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    The Persuader

    My personal blog, started in 2006.



    23.07.2014

    The flyover: every option now heard

    Embarcadero_Waterfront_s

    Embarcadero Waterfront, photographed by Ricardo Martins/CC BY 2.0.

     

    I was consistent about the Basin Reserve flyover in my campaign. Yes, I agreed we needed improvements to the area. But no, spending millions on it—it did not matter whether it was from taxes or rates at the end of the day, because that still meant you and me, as citizens—seemed foolish if there were better-value options out there. What I said in 2013 was: it’s not one flyover, it’s actually two, if you studied the wording in the plans. And by the time you add up the totals, it was looking like $500 million—and for what benefit? The more roads you create, the more congestion there would be.
       What if we could get the traffic improved there without the blight of a flyover—the sort of thing some cities were removing anyway, making them as liveable as Wellington—and save the country hundreds of millions?
       In San Francisco, when the highway around Embarcadero Drive (now just ‘The Embarcadero’) was removed (you can see it outside the dodgy hotel room in Bullitt), that area became far more lively and pleasant, where there are now parks, where property values rose, and where there are new transit routes. The 1989 Loma Preita ’quake hurried the demolition along, but there’s no denying that it’s been a massive improvement for the City. Younger readers won’t believe how unpleasant that area used to be.
       Admittedly, I get ideas from San Francisco, Stockholm, and other centres, but why not? If they are good ones, then we need to believe we deserve the best. And we can generate still more from Wellington and show them off. Making one city great helps not just our own citizens, but potentially introduces new best practices for many other cities.
       The Richard Reid proposal for the Basin was my favoured one given the traffic benefits could be delivered at considerably less cost and would not be a blight on our city, yet it was getting frustrated at every turn—the media (other than Scoop) had precious little coverage of it.
       A Board of Inquiry was set up and I am glad to receive this word from Richard yesterday.
       ‘Our practice is very pleased with the Board of Inquiry’s decision to decline NZTA’s Basin Bridge Project. We are equally pleased that the Board has accepted the evidence we submitted against NZTA’s project on behalf of the Mt Victoria Residents Association and ourselves. Of particular note is the Board’s recognition of our alternative at-grade enhancement of the roundabout (BRREO) which we prepared as part of an integrated and holistic solution for the city.
       ‘The Board notes: “We are satisfied the BRREO Option, particularly having regard to the adverse effects we have identified with regard to the Project, is not so suppositional that it is not worthy of consideration as an option to be evaluated” [para 1483]. The Board also stated that “We found that it [BRREO] may nonetheless deliver measurable transport benefits at considerably less cost and considerably less adverse effects on the environment. We bear in mind that BRREO is still at a provisional or indicative stage and could be subject to further adjustment by further analysis.”
       ‘Given the Board’s comprehensive dismissal of NZTA’s application, it makes sense that we are given the opportunity to continue to develop BRREO. We look forward to working with NZTA, the Regional and City Councils.’
       Regardless of which option you favoured, I think you will agree with me that all proposals deserved a fair hearing. The Reid one did not prior to 2014, and that was mightily disappointing. I said to Mr Reid that if elected, every proposal would be judged fairly. Let every one be heard and be judged on its merits—and I am glad the Board of Inquiry has done just that.


    Filed under: design, New Zealand, politics, Wellington—Jack Yan @ 03.08

    04.07.2014

    Could Facebook follow Vox into the void?

    Originally posted to the Vox Neighbourhood on Facebook, without links

    6a00e54ee56f078834013486b0e915970c
    Key to the 2009 calendar. Yellow: days when Vox worked normally. Pink: days when the compose screen took minutes or hours to load. Red: days when Vox would not allow me to compose at all. I gave up on December 13, 2009, and consolidated all my long-form blogging here.

    A few weeks ago, what happened to me on Vox in 2009 happened here on Facebook. The difference was it was eventually remedied after 69 hours (Vox could not fix this over 6·9 weeks).
       I could no longer post, comment or like anything. Back at the end of 2009, my profile on Vox became so corrupted (through no fault of my own) that it would take up to two days before the compose window would come up (I would press ‘Compose’ regularly to see if the window would show and it would take two days of pressing before it would come up). Six Apart kept blaming this on me, my ISP, living in New Zealand, traceroutes, cookies, and the rest, until, at the end, I said: here are my username and password. If you can log in and get the window from your HQ, I’ll shut up.
       And they couldn’t. But there was never a solution. I had to leave because I could not compose a post any more.
       A year later, Vox was dead.
       I’m used to having corrupted profiles, whether it’s with Google, my telephone company, or with Facebook. No big company seems to be able to keep my data, and that’s probably a good thing. But what was bothersome is that spammers could still sign up for new accounts. You’ll remember that the biggest keywords on Vox for 2009–10 were Indian escort agencies, and those guys spammed the place like crazy. I was spending more and more time reporting spam accounts to Vox.
       When I was Facebook-less last month, I noticed the same. As with Vox, I could read other accounts. I could see group activity. And, for the past year, I would see bot accounts regularly, some allowed to be on Facebook for well over half a year. As on Vox, I would report them regularly. I’d find a minimum of two a day, and I’ve reported up to seventeen a day, trying to join my groups. I’ve just reported 11.
       People keep forecasting when Facebook would die, citing all kinds of reasons, such as new social networks, people getting bored of it, etc. But I wonder if the spammers will kill it eventually, to the point where there are hundreds of millions of spam accounts, hogging resources meant for legitimate users.


