Archive for June 2014


When it comes to mass surveillance, forget specificity

26.06.2014

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.

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Posted in globalization, internet, New Zealand, politics, technology, UK, USA | 1 Comment »


John Cleese is wrong about humour

26.06.2014

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.

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Posted in China, culture, humour, India, interests, media, UK | No Comments »


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

23.06.2014

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?

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Posted in branding, business, culture, internet, marketing, media, USA | 3 Comments »


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

19.06.2014

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.

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Posted in internet, technology, USA | 1 Comment »


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

17.06.2014

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.

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Posted in branding, business, culture, internet, marketing, Sweden | No Comments »


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

17.06.2014

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.

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Posted in business, internet, New Zealand, politics, publishing, technology, USA, Wellington | 1 Comment »


I might not have Facebook, but I do speak Ebonics

16.06.2014

Forty-nine hours and counting, which makes it the beginning of day three without Facebook.
   I didn’t really need it yesterday, so there’s something to be said about habits breaking after a couple of days. However, for work, I have needed to go on there: while Sopheak is covering for me as far as Lucire’s social media are concerned, I’m checking the finalists’ pages for Miss Universe New Zealand today. The problem now: many are coming up blank. Also it’s now impossible for someone to add me as an admin to their page (Facebook tells them I’m not a member and that it needs my email address).
   Facebook has been resolutely silent despite Tweets to them, which makes them worse than Google. At least Google has a support site where people lie to you, after which they go silent when they realize you have them over a barrel. At Facebook, you know you are getting ignored, and there’s no real way to file a bug report (if one of the bugs is you can’t post, then how can you post?).
   This bug appears to be spreading, if Twitter chatter is anything to go by, although things haven’t changed much at the unofficial forum at Get Satisfaction. However, I did find two posters at Get Satisfaction who have been out for six to eleven days.
   One Tweet of mine, strangely, did make it through as a cross-post; I wasn’t kidding when I said that being able to post is now the exception rather than the rule. (This, again, reminds me of the dying days of Vox.) But no one can like or comment on that post. If you’re a Facebook friend of mine, you can give it a go here. At least those who visit my wall and can see it (not everyone can) know something is up with Facebook, and that the site is, once again, broken.

On one of my visits today, this quiz intrigued me. It’s from MIT, and it ‘examines people’s knowledge of English grammar. We are interested in how this is affected by demographic variables such as where you live, your age, and the age at which you began learning English.’
   After completing the quiz, it made the following guesses about my English and what my first language is.

Language

   It does appear my dialect is African American Vernacular English, and my first language is English. The second choice of dialect, ‘New Zealandish’, is an odd one: does this mean Australian? Or a bad impersonation of Kiwi (Ben Kingsley in Ender’s Game or, worse, Steve Guttenberg in Don’t Tell Her It’s Me)? There’s a possibility my mother tongue is Dutch or Hungarian.
   One out of six isn’t good, but I suppose I should be happy that we even come up in the survey, and that there are sufficient quirks to New Zealand English for it to be identified by an algorithm.
   One is allowed to feed in the correct details, so hopefully the algorithm improves and other Kiwis won’t have such way-out results.
   Or, it means that if our government wants someone to visit the White House, I am the ideal interpreter.

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Posted in business, humour, internet, New Zealand, technology, USA | 1 Comment »


My forced Facebook sabbatical

14.06.2014

It’s been an interesting day with a forced Facebook sabbatical: I can no longer post, comment or like on the site, and it’s been that way since 3 a.m. GMT.
   I’d say I’m a fairly heavy Facebook user. There haven’t been that many days when I haven’t posted since I was sent an invitation by Paul Heck back in 2007, and when I last downloaded all my data, some years back, it was 3 Gbyte worth. It’d easily be double that today.
   So not having access to Facebook any more makes you realize how habitual it has become.
   I find that between bouts of work, I’d look in. I still do that even though I know I can’t interact on the site. I still can read others’ statuses (and send direct messages) but it seems normal to like the odd thing, a function I no longer have. In fact, one friend who I was in touch with expressed that he thought it was odd I had not liked some of his work, because that had become normal as well. It became a way of telling someone you cared.
   What I probably miss most is this: I’d share jokes on the place. Facebook seems to be the medium in which I do that today, instead of email. As I said in a blog post a while back in the wake of Timeline’s launch, it gives instant gratification: you know when you’ve got a favourable reaction. It’s a source of entertainment, too, and much of that came from socializing with silly puns and the like. Good brain exercise as well as providing a bit of levity.
   Being unable to access my own groups is a problem. I’m not sure if I can delete dodgy threads on them presently, but this shows how much I’ve come to use those groups for hobbies—to the point where I quite often learn about things from them. At least one is for work.
   Day one sans Facebook hasn’t been quite enough to alter my habits massively, since I’ve been occupied on other things. But it has made me aware of when I do go on the site and what I actually value on it. And it is to share a good laugh, in lieu of having a pint at a pub.
   It makes you wonder: where is the substitute? It hasn’t been on Tumblr, Twitter or Instagram, which I frequent. They have each evolved into narrow categories: Tumblr for visual stimulation, Twitter for quick comments, Instagram for sharing images and following some hobbies. Weibo has been more cathartic for me, rather than a place I interact. Google Plus is just where I post articles about Google.
   A friend and I Skyped this morning, in the small hours, and concluded again, as people have many times, that the next grand site will offer something so different, and so important to us, that Facebook will be seen as old hat and quaint. It was inevitable, as I repeated my story on how no one could have seen the fall of Altavista as 1998 ticked over. But, right now, if you find yourself Facebookless—and not by choice—it does leave a void in your routine in 2014. Believe me, I didn’t want to admit that.

