Tag Archives: speaker

The Siri Thing

I was asked to pen a few lines for a Guardian journalist on why I thought Siri was male  in the U.S. and female in the UK. My quote was taken a tad out of context and so offended some folk who either didn’t know I was a technology columnist who makes a living out of irony and flip, or that I’m the most egregious, line-forming mumbler  in British history. So here’s my contribution in its entirety. Make of it what you will.

I don’t know the reason why they chose male and female voices that way: it’s probably something prosaic about licensing or they didn’t have a Female British voice handy, or someone thought it would be good to try it that way first to see what happened.

But there’s plenty of literature to suggest that the gender of a voice is important to the listener. Men, according to researchers from Kansas State University,  tend to take more financial risk if they are given a video briefing voiced over by a woman; the opposite is also true. (Conclusions from this are undermined when it’s added that men are willing to take even more risks if there’s no voice-over at all, which possibly means the less information they’re given, the more comfortable they feel about charging off into the unknown. This might sound familiar.)

Indeed, the problem with most research on the subject is that it tends to be as confusing as that. A paper from academics at the University of Plymouth found that “the sex of a speaker has no effect on judgements of perceived urgency” but did say that “female voices do however appear to have an advantage in taht they can portray a greater range of urgencies beacuse of their usually higher pitch and pitch range.”

We do know this: male German drivers don’t like getting navigational instructions delivered in a female voices. There’s also something called presbycusis—basically hearing loss, where older people find it easier to hear men’s voices than women’s, and can’t tell the difference between high pitched sounds like s or th.

But the bottom line is that Apple may have erred. Brits are notoriously picky about accents: class and regional, and, according to a study by the University of Edinburgh, can’t stand being told what to do by an American female voice. So far so good. But they also found that people don’t like what the researchers called a Male Southern British English voice either. Conclusion: until Siri can do regional female voices, it’s probably not going to be a huge success in the UK.

My tuppennies’ worth: Americans speak loudly and clearly and are usually in a hurry, so it makes sense for them to have a female voice. British people mumble and obey authority, so they need someone authoritative and, well, not American female.

AboutFacebook

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column for newspapers, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I talked about Facebook’s brave new world of connecting your profile to all the other bits and pieces you leave on websites. I erred, and I apologize.

I thought that people wouldn’t mind the reduction in privacy that this would involve. At least I didn’t think they’d mind as much as a couple of years ago, when Facebook tried something similar.

But people did. And Facebook has been forced to respond, simplifying the procedures that allow users to control who can see what of the stuff they put on Facebook.

So was I really wrong? Do people still care so deeply about privacy?

Hard to say. Back then I said that we have gone through something of a revolution in our attitudes to privacy, and I think I’m still right about that. But I hadn’t taken into account that just because our attitudes have gone through wrenching changes doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with them.

Social networking—itself only a few years old—has forced us to shift our approach. When the Internet was just about email, that was pretty simple. We might balk at giving our email address out to weirdoes at parties with hair growing out of their ears, but that was no different than handing out our phone numbers, or home address.

But social networking is different. By definition the barriers are down, at least partially, because the network demands it. Networks require nodes, and that means that Facebook and every network like it needs to make it easy for people to find other people—including your folically resplendent stalker.

So already we’re talking a question of degree of privacy. And of course, we insist on these services being free, so the relationship we have with the purveyor of the social network is an odd one: Our investment in it is one of time, not money.

But nowadays many of us value time more highly than money, so we feel oddly possessive about our social networks. It’s not, I hasten to add, that we wouldn’t take our business elsewhere, as we did with MySpace and Friendster, but Facebook is somewhat different.

For one thing, the numbers are astonishing. Facebook has more than 400,000 active users—half of them logging on at least once a day. In other words, for many people Facebook has become email.

This has forced changes in privacy, because it’s impossible not to be private and be an active Facebook user. Unlike email, most Facebook activity is visible to other people. So I can, if I want (and I don’t, but can’t really help it), find photos of my nephew caressing a female friend, something I would have been horrified to allow my uncle to see when I was his age.