    Filed under: internet, technology, USA—Jack Yan @ 08.15

    03.07.2014

    Does Google advertising continue to track you after opting out?

    Google cookies

    Consistently, for the last several weeks, the ads I would see on YouTube have been for Hyundai. I didn’t think much of it, other than Hyundai going through an advertising blitz.
       After uncovering Google’s outright deceptions regarding its former Ads Preferences Manager, where the company promised not to track people when they opted out—but began tracking people within 24 hours after they opted out—I have been careful about the cookies on my system, especially from Google’s subsidiary, Doubleclick. Not only did I opt out of Google ads, after opting out, I blocked the Doubleclick cookie, which, logically, should mean that Google should not know my advertising preferences. All googleadservices.com cookies are also blocked. The fact that car advertising was creeping in was coincidental, I thought.
       Today, Holden advertised its Colorado on my YouTube visit, and I got suspicious.
       I know Google Plus tracks us—opting out of having your searches monitored also does nothing, incidentally—and the minute I removed all Google cookies, my automotive advertising on YouTube ceased. The first ad was Corona beer, and the second and third were Air New Zealand. Other videos—and I watched 10 to test—had no ads. No more Hyundais.
       So Google, despite all the opt-out mechanisms, and despite my being very careful about what cookies are being allowed on my system, may still be tracking my advertising preferences. It wouldn’t be the first time Google has been caught illegally and deceptively monitoring users after opt-outs or who have tighter browser privacy settings (using the Google Plus One button, which is how I suspect they are doing it). As I uncover more, I’ll update this blog.


    Filed under: cars, internet, technology, USA—Jack Yan @ 04.38

    02.07.2014

    The Wikipedia game

    The contributors or editors of Wikipedia are often quick to make changes after errors are pointed out. A recent funny one was for the suburb of Cannons Creek, in Porirua, when Wikipedia told a friend’s son:

    Cannons Creek is a suburb of Porirua City approximately 22km north of Wellington in New Zealand. The citizens attempted to expel a demon but the exorcism backfired, rendering the town uninhabitable for the last fifteen years.

    This was changed within hours of my Tweeting about it, so a contributor must have spotted the vandalism to the page.
       My earlier one about second-generation Hyundai Sonatas being classified as first-generation ones in the Wikimedia Commons was also remedied, which is good. I imagine someone will eventually see that the new Hyundai i10 cannot be both longer and shorter than its predecessor.
       However, I still hold a poor impression of Wikipedia because of an incident some years ago that suggested that certain people in the hierarchy gamed the system.
       The accusations of a senior editor—who accused me of defamation and tried to force me to remove a blog post with links about Wikipedia’s faults—did not stand up to any scrutiny. The lesson is: if you want to abuse me with legal arguments on email for five days, you’d better get your facts straight when you’re talking to a guy with a law degree. (She got her wish though, because of Six Apart closing down Vox, which is where I had blogged this.)
       It highlighted a certain arrogance among some of the people high up there. I hope she is not representative of senior Wikipedia editors but the amount of errors that I find—very serious, factual ones on things I know about—is ridiculous. Her behaviour suggested that facts won’t get in the way of power trips.
       One major error that has steadfastly remained for years is Wikipedia’s insistence that the Ford CE14 platform was used for a variety of US Ford cars in the 1980s. This work of fiction has made its way all over the internet, including to the IMCDB, a Ford Tempo fan site, and elsewhere.
       The correct fact is that CE14 was the 1990 European Ford Escort. Wikipedia states that it was used for the 1980 US Ford Escort and its derivatives (Mercury Lynx, Ford EXP, Mercury LN7) and the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz.
       This is incredibly easy to debunk for anyone who has followed the Ford Motor Company over the years, or read a book or a magazine article about it. First: Ford’s alphanumeric codes were not in existence when these US cars were being developed. Secondly, the Tempo and Topaz are not in the C segment at Ford, but the CD segment; but, in any case, they did not have an alphanumeric code. Thirdly, the E in CE14 stands for Europe, which, the last time I checked, is not in the US. Fourthly, the numbers are more or less sequential as the projects are lined up at Ford. If 7 is Probe, 11 (if I recall correctly) was the 1990 Ford Laser, then how on earth could 14 be for a car that came out in 1980? (You can point out that CD162 was released before CD132, but there is another story behind that.)
       The user who created the original, error-filled, unreferenced page has been awarded stars by their peers at Wikipedia. Well done.
       Wikipedia proponents will argue that I should go and correct this myself, but I wonder why I should. I’ve read how Wikipedia works, and a friend who tried to get false information corrected about his wife corrected confirms this. Senior editors check their facts online, and to heck with print references. What they will see is a lot of references to CE14 that back up the error (even though the error began with them), probably accuse and then block the new contributor of vandalism, and the status quo will be preserved. After all, Jimmy Wales—the man most regularly credited as founding Wikipedia—has his own birthday incorrectly stated on the website. It’s what Stephen Colbert called ‘Wikiality’: if enough people believe something to be true, then to heck with the truth.
       The Guardian cites some research at PARC:

