Get the New Fear, Same as the Old Fear

It’s early January, the first post of the year and already I’m feeling a bit weary of Web 2.0 and blogging. My ennui is really fear: fear that journalists don’t get blogging, that bloggers don’t get journalism, and that all of us are covering something that isn’t half as exciting as it was looked a year or so ago.

First off, the sense the that Web 2.0 isn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. Word is out that more dot.coms are hitting the dust, or at least sniffing it: TechCrunch and VentureBeat both have something to say on the subject. My sense? Amidst all the money, the cute (and samey) logos and cute (and samey) names, we’ve kind of forgotten what Web 2.0 is about. It’s about doing things that make sense online, not doing things online for the sake of it.

But then there’s the bigger worry, at least for me: is my job about to be taken over by bloggers who can’t write and have PR cards up their sleeve? Nick Carr thinks so, laying in less than subtly to Andy Abramson, pointing to what he says is poor grammar, sloppy spelling and half-baked sentences masquerading as New Journalism. I declare an interest here: I know and personally like Andy, so I’m not going to join in what is to me in any case a tad too personal. Suffice to say that we need this year to get sorted out the ethics of being a blogger before we a) start calling blogging journalism and b) start seriously alienating both reader and traditional journalist. My rule of thumb is: If you’re hawking something other than the objective unvarnished truth, declare it and leave the building. Let’s not muddy the waters further.

Finally, let’s not confuse being nice with being honest and being straightforward. I count Steve Rubel among those I personally like in this terrain, but it shouldn’t stop me saying what I think. Steve makes a strong argument in favor of ignoring ‘mean people’; he’s struck dozens of ‘mean-spirited blogs’ off his reader list this year. Steve is of course free to do what he likes and read who he likes. And I am certainly not crazy about some of the pettiness and personal attacks that the technorati blogosphere seems to mistake for trenchant writing of late. But here’s my suggestion for Steve and others: be careful to distinguish snark from critical writing. The two aren’t always the same. Sometimes there’s stuff we don’t like to read but we should.

My new year’s resolution is to try to keep remembering that the only person we should be writing for is the person who wants to know the truth, and wants to know that we don’t carry any extra baggage — either for or against the subject — when we write it. Have a good year.

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.

Indian Slumdwellers Protest Biometric Scanning of Impersonators. I Think

Who says that privacy is only an issue in the First World? According to The Times of India residents of Palsora and Lal Bahadur Shastri colonies have demonstrated against “alleged irregularities in the biometric test, which is being carried out in the slum areas to check “impersonation at any level.” The problem, it seems, is that people have been impersonating other people, sometimes twice, to register or occupy property.

A couple of interesting things about this. First off, this is not just any old biometric test. The administration, the story says, plans to test “all those living in slums [who] will have to furnish details of their fingerprints, photographs, face recognition, voice recognition, signature, shape of the hand, and other such details.” This sounds quite advanced. (Shape of the hand? Is this a first? ) Slumdwellers would also be asked to submit the usual stuff, such as “personal details, including date and place of birth, father’s name, number of family members, present address, et al.” All in all, that’s quite a survey. The government is going to have more data on the slumdwellers of Chandigarh than probably anyone else on the planet.

Slumdwellers are now protesting outside the regional government offices, probably as we speak. Well, not today, as it’s the Hindu New Year, I believe. However, they are not up in arms about this apparent invasion of their privacy (voice recognition?), but that “genuine people were being ignored in the survey.” I take this to mean (and I could be wrong) that the survey teams seem to be focusing mainly on impersonators. (Can that be right? – Ed) If true, this might be the first recorded Protest Against A Survey of Slumdweller Impersonators.