In part it’s a generational thing. We adults have no idea what it must be like to surrounded by cameras, transmission devices, mass media—an all-embracing Net–from our early years.

But does that mean that younger people are just more relaxed about privacy, or that they just haven’t learned its value? Much of us older folks’ understanding of privacy comes from having lived under snooping governments, or knowing they exist on the other side of iron or bamboo curtains. Or we read and could imagine 1984.

Or, simply, that we’ve had something private exposed to the public. I once had some love poems I had written at school to two sisters read out in front of the school when I foolishly left them behind on a desk. Since then I lock up all my love poems to people related to each other under lock and key.

Younger people, it’s thought, don’t care so much about this. They grow up in a world of SMS, of camera phones recording every incident, of having one’s popularity, or lack of it, measured publicly via the number of friends one has on Facebook.

This is all true, of course. And while employers may still be Googling potential employees, and looking askance at images of them frolicking, this is going to get harder to do when all their potential employees are on Facebook, and all sport photos of them frolicking.

This is part of a new world where the notion of privacy is balanced by transparency: Online is no longer a mirror image of offline, in the way email was just a more efficient postal service.  It’s now a place that one shares with lots of other people, and to play a role in it entails a certain visibility.

This is both the price and the reward of being online. There are bound to be things we’d rather keep to ourselves but we also recognize an advantage in such public access. Just as people can discover things about us, so can we discover things about them. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. If you have an Internet connection.

In some ways this is deeply subversive, since it undermines the traditional structures of society. A teacher or speaker can be subverted by a back channel of comments among the class or audience to which he is not privy. Reality gets distorted, and traditional dominance undermined.

I was sitting in a hearing the other day where those being grilled by the legislators were maintaining a quite noisy twitter presence that stood in contrast to their respectful tone in the session. Two channels, both of them public, but both of them trains running on parallel tracks. Which of them is real?

Technology is moving ahead, and we’re catching up. But we’re catching up at different rates.

If an employer can’t make a distinction between an employee’s office persona and their, for want of a better expression, their personal persona, then they’re probably not very good employers.

Still, there are limits. The British man who joined a rampaging mob in Thailand and yelled at a passing citizen journalist hadn’t considered the consequences should that video clip end up on YouTube. Which it did and he now faces a lengthy time in jail.

Adolescents who share racy photos of themselves by cellphone are discovering the limits to transparency when those photos spread like wildfire. And one can’t help but suspect that not all school kids feel comfortable with the intensity of digital interactivity.

Which brings us back to Facebook.

Facebook is the thin end of a big wedge. We’ll probably look back and wonder what all the fuss was about, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong in questioning Facebook’s actions or its motives.

But we’d be smarter if instead of putting Mark Zuckerburg in the stocks, we took stock of what we really want out of these services, and what we really want to share and what we don’t. I suspect that we simply haven’t done that yet, and so we lash out when such moves force us to confront the new reality: that definitions of privacy and openness have changed, are changing, very radically and very quickly.

Presentation Blues

This is a copy of my weekly column for the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I attended a conference the other day. I’m amazed, frankly, that we still do conferences. Weren’t we supposed to have stopped this already?

But, upon closer inspection, conferences are, if we’d let them, a reaffirmation that technology cannot penetrate our souls and we should give up trying.

Think about it. Everyone in a room, looking at one person on a podium saying “lend me your ears.” It’s so old wave. The medium is so antiquated. We’ve tried to jazz it up over the years but no one is really fooled.

PowerPoint just puts people to sleep. And in most cases it never works properly. There’s that awkward moment when the next speaker tries to find their PPT file and you can see the innards of Windows Explorer as file names litter the screen with names like “Talk — Use this one” or a file with its modification date of more than three years ago clearly visible. You know you’re in for a wild ride when someone hasn’t updated their deck since the Eisenhower Administration.