       Chi’s team discovered that the way the site operated had changed significantly from the early days, when it ran an open-door policy that allowed in anyone with the time and energy to dedicate to the project. Today, they discovered, a stable group of high-level editors has become increasingly responsible for controlling the encyclopedia, while casual contributors and editors are falling away. Wikipedia – often touted as the bastion of open knowledge online – has become, in Chi’s words, “a more exclusive place”.
       One of the measures the Parc team looked at was how often a user’s edit succeeds in sticking. “We found that if you were an elite editor, the chance of your edit being reverted was something in the order of 1% – and that’s been very consistent over time from around 2003 or 2004,” he says.
       Meanwhile, for those who did not invest vast amounts of time in editing, the experience was very different. “For editors that make between two and nine edits a month, the percentage of their edits being reverted had gone from 5% in 2004 all the way up to about 15% by October 2008. And the ‘onesies’ – people who only make one edit a month – their edits are now being reverted at a 25% rate,” Chi explains.
       In other words, a change by a casual editor is more likely than ever to be overturned, while changes by the elite are rarely questioned. “To power users it feels like Wikipedia operates in the way it always has – but for the newcomers or the occasional users, they feel like the resistance in the community has definitely changed.”

       The late Aaron Swartz, whom I have admired, was quoted in the article:

    “I used to be one of the top editors … now I contribute things here and there where I see something wrong.” The reason, he explains, is that the site feels more insular and exclusive than in the past. “In general, the biggest problem I have with the editors is their attitude,” he says. “They say: ‘We’re not going to explain how we make decisions, we basically talk amongst ourselves.’

       It appears to be why Larry Sanger, the other guy who founded Wikipedia, left. This very behaviour was something he forecast a decade ago that appears to hold true today (original emphases):

       But there are myriad abuses and problems that never make it to mediation, let alone arbitration. A few of the project’s participants can be, not to put a nice word on it, pretty nasty. And this is tolerated. So, for any person who can and wants to work politely with well-meaning, rational, reasonably well-informed people—which is to say, to be sure, most people working on Wikipedia—the constant fighting can be so off-putting as to drive them away from the project. This explains why I am gone; it also explains why many others, including some extremely knowledgeable and helpful people, have left the project.
       The root problem: anti-elitism, or lack of respect for expertise. There is a deeper problem—or I, at least, regard it as a problem—which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated). This is one of my failures: a policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia’s first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respecting and deferring politely to experts. (Those who were there will, I hope, remember that I tried very hard.)
       I need not recount the history of how this nascent policy eventually withered and died. Ultimately, it became very clear that the most active and influential members of the project–beginning with Jimmy Wales, who hired me to start a free encyclopedia project and who now manages Wikipedia and Wikimedia—were decidedly anti-elitist in the above-described sense.
       Consequently, nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid editing Wikipedia, because they will—at least if they are editing articles on articles that are subject to any sort of controversy—be forced to defend their edits on article discussion pages against attacks by nonexperts. This is not perhaps so bad in itself. But if the expert should have the gall to complain to the community about the problem, he or she will be shouted down (at worst) or politely asked to “work with” persons who have proven themselves to be unreasonable (at best).

       I do not doubt for a second that Wikipedia was started with the best of intentions. It was a really good resource a decade ago, when it attracted the best minds to the project. It does, I am sure, attract some incredibly talented people who are generous and knowledgeable. I am told the science pages are some of the best written out there because those ones have been held up to the original Wikipedia standards. But many pages seem to reflect the great social experiment of the internet: email was great before spammers, and YouTube is great without comments. Democratization does not always mean that the masses will improve things, especially in the realm of specialist knowledge.
       And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a very long-winded way of explaining why I took the word wiki off the home page of Autocade 12 hours ago. I started it allowing public edits, using the same software as Wikipedia, and these days, only specialists can edit the site. The word wiki, ignoring its etymology, is now too closely associated with Wikipedia, and that brand is just too tainted these days for my liking.


    Filed under: branding, cars, culture, interests, internet, leadership, media, publishing, technology—Jack Yan @ 02.53

