The Book Will Outlive Us All

A wonderful post by an old friend and former colleague, Martin Latham, on why the book will outlast the e-reader:

Printed books are palimpsests of our lives. They bear our imprint: we press in them the mountain-holiday flower, we spill wine, bath water, suntan lotion and even tears on them. As babies, we chew them; as adults, we curl up with them. We crack their spines for pleasure: they are unbreakable. Tibetans wind them, mummy-style, in cloth (the unwrapping itself is a prefatory meditation).

Conversely, the great travel writer Wilfred Thesiger hated book jackets and had a post-purchase ritual of removing the garish cover to expose the tactile buckram. Others cannot resist writing in books, and there are now several works on “marginalia” through the ages. To a historian or anthropologist, the book, at 500 years old, is a new-born baby. It has a long life ahead of it.

The whole piece is worth a read. E-books will be good for “providing a channel for all those low-margin reference texts, siphoning off some of our overpublishing glut in an eco-friendly way.” But books are much, much more: “an all-round psycho-sensory experience. Every reader has a few books which they love because they represent a transformation time in their lives.”

Amen to all this. My friend is a bookseller, running a store in Canterbury, UK. We used to work in a bookshop together in the King’s Road, a very happy episode of my life, despite the fact that the store itself was going bust. Being around books, and people who loved books, was a very nice way to earn a living.

It’s unnerving to think I spend more time among bits and bytes than musty papyrus these days. I can’t help thinking that the end of books as learning (as opposed to enjoyment) is on the way out. Watching today’s students with their ubiquitous laptops and ready access to massive silos of information, where libraries are just places to plug in their MacBooks and Questia is the database of choice, one wonders where the serendipidity of wandering the aisles, thumbing through books that aren’t on the reading list and spotting an interesting tome in the returned books stack, has gone.

Anyway, read Martin’s piece.

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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:


it told me, only to admonish me:


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.

Soccer 2.0


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

Fripp, Eno and the Microsoft Sound

I don’t know whether to be delighted or depressed, but it seems many of my musical heroes are now writing music for computers. And it’s emerging as something of an art form in itself.

Robert Fripp, for example, is doing the music for the Windows Vista startup sound, as part of an 18 month project, according to this AP piece, to create good sounds for the software:

Fripp, best known for his work with the ’70s rock band King Crimson, recorded hours of his signature layered, guitar-driven sound for the project, under the close direction of Ball and others at Microsoft. Then, it was Ball’s job to sort through those hours of live recordings to suss out just the right few seconds.

You can hear the start-up clip there, and I have to confess it sounds lame. Perhaps it’s not the finished product but it doesn’t sound like Fripp. Scoble seems to agree, saying the final product is a version with very little of Fripp in there :

I was there while he was recording this, and I TOTALLY agree. You should have heard the raw sounds while they were being recorded. He did THOUSANDS of iterations.

In fact the sounds Fripp makes in that video are a piece in themselves.

The challenge they set for themselves is a tough one. Jim Allchin at the Windows Vista Blog says the startup sound

  • is made of dual ascending ‘glassy’ melodies played on top of a gentle fading Fripp ‘AERO’ Soundscape
  • has two parallel melodies played in an intentional “Win-dows Vis-ta” rhythm
  • consists of 4 chords, one for each color in the Windows flag
  • is ~4 seconds long, end-to-end
  • is a collaboration between contributors Robert Fripp (primary melody + Soundscape), Tucker Martine (rhythm) and Steve Ball (harmony and final orchestration)

Indeed, it was Brian Eno, another hero of mine, who recorded the music for Windows 95. If you’ve forgotten what it sounds like, it’s here, and now I realise why I love it. Eno found himself enjoying the limitations set for him and it triggered a creative spurt. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Brian Eno from The SF Chronicle explaining how he came about to compose the music:

Q: How did you come to compose “The Microsoft Sound”?

A: The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem — solve it.”

The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.”

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

According to the Music thing blog, Eno was paid $35,000 for the sound. What I’ve not been able to find out is who did the music for Windows 98, Windows Me and Windows XP. One rumor in the comments to the Music thing blog posting is that

The story I was given by an Microsoftie was that Eno set up the contract to be paid royalties for playing it, meaning that Microsoft’s attempts to use the sound for branding purposes in a commercial would mean royalty checks sent to Eno for each person that heard the sound (not merely hearing as the machine booted up). Way more expensive than the initial $35,000 payment.

Next time around for Win98, Microsoft farmed out the splash sound to an internal sound production crew. 🙂

I’ve no idea whether that’s true. I’ll try to find out. Of course, it’s not just system sounds that big musical names are getting involved with. Ryuichi Sakamoto, another god, has been recording ringtones for Nokia’s high end 8800. You can hear some of the sounds here. And Sakamoto’s most recent collaborator, Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai), has offered up some ringtones of his own, which you can download as a ZIP file (go to the music page.)