Buzz Spam

Anyone else getting spammed by craigslist, or rather its PR company? This in my blog mail inbox:

hi there Jeremy,
quick note to let you in on all the chitchat happening on the electronics forum over on
it’s the new year and in the spirit of giving and resolutions, people are helping people…with their electronic needs.
what’s up for discussion today??
“When is HCTV going to kick in? No more bunny ears?” “What’s the best cellphone provider for my city?” “What”s the average battery life of the Nano??” “Best deals on digital cameras??” “LCD, Plasma, Rear-projection, DLP projection – what’s your favorite?” “I’m upset. I can’t get reception to hear Howard!!”
and lots more…
want to test out some new ideas with consumers at hand? hear what the people think about the latest gadget? or simply tech chat?
craigslist is in 190 cities and 35 countries so people everywhere will enjoy this one.
let me know what you think! cheers, [name deleted]
[line deleted]
Publicists for Astro Studios, Citizen Cake, *craigslist, Diabetes Adventure Tours, Esurance, and Smugmug

I’m deleting the name of the agency because I got some poor trainee flack into trouble some time back for getting hot under the collar about being spammed in this way. But I have a feeling this is not just a rookie mistake: The same agency sent me an email two hours later trumpeting the Blooker Prize, sponsored by another client of the same agency. I’m not going to say who, because I don’t want to give either of them unnecessary publicity.

Why is this spam, and not just a savvy approach (or two) by a PR company? Well, let me count the ways:

  • it’s clearly from a database harvested from blogs (the second one, more obviously so, since it doesn’t even bother addressing me by name — ‘Blogging folks, Take note!’ it begins).
  • I’ve not heard from these people before — or at least I have no record of it. No introduction, no effort to establish a dialog, except a rather naff and insincere-sounding ‘let me know what you think!’.
  • There’s no real pitch, or even story, involved. No information to work with, other than an invitation to come on over and build some traffic and Google rank. It manages to both assume I know all the background about craigslist, and yet know nothing at the same time. It manages, in short, to both insult my intelligence and assume too much simultaneously.
  • Why are they doing this anyway? It’s not as if craigslist is some backwater of a website. Three billion pageviews per month, Craig himself says. Why hire a PR agency?
  • The subject fields of both emails are naff and faux personal (craigslist and electronics. the first one, with the period included. The second is ‘you blogger, you!’) How more spammy can you get?
  • The second email does include a press release, but it’s three months old. This might make some sense as background for the new development being cited in the email, but without any real new information beyond some poorly phrased faux-familiarity (‘2006 is here, get that book published. And so early on in the year, your friends and cohorts will find your smugness a tad much.‘) I’m left wondering, simply, huh?

I suppose a better term for this is buzz-spam. It’s an effort to create a bit of buzz, without actually doing the hard work a PR agency should be doing, which is to check out the background of the bloggers it’s spamming and see whether they could actually build a relationship with them. Laziness, dumbness or trying to stretch a meager budget? Clearly, from the PR company’s website, they’re happy to trumpet their achievements in the mainstream media, when one of the companies they work with gets a mention. Ten seconds to read my About page would reveal they could have scored a bigger splash had they pitched me rather than spammed me.

And if I wasn’t a mainstream journalist, there’s still a way to pitch bloggers without spamming them. Explain why you’re contacting them, show them you know a little about them, suggest it may be of interest to them, make yourself available for more information if they need it. It’s a conversation, and a real one. Not a fake one.

More if I hear back from them.

Taiwan: First Off The Blocks With Dual Networks?

Taiwan has launched what it’s calling the “world’s first dual-network application service”, according to today’s Taipei Times (which charmingly, and perhaps accurately, calls it a Duel Network in its headline).

The network combines wireless local area networks (WLANs) and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). In a demo set up in Taipei’s Nankang Science Park, workers have access to “various functions, including access to personal e-mails and instant messages or connection to any printer in the park through wireless transmission. Other services allow parents to view their children in the park’s daycare center through a surveillance system.” From what I can understand in the piece, the government plans to spend NT$7 billion to build the same thing across the whole country over seven years. Taiwan Cellular, the paper says, will roll out dual-network service packages after the Lunar New Year (early next month).