    26.06.2014

    When it comes to mass surveillance, forget specificity

    Be careful what you say on social media in Britain.
       English law permits mass surveillance of the big social media platforms, according to Charles Farr, the director-general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, in a statement published last week responding to a case brought by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Bytes for All, and five other national civil liberties’ organizations.
       While communications between British residents can only be monitored pursuant to a specific warrant, those that qualify as ‘external communications’ can be monitored under a general one, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
       Since most social networks are US-based, they qualify as external.
       ‘British residents are being deprived of the essential safeguards that would otherwise be applied to their communications—simply because they are using services that are based outside the UK,’ says Privacy International.
       ‘Such an approach suggests that GCHQ believes it is entitled to indiscriminately intercept all communications in and out of the UK.’
       One Conservative MP, David Davis, accuses ‘the agencies and the Home Office’ of hoodwinking the Commons, although Farr says the matter was expressly raised in the House of Lords, according to The Guardian.
       It was evident in 2000 that there was an international element to electronic communications. After all, telexes had been with us for decades, and emails were mainstream in the 1990s.
       None of this would have been brought to light without the revelations from Edward Snowden and the subsequent legal challenge at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, on the grounds that ‘The absence of [a legal framework under which surveillance of citizens takes place] appears to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 8, which provides the right to privacy and personal communications, and Article 10, which provides the right to freedom of expression.’
       If the decision of the Tribunal falls on the side of the civil liberties’ groups, then that could be useful to similar groups here. We’ve already seen the Court of Appeal find the arguments of the Attorney-General more compelling than those of Kim Dotcom and others when it comes to balancing search warrants and the right against unreasonable search and seizure in the Bill of Rights Act 1990. While not directly related, pragmatism outweighed specificity, and it’s not a step, I imagine, that proponents of the Act would feel at ease with.
       When it comes to foreign powers exerting influence on our agencies here, especially with indictments that were so grand for what is, at its core, a civil copyright case, one would have expected specificity would be a requirement. I also would have expected such agencies to have the legal experts who would have used very tight language in an international case against a foreign national.
       The worrying trend with both scenarios is that things are taking place against citizens as though they were a matter of course, not subject to state agencies taking great care and being aware of individual human rights.
       As communications are global today, then the frameworks need to start from the point of the view of the individual and protections afforded to one.
       Here, s. 21 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990 should protect citizens when it comes to reasonable expectations of privacy, and cases tend to start from the interest of the person, who must be informed of the search or surveillance.
       The distinction between domestic and ‘external’ has not existed for years: all our websites, for instance, have been hosted abroad since we went online in the 1990s. Anyone who has used Gmail, Hotmail, Zoho and its rivals would be using external communications. Yet I do not know of anyone who would have consented to surveillance without grounds for suspicion, and laws need to balance the external requirement—where threats are perceived to come from—with the expectation of privacy individuals have on everyday communications.
       The Search and Surveillance Act 2012 is tempered perhaps by the tort of privacy and some precedent, but it’s the new Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment Act 2013 that generates similar worries to those in Britain, because specificity has gone out the window.
       We already have had an Attorney-General claim wrongly during the bill’s second reading, ‘As I say, this bill does not represent an extension of powers but a clarification,’ when even a casual comparison between the 2003 act and the new one suggests a marked increase of powers. The Prime Minister has suggested similarly in saying that it was incorrect that the ‘GCSB will be able to wholesale spy on New Zealanders.’
       The requirement for the GCSB’s monitoring of foreign intelligence has been removed in s. 8B, and any intelligence it gathers in the performance of the section is not subject to the protections afforded to New Zealanders under s. 14. Under s. 15A (1), the ‘interception warrants’ can apply to a class of people, covering all communications sent to or from abroad. These warrants can be very general, no threat to national security is required, thus eroding the expectation of privacy that New Zealanders have.
       The process through which the bill went through Parliament was disgraceful. Dame Anne Salmond noted:

    During the public debate on the GCSB bill, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dr. Rodney Harrison QC spoke out about its constitutional implications, while I addressed its implications for democratic rights and freedoms in New Zealand.
       In reply, the Attorney-General made ad hominem attacks on Harrison, me, Sir Geoffrey and other critics of the legislation during the debate on the GCSB bill, under Parliamentary privilege, and without answering the concerns that had been raised.
       These attacks on independent agencies and offices, and on individuals suggest a campaign of intimidation, aimed at deterring all those who oppose the erosion of human rights in New Zealand from speaking out, and making them afraid to ‘put their heads above the parapet’.

       If we think our laws could protect us against the sort of mass surveillance that is legal in Britain, then we are kidding ourselves. By my reading, interception warrants can take place under the flimsiest of reasons, almost in a desperate attempt to catch up with these other jurisdictions, rather than considering New Zealand values and what our country stands for.
       If Britain is successful at amending the scope of RIPA 2000, then that would be a useful first step in redressing the balance, acknowledging that communication is global, and that citizens should have their privacy respected.
       One hopes such action inspires New Zealanders to follow the path of Privacy International and others in questioning our government’s expanded surveillance powers over us. Those who are already leading the charge, I take my hat off to you.


    Filed under: globalization, internet, New Zealand, politics, technology, UK, USA—Jack Yan @ 11.45


    John Cleese is wrong about humour

    Has John Cleese become embittered?
       He suggests that the Bond films after Die Another Day (his second and final) were humourless because the producers wanted to pursue Asian audiences. Humour, he says, was out.
       ‘Also the big money was coming from Asia, from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, where the audiences go to watch the action sequences, and that’s why in my opinion the action sequences go on for too long, and it’s a fundamental flaw.’ And, ‘The audiences in Asia are not going for the subtle British humour or the class jokes.’
       I say bollocks.
       It’s well known that with Casino Royale, the producers went back to Fleming, and rebooted the series. Quite rightly, too, when the films had drifted into science fiction, with an invisible car and, Lee Tamahori’s nadir, a CGI sequence where Pierce Brosnan kite-surfed a tsunami.



