Sunday, December 12, 2010

2011 Prediction - Freedom of the press and the internet

Freedom of the press was never about allowing anyone to publish, it was about allowing the middle class (who were the ones rich enough to own presses) the right to publish. The USA revolution was a middle class revolution and it was to allow competing voices within the ruling class to be heard.

There's a long history of using pretexts and excuses for suppressing freedom of expression in Democracies (Dictatorships don't need excuses). Advertising has also been a control mechanism ... offend a powerful group and your advertising dries up making it hard to run those expensive presses.

As they slowly wake up to the fact that the Internet allows ordinary people to say what they want to as large an audience as they can attract power slips slowly away from the communications media owned by the ruling classes. With publication so cheap, the advertising lever is no longer as effective.  The Internet has reached the point where it is starting to scare the ruling classes and they are finding pretexts to "regulate" it. Wikileaks, Whale Blubber's vigilante blog, etc give high profile whipping boys and I expect them to find more pretexts like these in 2011 to push for a more highly regulated Internet.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Tongans raise $600k for quake appeal

A small amount, but given the size of the Tondan population and the levels of discretionary spending they have it's a huge amount of money.

"The prevalent public attitude here is that the people and government of New Zealand are usually the first on Tonga's doorstep soon after a natural disaster and here was an opportunity for us to reciprocate that generosity"

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Stopping Crime: Finally someone "gets it"

From today's paper, a grieving father understands:
"Mr Borrell, whose son was killed by a youth already on bail for assault, said he favoured tougher sanctions against violent youth offenders, including short periods of incarceration, to 'shock' them before they progressed to life-threatening crimes." NZ Herald

And from the same paper, we have evidence of a justice system that still "Doesn't get it"
"One of the country's worst repeat drink-drivers has been jailed for two years after his 20th conviction for drink-driving and his 35th for driving while disqualified."NZ Herald

So, if he's "a very real and serious danger to the community" has it been left until now to get him off the streets?

I've long felt that a big part of the problem we have with escallating violence and crime levels is that people, especially young people, get away with lesser crimes and learn that there are no concequences  to their anti-social behaviour. This leads them to an ever increasing spiral of progressively worse behaivour until someone is killed and then there is an outcry.

I believe that if we started imposing small, but real, penalties from the start, then progressively increase those penalties until either the person learns to comply with what society requires or is removed from society, we'd be a lot better country to live in.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Social networking marketing

There's currently a discussion on social networking going on on the Auckland Linux User's group mailing list.

One of the  posters pointed out that he can write emails to whoever he chooses without having his conversation censored or being data-mined.

Of course you can do this, you can also create a website to broadcast your views to the world such as this blog, but getting an audience is difficult. Before you can email someone you need to know their email address and have some way of knowing that they will want to hear from you. When you create a blog it is always hit-or-miss that people will ever read your words.

To me the real strength of social networking is that it is an updated (more controlled) descendant of what Usenet was beforw it was spammed to death. There you had a large number of small communities of interest that were each composed of people who were all drawn together by a shared desire to discuss a single subject. People who were interested in a dozen subjects joined 12 groups. Usenet was different in that the available topics were coordinated by the server managers, but this coordination was mainly to ensure that there was sufficient interest to merit distributing them while social networking allows people to dynamically generate their own communities of interest.

Social networking covers a range of different techniques, but ultimately it is all about introductions. Referrals from person to person as in Linkedin or of ideas by rebroadcasting interesting posts as happens in Google Reader and Twitter create some quite interesting interpersonal dynamics for the distribution of information. People I know almost nothing about in any meaningful sense point out interesting pieces of information, and by implication point out the sources (direct or intermediate) of that information. Sometimes I not only read the information someone pointed at but also add the author to my personal list of people worth hearing  from(1).

As social networking appears more trustworthy than random surfing (I'm not sure why, but it feels so), marketers desperately want to access this network of trust to promote their products. Small time operators are attempting to flood the channels in the same way that they destroyed usenet and freely published email addresses, but so far the organic nature of these networks where people follow based on recommendation, seem to reduce their effectiveness. Look for the spammers to try harder and harder(2) and try to deply technology to break through the protections. Ultimately deflecting the spammers is the shared responsibility of the users and social networking system owners and it requires a lot of vigilance by the providers of the social networking sites. If they are under capitalised so they can't afford to monitor their systems or simply choose to adopt a laissez faire approach to marketing on their servers I feel they will ultimately gain a reputation for spam-hell and  lose out to those who do have the resources and the will to maintain their systems.

There are people who do manage to market effectively on social networking sites, and they aren't doing it by flooding our inboxes with constant repetition of low quality deals. They do it by offering helpful tips in their chosen field and if they do any actual selling it is infrequent and low key. They are smart enough to realise that their best move is to make themselves authorities in their chosen fieldsand gain a large number of followers so people approach them when they need something in their area. Of course having a large number of followers means that a lot of people actually read their occasional marketing messages.