I think that’s a cooler idea. How about David Sylvian, Bill Nelson, Thom Brennan and Tim Story put together their own collections of sounds for Windows, Macs and cellphones? I’d buy ’em.

Elitism’s Big Security Hole

You would expect that if you choose an elite, premium product or service that it was more secure than its lesser, bog standard one. But after an incident today I’m not so sure.

I happen to have a fancy premium account at my bank. I didn’t really want it, and object to such things on champagne socialist grounds, but it happened that way. So I arrive in town, and am looking for an ATM. I espy the logo of my bank on the airport concourse and head that way. Three members of staff stand around the branch entrance, doing that half-welcoming, half-bouncer thing that staff do. I asked if there was an ATM inside, and they said yes, but instead of letting me in, pointed me back across the vast concourse to the railway terminus. “None in here?” I asked, surprised. By then I was fishing inside my wallet for my ATM card and they caught a glimpse of its fancy charcoal greyness. Their attitude changed in a flash to one of abject obeisance. “This way, kind sire,” they said (or something like that) and ushered me inside the darkened interior, round a couple of corners to my very own ATM machine, before withdrawing to a discreet but accessible distance. Butlers passed bearing flutes of champagne; customers carrying men’s purses perused glossy brochures with names like “Managing Your Family’s Wealth So You Can Have Trouble-free Weekends in Your Phuket Condo With An Office Secretary” or something.

Offputting, but I was happy to get some my hands on some cash. Until I realised I had forgot my PIN. No problem, one of the staff said, and led me around more corners to a bank of eager customer advisor executives, or something, all with perfect teeth and wide smiles. They happily gave me cash and balances, none of it requiring any proof of identity on my part. I got to suck a sweet while they did. The three bouncers led me outside as if I was the King of Siam collecting tribute.

I was happy with all the deference and genuflecting, but it made me realise that premium service isn’t really about premium service; it means paying through the nose not to be troubled by impertinent little serfs asking me for proof of identity when I want to move millions of dollars around/see my jewelry collection in a bank vault/pass through immigration. It’s actually about dismantling security, not about enhancing it.

It’s a simple equation: Companies charge more fees to these kinds of people, providing what looks like a Rolls Royce service. People love getting star treatment, assuming that fake veneer and snow-white smiles equate quality. Of course all it really means is that the basic service — in this case the ATM machine — has been moved off to a remote corner for the unwashed who refuse to pay for the premium service. But more importantly, the actual quality that should be a feature of the improved service is severely compromised, if not entirely absent, since the implicit agreement is that customers won’t be asked for proof of identity. That may seem like an advantage to the customer, but if someone had stolen my wallet they would have been able to empty my account without breaking a sweat. They might even have been offered a shoulder massage while the staff counted the money.

There must be a name for this skewed security thinking. And it must apply to all sorts of services.

Me? I’m downgrading my account and rejoining the plebs. It’s safer there: They won’t let me in the branch without flashing my ID card.

The Phisher King is Back

I’m glad to report Australian phisher king Daniel McNamara has revived his Code Phish website which dissects phishing attacks and associated scams. He’s just taken a close peek at one ‘mule ad’ (as I call them) or job scam as he calls them: DHL Mail Job Scam.  These are efforts by the phishers to repatriate their illicit earnings by hiring unsuspecting individuals to let the stolen funds pass through their accounts. It seems that Eastern Europe is still the main source of such scams:

What’s really interesting however is where this scam is located. It’s sitting on the same hoster as the Ukrainian National Animal Welfare Foundation Job Scam and the GlobalFinances Job Scam. This would indicate they are mostly likely all being run by the same gang. The hoster is probably unaware of these sites scam status but we have seen them used numerous times over the last year to host scam sites which would indicate they most likely offer some sort of “get hosting working in minutes!” automatic setup for payments by credit cards and if it’s one things phishers have steady access to, it’s stolen credit card details.

Welcome back, Daniel.

Phishing Tips

Further to my column in today’s AWSJ Personal Journal on Daniel McNamara, who I (tho certainly not he) have christened the ‘Anti-Phisher King’, are some tips I asked him to put together on avoiding phishing scams.