       As to Asia—always a curious word, since we are talking 3·7 milliard people who cannot be generalized—does no one remember the groundswell of interest around the filming of You Only Live Twice? Bond was big in Asia long before 2006.
       If Cleese specifically means China, all the Bonds were well received in Chinese-populated places before the Bamboo Curtain came down: Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, etc. So it’s a cinch that mainland Chinese would like it, too. And they have embraced Bond and its Britishness.
       Or, as most Britons, he meant south Asia. I’ve only been to India, but there’s such a lasting legacy of the colonial days that many in the region get British humour. Again, too, Octopussy’s Indian location filming saw a huge love for all things Bond.
       The structure of Chinese humour is very similar to that of British humour, though you would have to be bilingual to appreciate this. But even monolinguists should be able to pick up the timing and pacing of Chinese humour to know that British humour would be appreciated.
       They may not be marketed as such in the occident, but a lot of the Jackie Chan films are comedies. Police Story is littered, in the original dialogue, with comedic lines.
       Class humour? Again present in a lot of Asia.
       So he’s well off in his estimation. If anything, it’s the casting of Americans to appease that market that seems dreadfully forced (Halle Berry, Denise Richards, Teri Hatcher).
       Hands up all those who would have preferred to see Monica Bellucci as Paris Carver instead of Teri.
       And now we have some in the media, no doubt having forgotten the humorous moments in the three Daniel Craig-era Bonds, writing to agree with, or to appease, Cleese.
       After all, who knows more about humour than one of the Monty Python creators? We must agree if we are to show that we, too, understand humour.
       Maybe others don’t have that same British sensibility or enjoy the subtlety. Skyfall’s quips were more evident than in the earlier Craig outings, though they were still fun lines, ‘A gun and a radio, not exactly Christmas’; ‘Health and safety, carry on.’ Not quite Roger Moore then.
       Nevertheless, in the Craig era, M gets frustrated that Bond kills all the leads in Quantum of Solace; Bond takes a hotel patron’s Range Rover Sport in the Bahamas, crashes it against a fence, and is recognized later in the bar by the owner in Casino Royale. Good humour is so often between the lines, things where you have to process them briefly, or communicated sometimes through an expression.
       British humour need not always be Benny Hill or Carry on.
       Humour, particularly in the southern parts of China, tends to give the reaction of: did I just get complimented or insulted?
       Yet few seemed to mind that the humour in most of Brosnan’s era to be very Americanized, with the exception of Goldeneye. And the stories themselves, where Bond became a caricature, and, frankly, a waste of a decent leading man, were two-dimensional: Brosnan with two machine guns in the finalé of Tomorrow Never Dies! Just like in a John Woo film! And we are to believe that was more “British”, in an interminable action sequence? If it weren’t for Jonathan Pryce and Toby Stephens camping up their roles, those outings would be far less Bondian.
       Once again, it demonstrates the short memories of the cinemagoing public—or, for that matter, that of a very remarkable and talented actor and writer.
       And having hit their stride now, the Bond producers are laughing all the way to the bank.


    Filed under: China, culture, humour, India, interests, media, UK—Jack Yan @ 10.12

    23.06.2014

    Google Plus is about to turn three: will media remember the hype?