It will be interesting to see if the small-time marketers can learn some discipline and the big companies can learn to speak to people not at them and engage an audience. History suggests neither group will.

1) It can even work for self published sites - I follow Bruce Schneier's blog which largely consists of pointers to security articles he found interesting, he's one of the world's top security experts so his choices are good ones, but Schneier's blog doesn't scale in the same way that social networks do.

2) Even when a marketer has something useful to say, such as product support or genuine product news, they seem to lack control and discipline and end up driving watchers away by the sheer volume of posts they produce

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Twitter and Fake Followers

Over at's Google Buzz list there's a discussion on what the rules for Buzz should be. One of the parts of the discussion is control of spam and this morning it was focusing on the number of followers one person can have. The following is an expansion of my thoughts published in that discussion.

"If people want to follow 2,000 people, let them. Their buzz will be crazy, but that's their choice. " @Maneeza Iqbal

In the twitter world at least, these "Spam followers" really annoy me. You get a mail saying xyz is now following me, check them out and they are "following" some huge number of people and their tweets are both trying to sell something and completely unrelated to my interests. it's pretty clear that people who "follow" 1000+ people aren't following them in any meaningful sense. It's obvious that they are just using bots to auto follow people they have no interest in to receive the "xyz is now following you" alerts delivered to try and con people into following them back or at bare minimum to see their spammy ads.

On the other hand I can't see any merit in limiting the number of followers you have, as Twitter apparently does. If you provide interesting content it's likely that your number of followers will increase over time, and if people choose to share what you say, you'll start acquiring a "public" following from people you know nothing about, in effect a social media version of the organic links that led to the creation of the original Google Pagerank algorithm. I wonder how many people choose to follow Dilbert, xkcd, Bruce Schneier, Matt Cutts etc? I doubt that these people had to use unethical methods to acquire and retain their followers, and I doubt that they have even the vaguest idea who their individual followers are, but as long as they keep providing content that is relevant to their public they will retain their followers.

Surely this is what "Social media" is supposed to be about, individuals deciding who they follow, who's comments they wish to read and even who's re-packaging of available information they wish to receive.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shades of Philip K. Dick, Soldiers' kids could get virtual mums and dads

Some years back I acquired several volumes of Philip K. Dick's collected short stories, many years back I had became a fan of his work, especially his short stories. Before his visions and subsequent reaffirmation of his faith he produced a large number of often low quality novels ... sometimes with a couple of good short-stories worth of material in each. His short stories, on the other hand, were (in my opinion) where he excelled, they were often though provoking and often scary. He wrote nearly all of his short stories in the 1950s and they were hard to come by in New Zealand of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When I got the collection it was a joy to read through all his short work.

One story I remember, but can't find at the moment concerned a child with a loved toy that had a voice chip in it. The problem was that this voice chip delivered government approved ideas (propaganda) to the child as it drifted off to sleep with the intention of brainwashing the child to be a perfect cold-war citizen as an adult.

When I read in New Scientist:
It is a poor substitute for the real thing, but the US government is hoping a 'virtual parent' could provide emotional support for the children of servicemen and women while they are away on active duty.

The Department of Defense is soliciting proposals for a computer program that would enable young children to interact with a virtual version of their parent.
I was immediately reminded of this story, as I feel that the virtual parent will deliver pretty much only officially approved messages to the child.

No need to wonder how Dick would have felt about this, but at least he wouldn't have been surprised.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beware of typosquatters

My wife's baking business is called "Sweet Expectations" and she has the appropriate domain name Someone else might register to try and grab traffic intended for her site. This is called "Typosquatting".

New Scientist Magazine reports Typos may earn Google $500m a year: Google may be earning an alleged $500 million a year via companies and individuals who register deceptive website addresses."

If Sweet Expectations, Auckland's custom baker and wholesaler of muffins, was a top ranking site that had millions of hits each month, this could bring the typosquatter thousands of hits from people who had poor keyboard skills induced by low blood sugar from lack of freshly baked treats, and as qualified traffic is relatively easy to convert into money through adverts could make a respectable amount of money.

Actually it doesn't matter much if someone has a site on that name or not. If it's an obvious typo for your site name and you don't cover it, you will lose a percentage of your type-in traffic. Tessa and I have faced this problem last year when the Yellow pages put the singular Sweet Expectation URL against her listing instead of the correct one. We fixed this by immediately registering the singular domain name & fixing the problem at Yellow Pages the next day. I've kept the registration current as its' a cheap price to pay for catching the most obvious typo.