It’s not clear, and I’m not clear, about how exactly this works, and what it’s for. The point of dual-network devices makes sense — you can use them for VoIP on WLAN hotspots, and switch to cellular in cellular-only areas, but why have both technologies in the same place? I guess, as it implies above, the idea is to offer more options and services atop the existing structure. So you might prefer to have one data connection via GPRS, but print locally via Wi-Fi. Or is there more to it that I’m missing?

The Charting Of An Urban Myth? Or A Double Bluff?

Here’s a cautionary tale from Vmyths, the virus myths website, on how urban legends are born.

Vmyths says that Reuters News Agency filed a report from Singapore last week quoting anti-virus manufacturer Trend Micro (makers of PC-cillin) as saying computer virus attacks cost global businesses an estimated $55 billion in damages in 2003. That’s a lot of damage. Two spokesmen at Trend Micro have since called Vmyths to “correct” the report. One said it was “wrong.”  Another said Trend Micro “cannot gauge a damage value — because they simply don’t collect the required data”.

Vmyths says the report was later pulled, but without any explanation. I’m not so sure. I can still see it on Reuters’ own website, Forbes, Yahoo, The Hindustan Times, ZDNet, MSNBC, ComputerWorld, The New York Times, etc etc. And the story still sits in Reuters’ official database, Factiva (co-owned by Dow Jones, the company I work for.) I’ve sought word from Trend Micro (I wasn’t able to reach anyone in Taiwan, Singapore or Tokyo by phone and emails have gone unanswered for 10 hours; I guess Chinese New Year has already started. Perhaps the U.S. will be more responsive). Emails to the author of the Reuters report have gone unanswered so far.

As Vmyths points out, it’s great that Trend Micro has tried to set the record straight.  But if the story was wrong, why is it still out there on the web, and, in particular, on Reuters’ own sites? And why hasn’t Trend Micro put something up on its website pointing out the report is wrong? Has Trend Micro done everything it can to get things right? Was the report wrong, or the original data?

This episode highlights how, in the age of the Internet, an apparently erroneous story can spread so rapidly and extensively, from even such an authoritative source as Reuters, and how hard it is to correct errors once the Net gets hold of them. In the pre-WWW world (and speaking as a former Reuters journalist) it was relatively simple process to correct something: overwrite it from the proprietary Reuters screen with a corrected version, withdraw the story, or, in the case of subscribers taking a Reuters feed (newspapers, radio stations and what-have-you), sending a note correcting the story. Proprietary databases could be corrected. So long as the story wasn’t already in print, you were usually safe. Nowadays it’s not so easy.

Vmyths is right: Expect to see the $55 billion figure pop up all over the place. (Of course, until we know for sure, it’s possible that the real myth that comes out of this could be that the story was wrong, when in fact it was right.) Ow, I’m getting a headache.

No Sign Of Letup On Spam So Far

Unsurprisingly, the new U.S. anti-spam law has had no effect whatsoever.

Commtouch, a provider of anti-spam solutions, said it saw no significant change in the number of spam attacks in the first week of 2004, and that less than 1% of all bulk email complied with the new CAN-SPAM regulations.

Although Commtouch notes it is too early to tell, as spammers are still on holiday, I’ve noticed no slowdown at all. This is not unexpected, since most spammers operate outside the law – when was the last time you had a legitimate-looking junk email that was not trying to disguise itself?

But it’s not just the really sleazy guys still doing it. MX Logic, another anti-spam provider, looked at a random sample of over 1,000 unsolicited commercial emails during the course of a seven day period beginning New Year’s Day and found only three of the messages complied with the CAN-SPAM Act. “Calling this a high rate of non-compliance would be a gross understatement,” said Scott Chasin, MX Logic’s chief technology officer. “It is no surprise that rogue spammers would fail to comply, but the non-compliant messages we saw appeared to be from all types of companies.”