One unlikely thought crossed my mind: what if it doesn’t come back? What if I found the limits of Facebook? After all, the error messages have all said that the bug is momentary, and to try back in a few minutes. It’s been 12½ hours so far, but Facebook time and real time are usually different things. I’ve been tracking bugs for years on Get Satisfaction, and things take at least half a year to get right at Facebook. For a start, a bug where one could not tag someone by their first name took six months to fix. The bug where New Zealanders could not see their Facebook walls on the 1st of each month took over six months to remedy since the first report (October 1, 2011; the last was April 1, 2012). It took 19 months for Lucire to secure its name on Instagram (well, it took a couple of days once it got to someone who cared—just like Blogger). It took three years for a Facebook page map for That Car Place to be correctly positioned in Upper Hutt and not Hamilton (since Facebook seemed to confuse owner Stephen Hamilton’s surname with his location, even though they were put in to the correct fields).
   This latest bug is particularly difficult because, despite finding pages where I could report it, I can’t post. The bug is that I can’t feed in anything, so what is the point of offering a comment box, when the message won’t “stick” or be sent? It is the equivalent of a giant poster asking, ‘Are you illiterate? If so, please write to …’
   Asking a friend to post on my wall on my behalf is useless, too, since one friend attempted to in the evening and also got an error; while another friend, also wanting to help me out, couldn’t see the wall at all. It plainly wouldn’t load, which is what I find on a cellphone browser like Dolphin.
   Trying to use Facebook to log in to an app does give a slightly different message: there is a link to an explanation on what is happening. This is absent everywhere else. Facebook claims that they are updating a database where my account is. It must be a very special database because I’ve seen fewer than half a dozen Tweets complaining of the same problem today.

No Facebook access

   However, I’ve become wary of explanations from big Bay Area websites, since few of them hold true.
   It brings back memories of Vox (no relation to the current site at the same URL) in 2009. Those of you who knew me from blogging there will recall the story: the posting window would take two days to come up for me. (It should take a second.) Six Apart, the then-owners of Vox, kept getting me to look at various things, or blamed my ISP, before I got fed up with the excuses. This went on for months.
   I eventually said, out of frustration: ‘Here is my email and here is my password. Use them at Six Apart headquarters in San Francisco. If you can get that posting window to appear instantly, I will admit it is my problem and shut up.’
   The end result was they couldn’t, either, but it took such a drastic action before I was believed, and I wasn’t some guy who didn’t know “how to internet properly”.
   I’ve seen Google outright lie—as some of you have seen on this blog—and I just wonder about Facebook right now. I’ve probably filed the greatest number of Facebook bugs of anyone at Get Satisfactionsince you can get blocked from Facebook and accused of abuse if you file them at the site itself—to keep a record of just how the site is disintegrating. What it says on the tin and what it does are becoming two very separate things.

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Posted in business, internet, technology, USA | 13 Comments »


Polarization in US politics: doesn’t that go against their idea of “rugged individualism”?

14.06.2014

There have been a few articles lately on the polarization of politics in the US, where the middle ground—people with views from both Democrat and Republican sides—has been eroded. William Shepherd linked this one on Twitter, from the Pew Research Center.
   My theory, sent on Twitter, was this:

You are correct, and it is something that we’ve observed in online behaviour for many years. It’s been dividing because of online tribes and the need to identify, short of having alternatives. Despite the national image of rugged individualism, the political system is so broken that it prevents this, leaving Americans needing to group behind one or the other. It is deeply dangerous, because it leads to institutionalization. It’s almost like saying that one has to support a secret police because it’s the only game in town.

   Jaklumen noted, in response to this:

My understanding (from professorial lectures) is that the U.S. political parties ideologically sorted themselves first but that the electorate on average is not so ideologically sorted. I see that may be changing.

to which I responded:

I suspect so, when I look online. The extremes are also the most vocal, and the moderate position doesn’t get support. Certain people want validation over having conviction, which is why you may see more tend toward the extremes. To the point where the other side is vilified.