User Tips

Standard Phishing Emails

  1. Just remember that NO bank will ever, ever ask you to confirm details via email. If a bank seriously needs you to confirm information they will always require your physical presence or at the very least by phone.
  2. Banks never need you to confirm your password or PIN. They run the systems and if they ever run into problems with these it’s much simpler for them to scrub the current records and replace them with new ones.
  3. They tend to be pretty un-imaginative using the same wording over and over again. Have a read through some previous phisher emails and you’ll soon spot some common patterns.
  4. There’s always the obvious clue that the bank that requires you to confirm your details is not one you actually bank with.
  5. Ebay/Paypal Scams – Just like the banks these guys never need you to confirm your details. They do control the systems so it’s far easier for them to reset the information than to get the client to verify it.
  6. Remember this simple fact. The emails claim that due to whatever issue you need to verify your details. A quick bit of common sense shows that if they’ve screwed up the data they have what exactly are they going to verify against?
  7. The emails always threaten account closure if you don’t comply. If a bank was seriously considering closing your bank account that would almost certainly contact you in writing (via good old snail mail) or over the phone.

Job Scams

  1. Remember these jobs scams don’t just arrive via email. There have been cases of the phishers inserting these jobs into real job sites. The job sites generally do a good job of scrubbing these fraudulent job listings but occasionally they will miss one or two.
  2. Job scams are sometimes sent out via broadcast ICQ/MSN messages. If you receive an email from someone you do not know offering you a job, particularly if it offers large amount of income for very little work, treat it with extreme suspicion.
  3. Any job that offers you to make thousands a week is automatically suspect. No legitimate job (other than that of a CEO) will ever pull that sort of cash.
  4. The jobs scams almost always claim they are a European company have troubles doing overseas money transfer. This is ridiculous. Todays financial systems allow for businesses to transfer money anywhere they want in the world without resorting to wiring services such as Western Union.
  5. A “job” that pays by percentage kept from a money transfer is not legal from a tax point of Remember in the real world the employer needs to pay the appropriate amount of payroll tax. The way the jobs scams operate falls outside of this area.

Trojan Lure Emails

  1. These emails are almost always designed to get an emotional not rational response. As such the will claim things like your credit card has been charged, there is some form of huge natural disaster/terrorist attack or some of other story designed to make people click on the link out of fear or curosity.
  2. Some lure pretend to be questsions from eBay or PayPal people. Most of the time these emails looking slightly out of place

General Tips

  • By cynical. Seriously. The way the internet is today end users no longer have much of a choice but to approach anything they are presented with on the web/email as highly suspect until you feel you have enough hard evidence to prove it.
  • Keep your windows machines up to date. Yes even if you are on dial up. The time you spend now could save you from a very expense headace down the road. Make sure you run Windows Update at least once a month.
  • Use anti-virus. Doesn’t really matter which one you use as long as you actually keep it up to date. All current anti-virus systems are simply signature based checkers and can only check for trojans they actually know about.
  • DON’T treat anti-virus and firewalls as the magic bullet for this problem. Despite what many companies will try and sell you there is NO all in one cure for this. There is always a way around firewalls, there is always some lag time between the time a new trojan is released and when the anti-virus companies update their signatures. Having said this you should still use these products because most of the time they will help save you.
  • If you receive an email you’re unsure about ask the place is supposedly from. It’s worth it just to double check it now than pay the price in the future.
  • If you come across an email you know to be fraudulent try and make steps to inform the bank/company involved. Most major ones these days have a facility to do this now.
  • If you have become embroiled in one of the money laundering job scams you need to cease contact with the scammers. Don’t send them emails saying you’ve found them to be a scam and don’t respond to their inquiries. Then contact your bank’s anti-fraud department. Depending on the level of service of your bank’s helpdesk this may take a little work but once you get through to the anti-fraud department you should find it is staffed by competent and understanding people who will work with the police in order track the stolen money. Be aware this process may result in your account being frozen for a few days while this happens. Better this than potentially being charged with aiding and abetting fraud.
  • If you have been involved in a job scam like the ones we’ve seen to date do not try and hold onto the money from the “job”. Remember some that money has been stolen from some other person’s account and you have no more right to it than that of the scum that stole it in the first place.

Knowledge Management, Corporate Blogging, and Scobleizer

This week I wrote a couple of pieces on Knowledge Management for the Far Eastern Economic Review — a sort of overview of KM for the layman, and a column on corporate blogging, centred around Robert Scoble. (Both are subscription only, I’m afraid. The WSJ version of the column will appear here next week.) Here’s a taster:

ONCE UPON A TIME there was an evil bespectacled king called Bill who ran nearly 98% of the world, imposing on it bloated software solutions and enslaving it in usurious licensing agreements. Resentment of Bill was so widespread that all the king’s public relations and philanthropic works couldn’t put his image back together again. Then, one day, along came a rather chubby computer marketer called Robert Scoble who, via his on-line journal, or blog, turned it all around. Suddenly everybody liked the king again and bought all his products. (Well, at least, they didn’t resent him quite so much, and even spoke to him at parties.)

Anyway, I wanted to thank everyone who helped me get my brain around KM, and my apologies to those I couldn’t include in the piece, and to those who feel I got it all, or any of it, horribly wrong. As a journalist, I can honestly say writing about KM is not easy.