    As Google Plus nears yet another anniversary—I believe it’s its third next week—it’s interesting to reflect back on the much-hyped launch. Or, more accurately, on the number of people who drank the Google Kool-Aid and believed this would be the biggest thing since Facebook. Have a glance at the cheerleading: a handful of links I could find quickly today included Testically, Techcrunch, Ghacks (though I don’t blame them, since they are run for the Google community) and Readwrite. It had allies like this in the blogging community. Forbes was still championing it as late as December 2013. As I wrote this, Mashable was one that raised the issue of privacy back then, though I’m sure there were others.
       I want to clear up that I am not criticizing a single person here for a lapse of ethics. I’m simply pointing out the buzz: many tech experts pumped up Plus. I know one (there could have been more) who backtracked less than half a year later when it failed to make much of an impact and stated what he really meant.
       I realize that there are some opinion leaders on there who are doing remarkably well. However, generally, fewer people are on it actively compared with Facebook, and fewer threads and conversations take place. Despite Google’s methods of forcing people on it, by linking it to YouTube, where a lot of people comment, it still hasn’t taken off in the public’s imaginations.
       You’re always going to get a biased view from me about Google, but not one borne out of a philosophical reason or some dislike of Californians or Americans (and I have cousins and an aunt who are both). It was borne out of the disconnect between what the firm said and what the firm did: everything from the outright lies over years of the Ads Preferences Manager (a system that has since been replaced) to the blacklisting system (where, it was discovered, only two part-time people were devoted to it, leaving queries unanswered on its forums and sites unfairly and wrongly blacklisted with no resolutions). Yet I was once a Google cheerleader, if you go back far enough on this blog, let down by its actions. This blog itself was once on Blogger.
       I took the stance (which I read from Stowe Boyd) that if the original Google organized the web, and Facebook organized your friends, then that didn’t leave Google Plus an awful lot to do. What I cannot get is, with Google’s endless dismeanours, why people would continue to take its PR department’s hype at its word.
       You might argue that others haven’t been as upset by these faults as I have. That, for the overwhelming majority, they just go to Google for search and it rarely suffers downtime. In fact, it’s very good in delivering what people wanted there. This was Google’s “killer app”, the thing that toppled Altavista, the biggest website in the world.
       But, Google tells us, it owns all these other things, and we now know that it sends all those data to the NSA and is complicit in snooping. We know it got round browser settings in Safari through hacking so it could spy more on the public—until it was busted by the Murdoch Press. Courageous American attorneys-general punished Google by docking it a massive four hours’ pay.
       Surely that would be enough to turn people off? Apparently not.
       No one really seems to mind having this happen, and I am a hypocrite because I use Facebook and know it’s up to the same tricks. I had to go to the Network Advertising Initiative to block Facebook’s new ad cookie from targeting me, fetching my data when I’m off-site. But you don’t see me pump up Facebook very often. I’ll give it kudos when it’s deserved (I thought Timeline was a great interface when new) and flak when it’s not. It’s not a blind admiration, and that’s what I sense of the big G.
       And it’s not the brand. A good brand is one that is transparent and has integrity. It walks its talk. Sure, Google does well in those surveys—so what does that really say? Enron did well in surveys, too. It even won an award for climate change action.
       So why the love from some quarters of the media? Did it take Snowden and PRISM for there to be more than just casual reporting on Google’s faults? And shouldn’t there be more depth than this?
       Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s community. What the big G has done well—and Facebook, for that matter—is bring people together. Here’s a story on a man who is a tech lead on Google Glass, innovating at a university. Folks like this come together because of innovations pushed by these big tech firms. One of my good friends, who is supportive of Google, says the positives outweigh the negatives. So when Google or YouTube goes down—my queries took minutes to resolve over the weekend—most people see that. Ditto with Facebook: even when it was down for some users last week (which, incidentally, didn’t make the news, though the 20-minute global outage on Thursday did—I still maintain there is some limit people are hitting on one or some servers, and Facebook acknowledges it was a software bug, not an attack from China), I was still checking in to see if things were back. I liked my communities and the people I engaged with.
       So when it comes to pointing out a bug with Google—as I had to last year when its robot would not whitelist clean, previously blacklisted sites—that same community bands together, ignoring the pleas of innocent users, and maintaining the high-and-mighty stance that there could not possibly be anything wrong with its systems. Blogger was the same, when “tech support” and the main Blogger contact were complicit, to the point of deleting evidence that proved a fault, and it took the then-product manager’s intervention to be ethical, honest, transparent and proactive. One good guy (who has since moved on to other parts of Google—yet he still helped me out on a remaining bug last year), but one messed-up support system. And I have to wonder if that is symptomatic of the bigger picture at the big G. It’s not all fun with Owen Wilson trying to be an intern—but it sure does well getting itself into films to portray the positive, upbeat, and inspiring side of the business.
       However, it’s the task of media not to be sucked in to any of this, and to provide us an objective view. To report fairly and dispassionately, and to put aside a press junket or a Silicon Valley gathering. There are polite ways of providing criticism, if it’s about maintaining some level of mana within that community and to ensure a steady flow of inside news. I always find—and again I admit I am biased—that I can’t really read anything about Google without my mind going first to some of these deeper problems, so why not offer such a balance when they are directly relevant?
       Google Plus’s anniversary might go largely unnoticed. But it would be interesting if someone in the media noted just how many colleagues hyped it up at the time. Will we see such a report next week?


    Filed under: branding, business, culture, internet, marketing, media, USA—Jack Yan @ 03.09

    19.06.2014

    Facebook reaches its limits again: ‘Sorry, something went wrong’

    Mea culpa: OK, I was wrong. Facebook got things back up in about 20 minutes for some users, who are Tweeting about it. However, as of 8.37 a.m. GMT, I am still seeing Tweeters whose Facebooks remain down.
       Looks like some people do work there after hours. What a surprise!
       However, I reckon things aren’t all well there, with two big outages in such a short space of time—and I stand behind my suspicions that Facebook has reached some sort of limit, given the increase in bug reports and the widespread nature of the outage tonight.

    That didn’t last long, did it?
       Facebook returned late morning on Tuesday—as predicted, it would only be back once the folks at Facebook, Inc. got back to work at 9 a.m. on Monday and realized something had run amok.
       Now it’s Thursday night NZST, and if Twitter’s to be believed, a lot of people globally can no longer access Facebook. This is a major outage: it seems one of every few Tweets is about Facebook being down.
       Just over two days, and it’s dead again.
       Looks like I wasn’t wrong when I wondered whether that I had hit a limit on Facebook. To be out for nearly three days suggests that there was something very wrong with the databasing, and the number of people affected were increasing daily.
       And when you look at the bugs I had been filing at Get Satisfaction, there has been a marked increase of errors over the past few weeks, suggesting that there was some instability there.
       For it to have such a major failing now, after being out for some users this weekend, doesn’t surprise me. This time, groups and Messenger have been taken out, too.
       Facebook really should have taken note of the errors being reported by users.
       My experience with Vox was very similar, although there the techs couldn’t get me back online. They gave up at the end of 2009. The similarities are striking: both sites had databasing issues but only with certain users; and both sites were overrun with spammers creating fake accounts. That’s one thing that did piss me off: spammers having more privileges than a legitimate user.
       Well, we can probably wait till 9 a.m. PDT when they get back to work. It may say, ‘We’re working on getting this fixed as soon as we can,’ in the error message, but as far as I can make out from what happened to me, Facebook is a Monday–Friday, 9–5 operation, not a 24-hour, seven-day one.
       At least it died on a weekday: we can count ourselves lucky.