Or the person is a Mac user and it’s a Windows machine, or vice versa, and they throw up their hands and peer into the audience for moral and technical support, complaining feebly that they’re not a Mac/Windows person. And this from someone giving an inspirational talk about ‘Moving Outside Your Comfort Zone.’

Worse is when someone tries to include audio or video in their presentation, increasing further the chances of technical malfunction. Either there’s no visuals or no sound, or the audio suddenly crashes through the speakers like a light aircraft landing in the conference room.

Or the video is all in Serbo Croat and has subtitles people have to stand up to read. If they laugh then everyone else stands up, meaning no one can see the screen, or no one laughs and they all sit down as if the vicar’s asked them to sit for the reading of the lesson.

Or worse, the speaker wants to visit a website, and only belatedly realizes there’s no Wi-Fi, or they don’t have the password, and then you have those painful minutes where, in full view of the room, they laboriously type in the address of the webpage and try to make small talk while it loads (“So, anyone from Kigali here tonight?”)

The conference I was at handed out big karaoke microphones to the speakers, which we had to hold in front of our mouth like pop stars or stand up comedians, or, we were told, the interpreters, parked in another room, couldn’t hear us properly. So of course hand gestures were out, since as soon as we made one our voices went inaudible and those non-English speakers in the room yelled out in anger and ruined the punch line.

Despite the great content, it was all strangely disjointed, as if technology was conspiring against communication.

Which is the point.

Conferences are still popular because we want to be spellbound, and still the best way to do that is to tell a story. It’s not as if there’s no place for audio-visual aids—there were some powerful pictures at this conference, that moved some of the audience to tears—but the truth is that we come to conferences to see and hear people.

In the halls, in the auditorium, in the bars afterwards.

We are transported by people talking, if they talk well. If they talk badly they shouldn’t be allowed near the stage, but we don’t expect polish. We expect authenticity. We’re amazingly tolerant, for example, of people who talk off the cuff. One East European had the audience in stitches when he took out a digital recorder, pressed record and put it in his shirt pocket, saying his English teacher had included the speech he was about to give as part of his exam. After that he could have said anything and the audience would have forgiven him.

Just two sentences are enough to capture an audience if they start them off on a story. We all want to know what happens next. Must be something to do with our campfire genes.

But instead we hide behind technology. We hide behind bullet points, or whizz bang slides, or showing the audience a video that someone else made. The problem with visuals is that we are drawn to them like moths to a flame. Put an image in front of someone and they’ll look at it rather than you. Put a moving image in front of someone and they’ll stare at it until they fall asleep, die or crash.

Once we acknowledge that conferences are about people, and storytelling, and ditch the visual aids, we’ll all be a lot happier.

Humanity 1 Technology 0.

Laptops Aren’t the Problem: The Meetings Are

Some interesting discussions about whether laptops should be allowed in class or meetings. This from Cybernetnews (via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed):

At the start of my last semester of school, I was taken back when I read the syllabus for one of my classes. It read something like: “laptops may not be brought to class because they distract both the student and the teacher.” For most of my college career I had gotten used to bringing my laptop to class to take notes because I could type much faster than I could write, and sorting and organizing notes was much easier. Here I was in my last semester and the teacher wasn’t going to allow a laptop. I was annoyed, but life went on without my laptop and I had to get used to writing my notes once again.

This is also happening in business meetings.

I definitely think it’s distracting to a teacher or presenter to have people tapping away on laptops. And, perhaps more importantly, distracting for people around them. Speakers at tech conferences can feel themselves battling for attention in a room full of laptop users who rarely look up. I often bring a laptop to interviews and type directly into it; I can tell some interviewees find this distracting, and it’s not good for the ‘hold eye contact to make subject comfortable and stick to topic” routine I try to instill in students.

But laptops are part of our culture now in the same way that notepads and pens were. The truth is that laptops are part of our productivity, and removing them doesn’t make sense since it punishes those people who have succeeded in meshing them into their lives. And besides, few of us have got so much to say, and are so good at saying it that members of the multitasking generation can’t do a few other things while they’re listening to us.