This could be just reputable (I use the term loosely) email marketers not getting up to speed on something that was only signed into law on December 16. If you are an email marketer and you do want to comply, here’s a checklist of what you should do, courtesy of Intermark Media, itself a an email marketer (the list is somewhat revealing to us normal folk, in that it shows what kind of tricks spammers tend to do to give the impression everything is hunky dory and that, at some point of personal weakness, we actually agreed to receive spam from them):

— Collect this information on every member of your opt-in database: IP address, date and time of opt-in, and source URL of sign-up.
— Be wary of any list managers who do not require this sensitive information from you as it is of crucial importance that all parties involved have it.
— Provide a clear opt-in process for the consumer.
— State your intentions in your privacy policy.
— Make your privacy policy easily accessible to the consumer.
— Upon receiving a customer’s permission to send offers you should notify them of their consent. This also allows the consumer to become double opt-in or unsubscribe from receiving any offers.
— Upon receiving a database to manage always run a permission email to the database in order to notify the consumers that you are the source of the emails they will be receiving and this will allow them to unsubscribe from your mailings or become double or even triple opt-in.
— Never change the headers that you send emails from.
— Use valid and relevant from and subject lines for all campaigns.
— Do not use misleading subject lines for any purposes, including creating new responsive lists from recipients that open or click on a campaign.
— If you receive a subject line you feel is questionable ask the advertiser to provide another one.
— Make sure the email address you are sending campaigns from is valid and working.
— In the footer, provide an explanation of why the consumer is receiving the ad.
— In the footer, provide your company’s valid postal address. If you are managing a client’s list, make sure their address appears as well.
— Make sure every campaign has a valid, working and obvious unsubscribe mechanism that easily removes the consumer from your database.
— Keep a real-time update of unsubscribes and remove them from your database and the databases of all parties involved.
— Do not email to consumers who unsubscribe from your database.
— Do not allow others to email to consumers who have unsubscribed from your database.

Apple Excites, Disappoints With iPod Mini

As expected, sort of, Steve Jobs has unveiled a new Apple iPod — smaller, more colourful and cheaper (but not as cheap as people thought). About 3.5 inches long and just half an inch thick, the iPod mini looks a bit like the old iPod, with the same jog dial, but comes in five colours, stores only 4 GB (against up to 40 for the old iPod) and costs $250.

That’s pricier than people thought. A lot pricier: I wrote last month on talk that it would sell for about $100. And given you can now get a bigger iPod carrying 15 GB for $300, Apple may find themselves cannibalizing their own market, rather than opening up a new one. As Techdirt points out, for a lot of folk 4 GB pretty much covers their music collection, and even Apple describe the iPod mini as “enough music for a three-day weekend getaway in a package so small you’ll forget you’re carrying it”. Expect a backlash against Apple from folk who thought they would be getting a cheap iPod as their new year’s present.

What’s interesting is what is under the hood. Whereas rumour had it the iPod mini would be using flash memory, CNET says it is in a fact a mini hard drive made by Hitachi. Hitachi’s success with what was IBM’s technology seems to indicate a resurgence of interest in small devices that can store a lot of data. While CNET talks of video cameras — Samsung apparently uses a 1 inch hard drive in one of their models — I wonder when you’re going to see PDAs and phones using them. Wouldn’t it be useful to store 4 or more GB of stuff on your PDA? Or has it already happened and I’ve missed it?

Some (Not So) Light Reading

For those of you easing back into work after the holidays, or stuck in the office before the New Year partying begins, here are some suggestions for Internet reading.

The future of Microsoft: Is 2004 going to be Redmond’s swansong? Some people think so, including The Inquirer, which says that the company’s flat first quarter earnings are a sign “it is running low on wiggle room, the core customers are negotiating hard, and Microsoft is giving way”. Interesting, if somewhat aggressive, reading. For the usual Slashdot discussion of the topic, go here. Certainly it’s going to be a difficult year for Microsoft, and one way the company may go is to try to further lock in users to its formats — Word, audio, Excel, whatever — and to lock other software companies out.