   The first part (obviously these were compiled from about seven Tweets) is indeed something I’ve seen for a while: those willing to argue about both sides, and see the wood for the trees, are relatively few in number. This has definitely been the case online since I had a blog on Vox, where people took sides. But over time that hasn’t really changed—two presidential elections later, even the admission of compromise seems to cost elections. It certainly didn’t help John McCain or Eric Cantor.
   Yet the image of the US is one where individualism is glorified, and that still seems to hold true in most endeavours, certainly in commerce. It’s even something which the National Party here once tried to pursue (in 1999), because it wanted to champion innovation, seeing that the best ideas often came from the individual. However, the David Brat win in Virginia for the Republican primary in the Seventh Congressional District in Virginia, was less about a swing to the right than a candidate who publicly stated he was adhering to the principles of his party—whereas his rival, who raised twenty-fold the amount and spent similarly, was tarnished with both the impression of a willingness to compromise and distancing himself from his electorate.
   Of course it’s not the sole example. However, we are in an age where taking a political stance—or any stance—takes place in part in social media. Many years ago, I said to Bill that we are in a ‘headline culture’, where analysis is light and the belief in what a news headline says becomes the generally accepted viewpoint. One friend, in a friends-only comment on Facebook, wrote that he saw the media as complicit in giving false impressions of candidates. That headline culture deems certain people to think they are experts on a given topic, likes are given to someone who might repeat the headlines’ position, and there you have validation. It’s not just young people, as PBS might want us to think with its ‘Generation Like’ Frontline edition a few months back, but all of us who interact. Social media have simply brought this behaviour to the fore, where we might feel secure about a viewpoint because it comes with the backing of a group of people. And in politics, that group of people are driven by parties, the ones that have managed to get a collective view out there.
   To make us feel even more validated about our political choices, Google exacerbates this feelgood factor, inside a search bubble, by delivering us the results that seem to support the extremes. It has, after all, monitored us for ages, so its search results are customized to suit. Did you like David Brat over Eric Cantor? Here’s a link to Sean Hannity. This method of delivering search results, just like 24-hour mainstream news, isn’t making us more intelligent or better-informed: it’s potentially leaving us less willing to take an individualistic stand on a political viewpoint.
   But thinking for ourselves is hard, right? Well, not really. We all do it. It’s just that many of us need to feel confident for taking a stand that might not be popular, not worry when something doesn’t get likes, and be prepared to support our position when we feel it needs it.
   It doesn’t end at “rugged individualism”. One where taking a stand and allowing a viewpoint to be refined, attacked, and even altered is a good thing, if what results is a clearer understanding of how a society can move forward. Innovation, contrary to what one might think, doesn’t necessarily come from the individual—depending on the type of person you are, it often comes from the individual who interacts, not being altered by a mob, but by decent reasoning. Haven’t we also been told that innovation has often come from collaboration, and that agglomeration leads to stronger economies and societies? The same applies to politics.
   Therefore, those making comment on a position would do well to be civilized and polite, so that we can find a better way. For sometimes it’s easier not to defend a position because it takes time, or the other side comes across as immovable, uncompromising, and too blind or fixed in their way to see the alternative—or, as I found during the 2013 election, the trolls, who also do no one any favours, especially their own candidate, came forth. We need to permit decent discussions in political discourse, especially in a society where there’s potential that mob thinking and misinformation can drive it.

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Posted in culture, internet, media, politics, USA | 6 Comments »


The TV and film ideas that Ireland pioneered

02.06.2014

My friend Lou, who I enjoy winding up, just arrived in Belfast on holiday with her fiancé. I wrote on her Facebook the following slice of forgotten Irish television and film history.

If I was in Belfast, I would be rapping.

I pulled up to the house about seven or eight,
And I yelled to the cabby, ‘Yo mucker, smell you later!’
Looked at my kingdom, I was there at last
To sit on my throne as the prince of Bel Fast.

This is from the famous Irish sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Fast. It’s set during the Troubles, about an Irish lad growing up in Bogside, a predominantly Catholic part of Derry City, being touted by gang elements. After getting into trouble playing football outside his school, his mother decides to send him to his uncle and aunt in a wealthy Protestant enclave in north Belfast. It was bittersweet, but entertaining nonetheless, and was later remade by the Americans as a vehicle for Will Smith.
   The Irish came up with the best television series over the years. There was, of course, the RUC detective who was partial to Oatfield’s toffee, and drove around in a gold Vauxhall Victor, solving crimes on both sides of the divide, O’Jack (later remade by the Americans as a vehicle for Telly Savalas). South of the border, in Éire, the film industry was best known for the political romantic comedy, Taoiseach’s Pet, where a journalism student goes undercover in the highest office in the land, initially to get a scoop, but winds up falling in love (later remade by the Americans as a vehicle for Doris Day and Clark Gable).

   I’m waiting for her to tell her fiancé’s family all about these.
   The French came up with some good ones, too, over the years, and I believe these have appeared on this blog in a similar vein (they are for Stella Artois).

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Posted in culture, humour, internet, marketing, media, TV, USA | No Comments »