Tag Archives: Entertainment

links for 2008-09-13

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.

Gaming Idol With Dialers

If you’re wondering why Sanjaya Malakar has done surprisingly well in American Idol, here’s one possible answer: dialers.

Dialers are pieces of software usually stealthily installed on a victim’s computer to automatically dial expensive premium telephone numbers. The victim only finds out when they receive their phone bill. In this case, the dialer, openly available on a reputable download site, is a voluntary install designed to automate the voting process in Idol:

Sanjaya War Dialer uses your computers modem to automatically dial the American Idol voting number over and over and over again until you tell it to stop. Automatically cast hundreds or even thousands of votes for Sanjaya with the click of a button. Make Sanjaya win and help us ruin American Idol.

The Sanjaya War Dialer has its own MySpace page where users report on their votes — 600 a hour, for some. The show’s producers are aware of this, and have been lopping off blocks of votes if they seem to be coming from power dialers, as they call them, for several weeks.

Gaming the system by voting for inferior contestants is not new. Vote for the Worst claims to have been around since 2004. And DialIdol.com offers dialers for other shows, including Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, Canadian Idol and Celebrity Duets. DialIdol isn’t so much about gaming the system as predicting who will be voted off by seeing which hotlines are busiest.

Should we be surprised by this? No. It’s not easy to tell how many people are using these dialers, and it would need to be a lot to make it work. But we shouldn’t underestimate the number of people willing to do this, either for fun or because they have money riding on it. And of course they may not need to vote – they only need to stop other people from voting for other contestants. Do we believe American Idol when it talks of 35 million votes? That’s a lot of phone lines.

I would say this: Any kind of voting technology that isn’t transparent and clear is likely to be manipulated, either by smart hackers with something to gain, or by those arranging the voting.

(My colleague Carl Bialik talks about voting and power dialers in his blog a couple of days back. Thanks to Handoko for the Twitter tip.)

Loose Bits, Nov 28 2006

From my PR intray, some surprisingly interesting little odds and ends:

LocalCooling is a 100% Free power management tool from Uniblue Labs that allows users to optimize their energy savings in minutes and as a result reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. The software “automatically optimizes your PC’s power consumption by using a more effective power save mode. You will be able to see your savings in real-time translated to more evironmental terms such as how many trees and gallons of oil you have saved.”

Sim CityElectronic Arts Inc. today announced SimCity for mobile, which “lets mobile phone users create and manage the growth of a living city in the palm of their hands. Originally created by Will Wright, SimCity is now available on major U.S. carriers.” Not sure how this works, as there’s nothing yet on EA’s site. It does sound a bit like milking a cash cow or is it flogging a dead horse? 

free spam filterCyberDefenderFREE is “a full internet security suite that can operate  standalone, or complement existing security software to add an existing layer of early-alert security to the desktop.” As far as I can work out, this is a competitor to Windows Defender although it seems to include a collaborative element, where users report either manually or automatically dodgy software and sites they’ve come across. I think.

Teaching Kids to Get into Interactive Debt

Next mealtime, expect your kids to pester you to take out a loan on a new Scion. They’ll probably have filled in the forms for you.

A month ago the NYT wrote about how a kids’ virtual world website, Whyville, was cutting a deal with Toyota to promote the Scion, allowing the youngsters to buy a virtual car in exchange for clams, the Whyville currency they earn by solving puzzles (read Heather Green’s piece over at BusinessWeek for a good overview of Whyville). If you’re having trouble following this, join the club: Think product placement in a kids’ version of Second Life. The idea here is that the 8–15 year olds who inhabit this virtual world would get all excited about the “small, boxy” Scion, buy it to zip around the virtual island and then start pestering their parents to buy a real one.

The idea worked. The NYT says that visitors to the site mentioned the word Scion more than 78,000 times. A month later, the term “Scion” has been used another 120,000 times and Whyvillians — the kids playing the online game — have purchased more than 1,200 Scions and gone on 140,000 rides in their cars.  As NYT quoted the chief operating officer for Whyville, Jay Goss: “By definition, this is a sponsor of Whyville that can’t have as its customers the kids who visit the site. But they know that kids influence parents, and kids grow up.”

Now apart from the general creepiness of how much the folks who run Whyville know about what their citizens are up to, and the extension of the old Pester Factor from kids urging parents to buy them toys to urging them to buy new whole cars, get this: As of today, they can buy a virtual Toyota Scion xB on credit, “learning in the process about interest rates, down payments, credit and leasing and their applications in real life”. This from a press release:

“Whyville Scion Solutions is a perfect example of motivated, engaged learning,” explains Dr. Jen Sun, President of Numedeon, Inc., Whyville’s parent company. “The Scions are a huge hit with our kids. They want cars! But most citizens just don’t have enough clams.  We’ve set up the motivation for them to learn what it means to take out a loan.  They’ll learn about interest rates, down payment, credit history, and, perhaps most important of all, being responsible.  If you default on your loan, you’ll lose your car, and your credit history will be ruined so that you can’t take out another loan.  Educators and researchers know that students learn best when they really care about the topic.  That’s exactly what we try to do in Whyville.”

This is all done via more product placement, this time by a virtual Toyota Financial Services advisor “who walks them through the loan process and helps them learn about their “WhyCO” scores.  The WhyCO is designed to emulate the FICO® in real life.  A Whyvillian’s WhyCO score depends on a number of factors including his virtual income, ownership of a Whyville house or business, number of log-in days in Whyville, and leadership roles in the community.  Based on these factors, a loan application is approved or rejected. Citizens who do not qualify for a loan by themselves can get loans if they are co-signed by wealthier friends. The Toyota Financial Services advisor will also point applicants to on-line resources to help applicants understand the details of financing, leasing, interest rates and credit.”