That’s also the tack that veteran commentator Steve Gillmor believes Apple is taking with its iPod. He points out that what was once a MP3 player is now threatening to be a lot more than that, from a PDA to a video device (to a handphone, as well). But Gillmor also points out that this is part of a bigger battle to try to establish one kind of Digital Rights Management over another. (This basically is a legal and software trick that limits your freedom to copy or alter files, whether they’re music, words or pictures. Say your version of Microsoft Word supported DRM, you may find yourself unable, say, to copy a document you’re viewing, or to save it in another format, or, more insidiously, unable to access a Word document composed in a non-Microsoft program, say, Open Office. DRM effectively removes the kind of supremacy you’ve enjoyed over what you own: In music, for example, DRM would mean you rent rather than own your CD collection.)

Gillmor discusses Apple’s approach, which is slightly different, but with seemingly similar goals: To lock the consumer into using a proprietary format. I think consumers will — and should — fight any attempt to limit access to their files, whether they be music, words, pictures or movies, tooth and nail. Legitimate fears of piracy and security should not allow any corporation to dictate the size or make of wall protecting us (look at e-voting for the lessons we should learn on that.). This year will define where we go on this issue. Or as Mr Gillmor says: “With the election looming as a referendum on issues of security, rights and opportunity, and the Internet emerging as a major player for the first time, DRM may be democracy’s Last Waltz.”

Column: Christmas stuff

Loose Wire — Have a Bidet Christmas

By Jeremy Wagstaff, from the 27 December 2001 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
For most of us, this Christmas is going to be what I would call (remember where you heard it first) a “bidet Christmas.” In a nutshellthis means we’re not looking to buy a whole new bathroom, but we’d like to buy something to remind ourselves we’re still consumers and there are still things out there we don’t need but we’ll buy anyway. Hence the bidet.

I’d like to point you in the direction of some items, which might charitably be called gizmo add-ons. You might not be expecting to get the latest gadget in your stocking this year, but you can at least make your existing gadget more functional.

First, your cellphone. The biggest drawback to these things is battery life. True, the batteries on most cellphones last a lot longer than they used to, and charge more quickly, but it’s still a pain to find you’ve run out of juice and are nowhere near an outlet. Help is at hand. Try these:

The Instant Power Charger ( draws energy from a disposable cartridge the size of a matchbox that in turn draws its power from oxygen in the air. Plug it into a cellphone (or personal digital assistant) and you can start using it straightaway: The battery will be recharged in a couple of hours. The cartridge lasts for three charges.

Consider chargers using normal batteries — you can usually find these at specialist electronic stores or cellphone shops. They’re keyring-size adaptors that fit into the charger socket of your phone and attach to a standard nine-volt battery.

Tired of carrying around an adaptor on business trips? From computer peripheral shops you can buy a cable that plugs into your personal computer’s USB port, which will also do the job of recharging your cellphone (or PDA), albeit it at a somewhat slower rate.

Be careful in all these cases to get the right cable for your cellphone or PDA, since one size doesn’t fit all. And try to buy a reputable brand, since in some cases you could damage your gadget.

Now, that’s the practical stuff out of the way. I love my PDA but I’m mighty bored with carrying the same PDA case all the time. I’d recommend trying out alternative cases. I’ve taken the liberty of road-testing a number on your behalf, my only rule of thumb is the case shouldn’t cost more than the PDA:

Britain’s Scribble ( also put out an interesting range of cases, including a black plastic Palm case with interchangeable panels, from black to sharp blue. Scribble also make a simple synthetic rubber case with added protection front and back, as do Marware (

The more rugged adventurer might want to consider GrinderGear, who prefer to call their PDA cases Sport Utility Bags, or SUBs for short. These are padded, dripping with zips, tassels and tags, and come with hooks so you can strut along a ridge with your PDA bouncing off your hip.

Have a good Christmas and New Year-with or without the bidet.