios for listening to commentary at big games—in order to inject fresh life into the medium.

After all, it’s not just about reading yourself up-to-date. It’s about the physical pleasure of reading, of feeling at peace and in the security of a familiar habit.

Reading: How to Fold a Broadsheet Newspaper

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Songs for Suits

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Things are never so weird they can’t get weirder. Techdirt posts on a legal firm’s corporate song “Everyone’s a Winner at Nixon Peabody” which really has to be heard to be believed. I don’t guarantee it’s a pleasant experience, but it’s the only way to know just how low companies can go to get their staff feeling good about themselves.

But I frankly had no idea how many of these things there are out there. Techdirt links to a sadly now obsolete list of the best from ZDNet. And there’s hardly a big company that doesn’t seem to have one. Some companies trumpet them loudly to the world, with songs, lyrics, videos and sheet music (it would have to be a quiet weekend for someone to get out the Wurlitzer and start playing corporate songs, I suspect.)

Here’s one from Henkel (“And the story of success/Is based on more instead of less”). This was in 2005 named the best corporate song in the world by the Stevie Awards. (I can’t believe I missed that; I’ve not been following the Stevies as closely as I should.) The press release accompanying this dizzying victory quotes Ernst Primosch, Vice President Corporate Communications of the Henkel Group as saying “This confirms once more that we are on the right path with our ‘One! Henkel’ strategy.” It does, Ernst, it does.

Malaysia seems to be particularly keen on them, if these are anything to go by from DRB-HICOM, Penang Development Corporation, Park May Berhad and Kuching North City Hall.

So how do you go about writing and recording your own corporate song? Well, RedBalloon Days, an Australian website is offering a day in the studio for A$6,600 along with professional musicians and writers (you can only imagine what these pros must be thinking about their careers as they try to come up with words to rhyme with Peabody or Henkel.)

Of course, it can backfire. Shell wrote a corporate song that was so bad it was awarded “Company Song So Awful I Was Positive It Was a Spoof” by my BBC Business Daily commentator colleague Lucy Kellaway. She kept a copy of it here (yes, it is to the tune of “We Are the World”.) Lyrics here:

WE ARE THE BEST
WE ARE ALL WINNERS
WE ARE THE ONE’S WHO HAVE MADE THE CHANGE
WE’VE GROWN THE BUSINESS

You gotta love it. But not everyone does. Greenpeace’s blog said the song had become a laughing stock as it was emailed around the world. And Nixon Peabody seem none too happy their song has found its way into the public domain: They have apparently pulled the YouTube version and are apparently trying to get the MP3 file removed from Abovethelaw.com, where it was originally outed.

Which is a shame. This sort of thing, painful as it is, needs to be heard.

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Conflicts of Interest, And The Search for Truth

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has an interesting post about conflicts of interest, bounced off a comment by Jason Calacanis who quoted a rumor he had heard that it was possible to “buy a review at TechCrunch”. (In other words, pay money to get a positive review on the website).

There are some good points in here, and in the comments, so let’s go through them. I’m sorry if this is overlong. The issue is close to my heart.

First off, I think Michael misunderstands when he assumes Jason’s quote “just the appearance of impropriety is impropriety” means “when it comes to your reputation, an accusation is all it takes to ruin it, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.” That’s not my understanding of the term, and I think this where the root of blogging/journalism problems currently lie. (I don’t know either of these two gents personally, so I’m just basing my comments on Michael’s account.) The appearance of impropriety, in my view, means when the person in question may be seen to be doing something improper, whether or not they are. Example: taking a ride on a corporate jet to Barbados of a company you cover for your paper. Maybe it’s a freebie with a holiday tagged on the end. Maybe it’s the only way you can interview the CEO because he’s too busy and you’re stuck in Barbados in your suit waiting for a flight back. But it may appear improper to readers, who wonder whether you’re going to be unduly influenced by the high life, so you probably don’t want to do it. Or you insist you pay for the ticket yourself. Or you take your own flight to Barbados and stay in a separate hotel. The appearance of impropriety is important. You as a reader want to be sure your journalist/blogger understands this important concept.

Actually, Michael does get it, as he writes “I want to state quite clearly that I have never taken a payment for a review and never will. Sure I’ve been offered money for a review a couple of times. But it would be completely unethical for me to take it. I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that. Companies that have offered to pay me have never been written about on TechCrunch.” In fact, Michael might consider actually naming these companies if they don’t back off quickly, to warn readers that they may be trying the same stunt with less ethical bloggers.

Then Michael explores the idea, put forward in the chat by Steve Gillmor, that “we all have conflicts, there is no such thing as objectivity.” Michael agrees. I don’t, and this is where I get worried. He uses examples from NYT, allegedly running a puff piece about a company because its CEO is allegedly influential within the NYT, and an AOL blogger who writes glowingly about an AOL which I won’t repeat here, because I don’t know about them, but he concludes that neither case is unethical: “I personally don’t think either of these cases are unethical. Because I know that human interaction drives all of this stuff, I know to factor that in when I read stuff.”

Ouch. This cannot stand uncontested. If true, the first case is highly unethical. The second, if true and if the writer pretends to be an objective commentator and doesn’t declare his connections to the company he’s writing about, is definitely so. Wherever there is a conflict of interest, ethics rears its ugly head. If the conflict of interest is not resolved — the writers not recusing themselves from writing about the subject, or not declaring their interest and consequent lack of objectivity, it’s unethical.