    Filed under: internet, technology, USA—Jack Yan @ 08.09

    17.06.2014

    Ikea tries to shut down its biggest fan site, showing us how the company thinks within

    In an age of social media, you would think it was the most stupid thing to try to shut down the biggest online community you have.
       Ikea has done just that, on IP grounds, against Ikea Hackers, by getting their legal department to send Jules Yap, its founder, a cease-and-desist letter after her site had been going for eight years. In that time she had sent customers to Ikea, after they were inspired by the new ideas her community had on doing new things with Ikea furniture.
       There are arguments that Ikea could have been liable for any injuries sustained from the “hacks”, but that’s daft. Are we really that litigious as a society, prepared to blame someone for something we ourselves freely chose to do? Ikea has instructions on how to build their furniture, and it’s your own choice if you are prepared to go against them.
       And eight years is an awfully long time to bring a case against someone for trade mark usage, rendering this claim particularly weak.
       There are other Ikea-hacking websites and Facebook pages as well—so it’s even dumber that Ikea would go after one with such a huge community, a website that has an Alexa ranking currently in the 20,000s (in lay terms: it has a huge audience, potentially bigger than that of Ikea’s corporate site itself in Jules’s country, Malaysia).
       Jules says that she has to take down the ads as part of her settlement for being able to retain the site—ads that simply paid for her hosting, which she might not be able to afford to do any more. (Some fans have offered to host for free or provide new domain names.)
       The Ikea Hackers logo doesn’t look remotely like the Ikea one, which would readily imply there was no endorsement by the Swedish company.
       Therefore, Ikea’s statement, on its Facebook, holds very little water.

    Vi är glada för det engagemang som finns för IKEA och att det finns communities runt om i världen som älskar våra produkter lika mycket som vi gör.
       Vi känner ett stort ansvar mot våra kunder och att de alltid kan lita på IKEA. Det är viktigt för oss att värna om hur IKEA namnet och varumärket används för att kunna behålla trovärdigheten i varumärket. Vi vill inte skapa förvirring för våra kunder om när IKEA står bakom och när vi inte gör det. När andra företag använder IKEA namnet i kommersiellt syfte, skapar det förvirring och rättigheter går förlorade.
       Därför har Inter IKEA Systems, som äger rättigheterna till IKEA varumärket, kommit överens med IKEA Hackers om att siten från slutet av juni 2014 fortsätter som en fan-baserad blog utan kommersiella inslag.

    Essentially, it uses the standard arguments of confusion, safeguarding its trade mark, and—the Google translation follows—‘When other companies use the IKEA name for commercial purposes, it creates confusion and rights are lost.’
       This can be fought, but Jules elected not to, and her lawyer advised against it. It’s a pity, because I don’t think she received the best advice.
       On Ikea’s Swedish Facebook page, some are on the attack. I wrote:

    I would hardly call her activity ‘commercial’ in that the ads merely paid for her web hosting. I doubt very much Jules profited. But I will tell you who did: Ikea. She introduced customers to you.
       While your actions are not unprecedented, it seems to fly in the face of how one builds the social aspects of a modern brand.
       The negative PR you have received from this far outweighs the brand equity she had helped you build. It was a short-sighted decision on the part of your legal department and has sullied the Ikea brand in my mind.

       This won’t blow over. It’s not like politics where people are disinterested enough for all but the most impassioned to retain memory of a misdeed. (For example, does Oravida still mean anything to anyone out there?) Ikea is a strong brand, and mud sticks to them. Some years ago, I met a woman who still had a Nestlé boycott in place after the company’s milk powder incidents of the 1960s. And all of a sudden, Ikea’s alleged tax fraud (see here for the SVT article, in Swedish) or the airbrushing of women out of its Saudi Arabian catalogue come to mind. They’re things most people forget, because they go against the generally positive image of an organization or Ingvar Kamprad himself, until there’s some misstep from within that shows that things are rotten in Denmark—or in Sweden, as the case is here. Or is it the Netherlands, where its company registration is?
       Brands are, in particular, fragile. I have maintained for over a decade that brand management is increasingly in the hands of the audience, not the company behind it—something underpinning my most recent academic paper for the Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing. We all know that there must be as much consistency between the views of the brand held by the organization and those held by the public. The greater the chasm, the weaker the brand equity. Here, Ikea is confirming the worst of its behaviour done in the name of its brand, all for the sake of some euros (I won’t say kronor here)—meaning the consistent messages are not in clever Swedish design, but between what it’s doing in this case and what it allegedly does in Liechtenstein.
       And since the foundation that controls Ikea is technically not for profit, then it’s a bit rich for this company—accused of tax avoidance by calling itself a charity—to be calling Jules’s activities ‘commercial’. It is hypocritical, especially when you bear this in mind:

    In 2004, the last year that the INGKA Holding group filed accounts, the company reported profits of €1.4 billion on sales of €12.8 billion, a margin of nearly 11 percent. Because INGKA Holding is owned by the nonprofit INGKA Foundation, none of this profit is taxed. The foundation’s nonprofit status also means that the Kamprad family cannot reap these profits directly, but the Kamprads do collect a portion of IKEA sales profits through the franchising relationship between INGKA Holding and Inter IKEA Systems.

       The tax haven secret trust the companies use is legal, says Ikea, which is why it pays 3·5 per cent tax. I have little doubt that the complex structure takes advantage of laws without breaking them, and Kamprad was famous for departing Sweden for Switzerland because of his home country’s high taxes. The cease-and-desist letter probably is legal, too. And they show you what mentality must exist within the organization: forget the Swedishness and the charitable aspects, it’s all about the euros.