Assuming traffic is worth it to you, you should consider your domain name and the most common typos of your company name and cover them too. The traffic you save will be your own.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Google needs Buzz to be relevant

Google makes its income by selling relevant adverts, originally just on its search pages and that's probably still the major income, but increasingly on its other services so it needs real people to visit it to show them the adverts. recently published an article "Facebook Now Responsible For Majority Of Web Portal Traffic" where they point out that
15% of Web traffic to Yahoo, MSN and AOL in Dec 2009 originated from Facebook and MySpace. That 15% was split 13% for Facebook and 2% for MySpace. Surprisingly, Google only provided 7% of traffic, and were even beat out by eBay with 7.61%.
And go on to discuss that with search engines becoming less relevant they need to take on social networking to survive.

Where can we go on this? Firstly, 15% isn't a majority, and portals are ways of finding things (news, links, etc) and not the things themselves, so a good search engine should bypass them and go direct to the full news article, or web page, but I can see why this is bad for Google, as it means people aren't searching on Google for what they want and finding adverts.

There's a certain irony in this. Before Google, to find a site on a topic we relied on reputable directories and links from authority sites. Early search engines were pretty useless as they just counted how well stuffed with keywords the page's meta data and contents were and low quality advertising sites learned to play the system and the search engines were pretty useless. I can remember having to go to page 10 or 20 of results to find what I was after.

Google's pagerank algorithm cut through this, as by counting links from authority sites to rank the importance of pages and if you couldn't find what you were looking for by page 2 of Google you probably weren't going to find it so you revised your search. It worked because at the heart of it, all Google was doing was automating the job previously performed by authority sites and reputable directories.

The owners of low quality sites, of course, learned to game Google and an arms race has been going on ever since. In a way Google has lost as, if you try and search for something on Google you are now usually presented with a large number of relatively low quality advertising or retailer sites. Services like Blogspot and places like Facebook return the web to the ordinary person and individuals find their pool of personally trusted authority sites. Google can use the data created by links from and to blogs, Facebook pages, etc to assign page ranking and, as they show actual visitor traffic by real people, Google Toolbar, Google Adsense and Google Analytics must be godsends to them.

Blogspot (and other blogging services), Facebook, Twitter etc are now all heavily spammed, but real people choose who they follow and when, so depending on how much data it can get from them Google can analyse which social media pages give a degree of "real" authority. Like Google reader and their other services Buzz is entirely on their services, Google knows what's in my Google Reader and they know what's on my Google Buzz page, they must be pretty sure by now that I'm a real person and they have a fair idea of my sphere of interest, so they can rate the links I make and use that as one tiny data point in the calculation of the importance of web sites. Aggregate that over millions of users and Google gains valuable insight into the importance of sites as seen by social media users.

Done well, Buzz will help Google in its arms race to keep search relevant and so keep traffic coming. The owners of commercial websites will, of course, try to work out how to game the new system and I assume that SEO (Search Engine Optimization [sic]) practitioners are industriously trying to work out exactly how to do that right now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Captcha - now even the spammers use it

Like everyone I know I have a Spam filter on my email, unlike many people, some of my real mail looks a bit spammy to the filters so I always need to check my spam folder before deleting.

Over recent weeks I've noticed quite a few spam emails that contain no text at all, just a graphic like the one I'm displaying (After removing their website) -->

There's some interesting things about this spam.

  • It's absolutely minimal. The headers in the email contain almost nothing and the body of the email contains only the image.
  • There isn't even a link, which is why the image tries to get the user to manually enter the spammer's URL.
  • The image is low quality and distorted -- probably to try and defeat optical character readers.
  • It still doesn't work. Google's spam filter (and I assume other major filters) detect it with perfect accuracy. As they keep coming, I can only assume that sufficient minor filters don't.
The really ironic thing about this spam though is the apparent use of captcha. So many spammers use robots to leave their ads on bulletin boards, forums, blog comments and more that all these resources now make us decode distorted images (captcha) before we're allowed to leave genuine messages. Not only have the spammers worked hard to "improve" their software to defeat captcha but now they are trying to use it to defeat the guardians of our in-boxes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Politicians and "celebrities" shamed for science gaffes

"Did you know that when you eat meat, it stays in your gut for 40 years, putrefies and leads to a disease that kills you? 'That is a fact,' according to the model and charity campaigner Heather Mills, one of several celebrities whose statements in the media last year have been scrutinised and where necessary challenged by the British-based charity Sense About Science in its latest 'celebrity watch' review." (From New Scientist.)

The article concludes 'Any readers disturbed by Mills's meaty assertions can take comfort from Melita Gordon, a gastroenterologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, quoted by Sense about Science: "Meat proteins, like all other proteins, are digested by enzymes and absorbed in the small bowel before they ever reach the colon. Any remaining indigestible matter is mechanically transited through the whole bowel in a matter of days and expelled"'

Of course the real shame is that the "media" reports this disinformation essentially unchallenged in the first place. How hard can it be to check the facts and confront the spouters of nonsense rather than slavishly copying their words? Oh, yes, that's right, this would require the media actually employing people to do some independant research rather than just rewriting press releases.


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