The downer is if the user is clearly not actually taking notes. Or not using the laptop to dig up useful information to contribute to the meeting (my favorite example of this is PersonalBrain demon Jerry Michalski, who can dig up interesting links related to what’s being talked about in seconds). And there’s another aspect to this: the flattening effect of the backchannel, where participants at a conference discuss what is going on onstage among themselves. In one sense this is good, since it gives a passive audience a tool to control the session, but in another it’s simply another distraction.

But I think we presenters/meeting leaders/speakers need to think harder, and throw out the old rule book.

I’ve tried to analyse why I as a teacher find it distracting. One student has been tapping away almost incessantly in class when I’ve been talking. And until recently I’ve had no way of telling whether she’s been writing a letter to Aunt Joan or IMing  or whether she’s so impressed with what I’m saying that she’s taking it down verbatim. But I’ve figured out the solution: just lob a few questions her way and see whether she’s flummoxed or in the flow.

The truth is that while it’s great to have everyone’s eyes on you when you’re talking, rapt fascination sculpting their features into a permanent O shape, those people are not taking notes. We don’t assume that people writing longhand are goofing off (although in my students days that was exactly what I was doing, writing lyrics) so shouldn’t we give laptop users the benefit of the doubt? I’d rather students had some record of what I was saying in class, even if it means they’re also checking email.

The bigger solution, of course, is to ditch the whole ‘presentation thing’ in favor of participation. I know my class are more attentive if they know I’m going to ask random questions of them. An audience is going to be more attentive if the speaker is not merely droning on but offering a compelling performance and engaging them as much as possible. A meeting leader is going to have the attention of the room if s/he doesn’t waste their valuable day giving some PR schtick but keeps it short and genuinely meets the other participant, rather than lectures them.

In short, the onus is always on the person who leads the meeting/class/conference to engage the participants. It’s not rocket science to figure out that all the laptops will clamp tightly shut if the meeting is so absorbing and lively that participants don’t want to miss a second of it, and feel their voice is being heard. And the teacher/presenter/meeting leader should make sure that there’s a decent record of the meeting so those who participate aren’t punished because they haven’t had a chance to take notes.

Laptops have been around long enough for us to have figured out a better way of absorbing them into our workflow. Campuses now have power outlets and lots of tables where students can work on their laptops. This is great to see (and I find it a tad strange that some lecture rooms don’t have the same deal.) These students are used to doing stuff on their laptops, and they’ll enter the workforce with the same mentality. We should be encouraging this. We need to figure out ways to work with this, not against it.

No Laptops Allowed! A New Trend?

Counting the Words

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I’ve been looking recently at different ways that newspapers can add value to the news they produce, and one of them is using technology to better mine the information that’s available to bring out themes and nuances that might otherwise be lost. But does it always work?

The post popular page on the WSJ.com website at the moment is Barack Obama’s speech, which has dozens of comments added to it (not all them illuminating; but there’s another story.) What intrigued me was the text analysis box in the text:

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Click on that link and you see a sort of tag cloud of words and how frequently they appear in the text of the piece itself. Mouse over a word and a popup tells you how many times Obama used the word. “Black,” for example, appears 38 times; “white” appears only 29. That’s nearly 25% fewer times.

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Interesting, but useful? My gut reaction is that it cheapens a remarkable speech–remarkable not because of its views, but remarkable because it’s a piece of oratory that could have been uttered 10, 20, 50, maybe even 100 years ago and still be understood.

My point? Analyzing a speech using a simple counter is not only pretty pointless–does the fact he said ‘black’ more times than ‘white’ tell us anything? What about the words he didn’t use?–but it paves the way to speechwriters running their own text analysis over speeches before they’re spoken. “Hey, Bob! We need to put more ‘whites’ in there otherwise people are going to freak out!” “OK how about mentioning you were in White Plains a couple of times last year?”