On one hand I applaud the idea. Why shouldn’t kids learn about buying on the Never Never, plunging into debt, meeting the Repo Man, getting thrown out of their house and generally living beyond their means? But is the idea of buying things you can’t actually pay for the sort of lesson one should be teaching kids? My grandad would be turning in his grave. But not for Whyville — in only a few days since opening, the Scion Solutions office has already approved several thousand loans — and not for Toyota Financial Services, which whose “interactive marketing manager”, Maria Tirado, says

“We’d like to have educated customers down the road, and this program is a terrific opportunity to help tweens understand the process of financing a vehicle, everything from interest rates to FICO scores to repaying the loan.”

Does this mean kids, now thoroughly familiar with the credit process, will now pester their parents to buy a new car with a loan? Is this the world we’ve been working towards?

Flashing Your SIM

It’s a logical move: marry the SIMcard with flash memory. Investor’s Business Daily reports that M-Systems is doing just that:

The company’s strike on the mobile phone market has a second front. It’s a new product, due to launch during the first half of 2006, that marries flash memory and a Simcard, which is used in 80% of cell phones. M-Systems calls it a Mega Simcard. <…> 
“We’re looking at the Mega Simcard as one of our biggest growth generators in ’07 and ’08,” Maor said.

This does seem to have been around at least a year as an idea (although the correct name seems to MegaSIM card) and it was supposed to have been launched by now. The card would hold up to 256 megabytes (this is according to a story a year ago; I think it’s grown by now).

I guess it’s not just about extra storage — although that would make backing up or transferring contacts a lot easier, since they tend to be split between memory and SIM — but about loading up extra programs. The provider, for example, could issue the SIM with extra software already preloaded. For companies it may also make it easier to keep data secure and swap handsets between employees. And if this product sheet (PDF) is anything to go by, it would also contain Digital Rights Management components.

How Not To Build Buzz

How not to build buzz in the blogosphere: Tell bloggers how to do their job. Just got this in my inbox from Bubbler:

Hello from Glenn Reid, founder of Five Across (Bubbler people),

We’ve shipped Bubbler 1.0, and the world is starting to notice.

John Battelle, one of the founders of Wired Magazine, posted to his blog yesterday asking who might be using Bubbler. Check it out at batellemedia.com and add a comment and a link to your blog if you are excited about it.

I’m sure this is not really from Glenn (the from email address is announce@fiveacross.com), and actually Bubbler is not a bad tool. But I’m not sure telling bloggers to link to another piece is going to appeal to their sense of having their own brain, not least because Battelle’s piece doesn’t say more than

Bubbler seems like a cool idea, I’d heard of it before, and now SVW has a write up. It’s something of a mashup between blogging and first generation webpage building apps…if anyone is using it, lemme know…

I can well understand it’s hard to hit the right note when approaching bloggers. I think the best way is just the simple, straight way: ‘This is what we’ve just done, let us know if you’d like any more information.’ I’m convinced the way is not to tell them how to do their job. That said, by posting this I’ve now done exactly what they asked what they asked me to, so I suppose it does work.

How To Get a Good Idea, Part I

Reading at the moment Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who mentions the trick German experimental physicist Heinz Maier-Leibnitz used to do in boring conferences to entertain himself and to measure the lengths of his trains of thought — microflows, in Csikszentmihalyi’s words. The passage is conveyed in full here:

Professor Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, a German experimental physicist, suffers from an occupational handicap common to academics: having to sit through endless, often boring, conferences. To alleviate this burden, he invented a private activity that provides just enough challenges for him not to be completely bored during a dull lecture, but is so automated that it leaves enough attention free so that if something interesting is being said, it will register his awareness. What he does is this: whenever a speaker begins to get tedious, he starts to tap his right thumb once, then the third finger of the right hand, then the index finger, then the fourth finger, then the third finger again, and then the little finger of the right hand. Then he moves to the left hand and taps the little finger, the middle finger, the fourth finger, the index, and the middle finger again, and ends with the thumb on the left hand. Then the right hand reverses the sequence of the tapping, followed by the reverse of the left hand’s sequence. It turns out that by introducing full and half stops at regular intervals, there are 888 combinations one can move through without repeating the same pattern (Csikszentmilhalyi 1990).

The point about this is it’s not so much a game as a way of measuring the length of each microflow — a train of thought that takes a short journey, while being vaguely aware of what else is going on. Csikszentmilhalyi was able to use his finger tapping technique to measure precisely the length of each microflow.

Reading this it occurred to me that many of us do our best thinking stuck in boring meetings, services, concerts, films or seminars. The mind, trapped inside an immobile body, escapes on all these little excursions, returning with all sorts of insights. So why not make more of this?

Why not set up deliberately boring concerts, conferences, speeches, plays, operas and monologues so people looking for a place to ‘microflow’ can find a sanctuary? You could even charge them money. Or, if you’re someone looking for microflow yourself, you could scour the local whats-on pages for boring events which you could attend, confident you’d find a bit of peace and boredom to allow your mind to wander around in. One could even start listing such events on upcoming.org or somesuch, encouraging others to seek a piece of ‘microflow space’.

The other thought I had about this is that when conference blogging takes place, does this remove the opportunity for wandering minds and microflow? Do the bloggers, connected in their own Wi-Fi world, then just create an alternative social space, removing the conditions that might have led each of them to great internal intellectual feats? Or does the very fact that bloggers are at the conference mean it’s unlikely to qualify as boring anyway?