    Filed under: branding, business, culture, internet, marketing, Sweden—Jack Yan @ 10.47


    Creating real value, and that’s not what Facebook and Twitter do

    My forced Facebook sabbatical came to an end in the late morning. So what did I think of it all?
       One of my Tweets last night was: ‘I hope [it is temporary], though I have found people out for 7–12 days now. Now it’s Monday I hope they have got over their hangovers!’ At the time I thought: this Facebook is probably not a 24-hour operation. These guys are probably off for the weekend, and they work part-time. We might see them on Monday morning, US time, or whenever they come back from Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Bill Cosby Day, or whatever it is they celebrate over there. Oh, it’s California, so they are probably stoned.
       Sixty-nine hours weren’t quite enough to break my habits, though they were beginning to change. No more was I looking up Facebook in bed before I go to the office, or having a quick gander at night. But on the desktop, I left one tab open, which would always draw me there to have a glance at what friends were up to.
       The timing was a bit exceptional: we had the top 23 pages for the Miss Universe New Zealand 2014 finalists to launch. Had it not been for that, I wonder if I would have bothered with Facebook at all. I had queries to field, direct messages to respond to.
       The direct messaging is obviously separate from the rest of Facebook, as it was the one thing that hadn’t failed. But everything else was worsening: initially losing liking, commenting and posting, then losing the fan pages I administered. Friends could not see my wall, while a few who could see it tried to like things and were given errors. Aside from a few exceptions, no one seemed to think this was out of the ordinary and worth chatting to me about. Not that I mind this: they could all get in touch with me via other media. But this signals that it is OK to get an error when liking something, and shrug it off as temporary, because we believed Facebook when it told us to try again in a few minutes. Never mind that in Facebookland, ‘a few’ means 4,000. We have low expectations of these dot coms.
       So when people joke about how these things always tend to happen to me, I wonder. I’ve always maintained they happen to us all. Maybe the difference is I don’t believe these buggers when they tell me that things will be back in a few minutes, because invariably they don’t. So I put an entry in to Get Satisfaction, or on this blog, so others don’t feel they are alone.
       And if I had found the limits of the site—because I believe on Vox I did in 2009, when exactly the same thing happened, and the techs had no way out—then Facebook should know about this.
       Facebook was, through all of this, useless. It had closed down its Known Issues on Facebook page, which seemed foolhardy, because this certainly was a known issue with the increasing number of Tweets about it. There were no acknowledgements, and most of the time, feeding anything into its report forms resulted in errors. Sometimes I got a blank screen. Its own help pages told you to do things that were impossible. If it were any other firm, people would be crying bloody murder or wanting their money back. (And I am technically a customer, through my mayoral campaign last year.)
       A few other accounts came back, for the people I interacted with on Twitter and Get Satisfaction in the same predicament.
       So what now? I might Facebook less. The 69 hours were a good reminder. One of the things I had watched during the sabbatical was the following video via Johnnie Moore, where Douglas Rushkoff speaks about how these big innovators aren’t really adding value, only capital. He gives the example of Twitter:

    The company that was going to be the maker of things now has to be the site where he aggregates the other makers of things … so that you can show multi-billion-dollar returns instead of the hundred millions that you were doing … You know, for Twitter, I just saw yesterday, they’re failing! Only $43 million last quarter! Isn’t that awful? Oh my God! Only $43 million, which is, I mean, how many employees do they have? I think that would be enough but their market cap is so outlandishly huge, so much money has gotten stuck in there, that they’re gonna be stuck looking for a new way to somehow milk more money out of an otherwise great tool and they’re gonna kill it. They have to—they have to, ’cause they need that home run.

       Can we expect there to be greater innovation in such an environment, for any of these platforms? If we aren’t feeling the same buzz we once did with these sites, there’s a good reason, and the above is part of the problem. They aren’t creating value any more, only market cap and stock, or, as Rushkoff says, ‘static capital.’

    This is what [Thomas] Piketty was really writing about … Capital has the ability to actually create profit, so all these companies, all this development, are really just different versions gaming the system rather than rewiring the system, rebooting it, which is the opportunity here.

       I spent part of the last few days looking at the PDF proofs for Lucire Arabia, where at least I know I am part of making something that is creating value and, through its content, helping people. While my original motive for being on Facebook et al was promotional, for my businesses, I have to question if that was the best use of my time, and for creating value. Facebook organized my friends, as Google organized the web—now that those are done, there is the next step.
       I left Vox—or rather, Vox left me when the site died and I was no longer able to post—and put more time elsewhere, namely into my first mayoral election campaign. I knew I was creating an opportunity to help people, and the upshot of that is the free wifi system we have in Wellington today (ironically probably very heavily used to update Facebook). It meant more than a means to Facebook and Instagram: the bigger picture was to signal to the tech sector that Wellington is open for business, and that we aren’t being left behind in an industry that can create frictionless exports and intellectual capital.
       We aren’t quite there again in 2014, as Facebook is back, but it may be worth contemplating just where I’m creating value for business and society when it’s not election year. This year, I don’t have a book planned—but it may have to be something where a good bunch of people are going to get some benefit.


    Filed under: business, internet, New Zealand, politics, publishing, technology, USA, Wellington—Jack Yan @ 05.25

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