Maybe this already happens. But oratory is an art form: it doesn’t succumb to analysis, just as efforts to subject Shakespeare to text analysis don’t really tell us very much about Shakespeare.

The Journal is just messing around, of course, experimenting with what it can to see what might work. We’re merely watching a small episode in newspapers trying to be relevant. And it should be applauded for doing so. But I really hope that something more substantial and smart will come along, because this kind of thing not only misses the mark, but is in danger of quickly becoming absurd.

Perhaps more important, it fails to really add value to the data. Without any analysis of the frequency of words, there’s not really much one can say to the exercise except, maybe, “hmmm.” Compare that with a Canadian research project a couple of years back which developed algorithms to measure spin in the 2006 election there. They looked at politicians’ use of particular words: “exception words” — however, unless — for example, and the decreased use of personal pronouns–I, we, me, us– which might imply the speaker was distancing him- or herself from what was being said.

That sounds smart, but was it revealing? The New Scientist, writing in January 2006, said the results concluded that the incumbent, Prime Minister Paul Martin, of the Liberal Party, spun “dramatically more than Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper, and the New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton.” Harper, needless to say, won the election.

Oh, and in case you’re interested, Shakespeare used the word “black” 174 times in his oeuvre, according to Open Source Shakespeare, and “white” only 148, 15% fewer occurrences. Clearly a story there.

The Revolutionary Back Channel

A tech conference appears to have marked yet another shift in the use of social tools to wrest control and flatten the playing field.

Dan Fost of Fortune calls it Conference 2.0 but I prefer the term (which Dan also uses): The Unconference Movement. (I prefer it because anything with 2.0 in it implies money; calling it a movement makes it sound more like people doing things because they want to.)

Dan summarizes what is being billed as a pivotal moment: an ‘interview’ session where columnist Sarah Lacy faces a growing discontent of the audience for her interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg. (You can see the interview here, and the comments are worth reading.)

Jeremiah Owyang pulls it altogether and tags it as a Groundswell, which happens to also be the name of a forthcoming book by his Forrester colleagues. A Groundswell, he says, is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions.”

Shel Israel sees it as “revolutionary in the same way that American colonists wrested power from the British; that Gandhi did it with homespun cloth and boycotting British-supplied salt and in the same manner that students attempted to do it in America of the 60s.”

Tools used: twitter, meebo.

What’s interesting here is this:

Twitter has changed, at least for some people, from a presence/status tool (“doing the ironing in my underwear”) to a communication tool (“@burlesque you were right to slap him. where’s the altavista party?”)

I must confess I haven’t caught up with this trend. When I complained to a geek friend that tweets were no longer entertaining and now more likely to feel like eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, he said that was the point. But it’s not eavesdropping: these conversations are public and, by definition, open to including others.

Indeed, that’s how, at SXSW, a lot of the parties and gatherings evolved: one tweet offering a party in an empty bar attracted 100 participants in minutes.

But we need to recognise this isn’t for everyone. Twitter tools work great for people who share the same interests, or inhabit the same area. And the difference with Facebook here is instructive: Status messages are just that, while postings on friends’ walls can be seen by other friends, which makes those messages social (while messages can’t).

Which is more social? Facebook is a walled garden of trusted friends; Twitter is an anarchic network that allows users to hunt down new friends based on what they’re talking about. In a way it’s more like music taste-sharing sites like Last.fm than Facebook: I join a service like that not because I only want to hang out with the people I know, but to meet people I’ll draw value from via a shared taste and interest.

So what else is worth noting from this ‘Groundswell’?

Is this revolutionary? For those of us who have nodded off in presentations and dull panel discussions that could, for all the lack of connection with the audience, be on another planet, this can only be a good thing. Allowing the audience to participate is clearly a must, and any interviewer or moderator in that format who denies that is wasting a key resource: the audience.