Then there’s the larger issue about whether there is no such thing as objectivity; this is more nuanced than Michael allows. Objectivity may not exist in the eyes of any commentator, but it should remain an aspiration, a guiding path. We all try to be objective as journalists/bloggers, or should be trying to be, or else we are letting down our readers. To declare that there is no such thing is to me a cop-out, a way of throwing up our hands and saying, “it’s too hard! Why should we even try?”

Then Michael talks about what he calls more subtle conflicts, for example, how he’s not being favored by Google PR because he’s harsh in writing about them. Meanwhile Yahoo et al include him in news embargoes because, he wonders, he often writes positively about them. Or when a company takes him to lunch? “Or writes something positive in their blog about TechCrunch before I write about them? Or here’s the read mind bender – what if I don’t write about a competitor to a company that I like? Doesn’t inaction count as much as action when we’re talking about conflicts?”

These are not, in my view, mind benders. There are clear rules for these things among credible journalists. First off, companies that don’t include people in their PR mailings because they don’t like what they say are childish, and need to be exposed. But it doesn’t matter; a good reporter/blogger shouldn’t be relying on a steady feed of early press releases anyway. To do so becomes unhealthy, the writer becomes lazy and dependent, and will (or should) quickly realise the chalice is poisoned: The goodies will keep coming if you write nice things. We laid into the White House press corps for accepting this a few years back: Why aren’t we decrying the same thing in technoland?

Yes, it is all about relationships, but not ones that depend on you always writing nice stuff. Free lunches: Don’t take them if you think it is in exchange for something. (In fact, if you can, don’t accept them at all. They’re not really free, as the saying goes.) As a writer you have to do whatever you need to do to maintain your freedom to write whatever you think is right. If that means keeping folk at arms’ length, do it. If it means having shouting matches every so often with industry sources who feel personally let down, do it. But keep your freedom to write what you think is right.

Michael’s conclusion: “Our lives are full of conflicts and thinking that envelopes full of cash are the only way people get paid off means you are watching too many made-for-tv dramas. Put everything you read through a filter and form your own opinions on things. Don’t look for the golden fountain of objectivity. It doesn’t exist.”  Once again, I’d say no. Find the voices you believe are objective and listen to them. Of course there’s a filter; I’m a white middle-aged Western male who lived too long in the wilds of Asia. I’m bound to see things differently. But you’ll quickly tell what I believe in, and if you share the same beliefs, you’ll probably trust me to do the right thing. 

Finally, Michael does clearly state his position on consulting, advisory roles etc. and he’s dead on. In fact, I think his post raises important points and does a good job of looking for a path through them. But we shouldn’t forget (and here’s my bias creeping through) that journalism has been battling, to lesser or greater success, with these issues for centuries. There are clear rules laid down when a journalist works for a reputable institution, and, contrary to popular opinion, most journalists extract some pride in trying to follow them, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. (I was, as were all attending journalists, thrust an envelope with $100 in cash when I attended a relaunch of Indonesia’s intelligence agency a year or so back, before I realised what was in the package. it took me weeks to not only return the money to the right place but to ensure there was a record that I had returned the money.)

Bottom line: There are ethics, they are well-established and we should seek them out, declare that we will abide by them and then abide by them. It is a struggle and none of us is perfect (definitely not me), but we should try to be. It is not an excuse to say that in this Web 2.0 world the ethics are different. We should not be so foolish as to think we have invented a new world. If we ignore this, I’ll wager, the idea that blogs might become an impartial and important source of information will quietly and quickly die because no one will believe anything we write.

The Holy Grail is Not Ready For Primetime

There’s this commentator/host/presenter guy on the soccer channel I watch and he’s awful. Well, he’s not awful, but he uses words to fill up the time instead of conveying information, which really shows, especially when compared to a colleague, who packs in so much useful stuff into the same allotted time you’re left believing for a second that soccer is a sport worth of closer study. The other guy, meanwhile says “two goals to the good” when one team is winning by 2–0 and other cliches that aren’t just irritating, they’re clearly a tic he’s adopted because it fills up more space than saying, as any normal soccer fan would say, “two up.”

He manages to fit three more words in there than necessary, which means a second or two less to fill up. Annoying, and once you’ve noticed it you can never relax listening to him again. (His latest one is “in the driving seat” which he was saying all the way through the game; when the team he had been saying was “in the driving seat” was actually getting pummelled, he changed it to “no longer in the driving seat” which not only meant he didn’t have to think  up another cliche, he could add another three syllables to the phrase. Ugh.)

Anyway, it’s as agood an example of any I can think of to illustrate how naff cliches are. They are a window on the thinking of the person writing/presenting/speaking, showing a) how little effort the person is putting into their presentation/speech/writing and b) how little they know — otherwise why would they be trying to fill up the space? I don’t mean that writing or speeches or presentations should be just jam-full of facts and nothing else; there should be pacing, and even repetition if that repetition helps to hammer home a point and is done by paraphrasing or illustrative anecdote. But filler is not that. It’s just filler, and it wastes everyone’s time.

So, here’s my promise. I realise I use some cliches that aren’t particularly useful: “Holy Grail” is one. Another is “not ready for primetime”. Any more you notice me using, let me know.