That was always true, but the audience is not passive anymore: They have the tools to discuss and organize among themselves, and, in the case of the Facebook session, to fight back. It can get ugly (at times the video felt more like a mob lynching than a ‘Groundswell’, but after 45 minutes of poor questions, maybe my patience might have snapped too.)

I am not sure this is a revolution on the par of Shel’s comparisons, but there are lots of things happening here. Destructive as it may appear on the video, this is actually an example of collaboration, however chaotic, and alliance-making, however brief, that is social media at its best. A group shared a technology that allowed them to communicate, and they collaborated. The mood of the room could be felt by those present. But the mood defined itself on the backchannel chat (“Am I the only one here who is finding the questions boring and irrelevant?”) and then expressed itself vocally–one individual, initially, but supported by the applause of others in the face of the interviewer’s defensiveness.

I’d love to think that audiences, with their collective knowledge, enthusiasm and, let’s face it, investment in being there, can turn the traditional format of dominant speaker/moderator and appreciative but docile mass on its head. If that’s a revolution then I’m up for it.

Journalists’ Phobia of Digital Recorders

The AP picture that accompanies this OPEC story says it all: Journalists still don’t seem to have switched from cassette recorders to digital, even though prices have dropped amazingly in the past five years and features risen impressively. (I’ve just bought an Olympus DS-20 for a quarter of the price I paid for a DM-1 back in 2001.)

OpecThere’s one, possibly four, digital recorders in this picture (the mic dangling on the left might be attached to one, and there’s possibly one over Mr Daukoru’s left shoulder. Another might be below the Sony relic in the bottom right. But they’re definitely outnumbered by the cassette and micro cassette recorders. OPEC meetings are big news for financial news services, so these journalists would be measuring their success or failure in getting the story to screens in seconds.

I think part of the reason is that journalists are crusty types who prefer to stick with what they know. But there are more compelling reasons that may simply make digital recorders less useful than the old cassette, and, given that journalists would seem to be the biggest single market for these devices, I would have thought Olympus, Sony et al would do well to ponder them:

  • cassette tapes are easier to wind forwards and backwards, scanning (or cueing) through the tape as it plays. This is done at a standard speed, with enough of the audio audible, so to speak, for the listener to get a pretty good idea of where they are in the recording. This is vital for the journalist, who may need to find that Edmund Daukoru quote about getting out of autopilot before the other guys do. Digital recorders do offer this feature, but not having a visual clue (the tape spool itself) and the varying speed of the forward/backward wind (my Olympus apparently jumps in three- and then 15- and then minute-long- increments when you hold the FF or REW buttons down) makes it hard to find what you’re looking for quickly;
  • digital recorders let you transfer your recordings to a computer, where it’s easy to store them (and easier to transcribe them.) I suspect few journalists do this because they’re in a hurry, they don’t always work from the same computer, and, probably, their tech staff won’t allow them to install external software on their PC. The other issue is that it may just be easier to keep a pile of cassettes in your drawer in chronological sequence as a record of your work, so if, say, you’re hauled to court you can easily find the interview in question. Journalists are living proof that just because something is made easier, it may not be more convenient.
  • another issue is that news organizations usually provide the recorders that journalists use, and I’m guessing they’re not over-anxious to increase their budget for such a trivial article. On top of that, a tape recorder is often left next to a speaker, or on a podium, and you never know when a light-fingered colleague may take a shine to your svelte device.
  • often the internal speakers on these digital devices are not as powerful as those on their analog forebears. Journalists can’t be bothered with earpieces, so that’s another turnoff.

To me these problems are quite easy to fix. And better positioning of the indexing button on digital devices (which allow the user to mark a certain point on the recording for easy return to later would help. Most often times the button is either too small or not easily distinguishable from other buttons (and so raises the danger of pressing “stop” instead of “index”) for it to be a viable option.)

A better option altogether would be the incorporation of gun microphones into the body of the recorder, so a user could point it across the room and pick up the speaker clearly without having to join the scrum. That’s what I’d call an advance.

Footnote: A much better approach, of course, would be to include a record function into the cellphone (as some do have, and have had for 10 years; my first cellphone, a Panasonic, had quite a generous record time) so that reporters can point their phone at the subject, both recording his words and sending them back to a colleague who could bash out the appropriate quotes directly. In fact, I thought most such doorstops were covered this way nowadays. Apprently not.

Too Old to Read About Movies, Too Young to Die

I love the Internet Movie Database but have been somewhat irritated by the need to register to read comments. I didn’t do it for a while but finally did today. Turns out they don’t just want your email address; they need a gender and a year of birth. I know it’s churlish of me, but I don’t like giving out any information unless I really have to. Or else I, like millions of others, give them fake information.

IMDB aren’t dumb; they know this. But they are a bit age-ist. Try entering 1900 as your year of birth and you’ll get this:

Year of birth would make you too old to register

The cheek! My 105 year-old next door neighbour would be outraged were she still alive. How could someone be “too old” to register? According to the U.S. Census Bureau there were nearly 65,000 people who were 100 years or older last year. How do they feel about it? We should ask them.

(I’m not the only person to experience this. J-Walk hit the same problem a few months back, as did a Russian speaker called Syarzhuk.)

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?

Fraud For Sale

Online fraud and other forms of Internet crime is a business, openly sold over the Internet.
 
British-based Internet security company Netcraft says they’re receiving spam advertising dozens of “fraud hosting” websites that offer services and gather together those interested in such pursuits. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, most are Russian. But not all.
 
Carderportal.com resolves to Netfirms, a hosting service based in Toronto. Netcraft says carder.org “was also hosted in North America” but has since had its record removed.

What’s interesting, apparently, is how brazenly mainstream companies are hosting these sites. Nethouse in St. Petersburg “houses stalk.ru, majordomo.ru and mazafaka.ru. Nethouse, which brands its hosting unit as Majordomo.ru, is housed within the data center of Runnet, the third-largest Russian hosting provider with 11.5K hostnames,” Netcraft says.

Not all are active. One, MaZaFaKa.Ru (unless I’m much mistaken, saying it out loud gives a good idea of the reason behind the name; the website’s motto is ‘Network Terrorism’ and its copyright text is, er, nonstandard), offers everything from cracks (usually code that has broken past the anti-piracy controls on software) to scripts, viruses and other nasties. It also lists the ‘last hacked sites’ — presumably websites that its members have managed to break into — many of which are Russian. (The message left on the hacked sites is anti-US involvement in Iraq.) It even contains the original Netcraft posting on its site. Unfortunately I’m not a Russian speaker so I can’t explore more.

Agava Software Network in Moscow, Netcraft says, hosted the “Russian Carder Clan” site at carderclan.net (195.161.118.168), which ran on a shared server at Agava.net. The site has recently been taken offline, as has Carderportal.org (81.176.64.102) at epolis.ru, which also resided at Agava. Agava ”specializes in the offshore custom software development and provides the off-site consulting, development, and testing services”, and lists among its projects WebCelerator, software to speed up surfing.

Here’s a list of the domains advertised, according to Netcraft: carder.org, carderclan.net, carderportal.com, carderportal.org, the cc.ru, mazafaka.ru, lncrew.com, majordomo.ru and agava.com. Register at one of them and you can expect to be offered “Spam Hosting – from 20$ per mounth, Fraud Hosting – from 30$ per mounth, Stolen Credit Cards, Fake ID, DL’s, Spam For free (with a limited time period)”.

Here’s another one that Netcraft didn’t mention: Asechka.ru, which has recently sent spam advertising its ‘fraud and carders site’: “On our site and board you are find: Bulk, Spam and Fraud Hosting, Stolen Credit Cards for Sale, Stolen Dumps of cardholder’s for Sale, Children Porno, Sex, Erotic films…. WE ACCEPT: Western Union, WebMoney, E-GOLD.”

I’m seeking comment from some of these sites.