Sunday, 30 December 2007

The genius of Apple

With the huge resurgence in popularity and profitability at Apple, the importance of sleek design is clear. But I wish they would apply the same rigour (and some of their soaring value) to customer support. I spent five years in the Windows wilderness until I returned to Mac world three months ago.

All was peachy until Christmas night when the Mac battery stopped charging on Christmas Day. On close investigation we discovered that a staple was embedded in the magnetic power socket and was interfering with the contacts on the power adaptor. Even after removing the staple, the adaptor was not working and the magnetic pull was very strong. I went to bed and slept on the problem and the following day I tried again. The mac booted up, but only on the external power and only when the battery was removed. When the battery was in place, the mac booted but the screen remained dark - pointing to a power management issue.

Apple telephone support advised me to take it to my nearest Apple store - in Exeter, quite a distance from me. I had to ring and book an appoinment with a "genius" - another two day delay and a half day's time. The genius replicated the behaviour and said I'd have to leave it with them for investigation. He also suggested that the staple might invalidate my warranty.

When I said that it's pretty shabby to have to leave my three month old computer with them and not receive a replacement, the genius said that BMW would probably not give me a replacement car if they found a banana skin shoved up the exhaust pipe. I fail to see the connection between shoving a banana skin into something and not noticing that my socket has attracted a small, neighbouring object. And the bottom line is, if my car breaks down, it's easy to find an alternative. It is not easy to find an alternative computer where you can transfer your applications and files in a seamless manner.

Why is it not possible to rent a replacement machine at a low rate while your machine is in for repair? Before you buy, all the literature tells you why you must buy this product, how it will transform the way you work and socialise. But when something goes wrong, there's no hurry now, you'd better learn to manage without it!

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Number crunching in the garden

This time last year, my social networks stretched to Skype. LinkedIn and a dormant blog. Nowadays, I must perform a growing number of housekeeping tasks to keep on top of a busy online lifestyle.

Today I went to delete some Facebook groups and was intrigued by the numbers.

I love Openads has 70 members and is administered by seven of the winning team at Openads. These people and this software is a major highlight of my year.


The Skype Developer group has 56 members but represents a platform delivering millions of software extras for Skype. Three of the group administrators no longer work for Skype.

The Techcrunch group has a surprisingly modest 282 members. Mike Arrington isn't among the two administrators - is this an oversight, a mistake or deliberate?


Om Malik is miles ahead of Arrington with more than 2,000 members in the GigaOM group. Personally administered by the great guy himself - the personal touch matters it seems.

With an exciting almost 1,000 members, the off-valley tech commentary proves its value and interest and benefits from personal supervision from key staff.

At 123 members, the Blognation group wasn't rounding up members like Om or RWW. But Blognation Belgium group (111 members) and Blognation Canada group
(60 members) showed the potential reach of the troubled project.

The Tech Writers, at 134 members is a fine size for a group that receives nil activity or administration. Membership is safe and requires no effort I guess. I will try to get some input going soon.

At the bottom of the scale are 10 Social Hermits. This group is a friendly cave to hide when the social whirl gets too much; a space for peace and contemplation.





Finally, off the richter scale, is 6 Degrees of Separation with a whacking 3.3 million + users. Gaining hundreds of thousands of members per day, and run by a Steven Jackson (sole admin) from London, author of a recently published thriller. I have absolutely no idea what this is about but it seems to be working - go spam go.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Hearing things on Skype

Today I was going to blog about curtains at Blognation - an elegant closure to a sorry tale. But my atttention has been distracted by something far more interesting and positive; a series of tutorials to help blind people to use Skype.

A blind lady has put together a series of voice tutorials to help blind people navigate their way around Skype. The navigation uses various scripts to translate Skype menus into the JAWs application that helps blind (Windows) users interpret the content of computer windows. As a sighted person, I closed my eyes and tried to visualise my way through the complex menu focus and commands but I could not follow the JAWs instructions which were way too quick for my poor ears. But JAWs users prefer to control the speed setting to speed past the page elements they already understand (or don't want) to reach the element that concerns them. At that point, they can reduce the speed until they are familiar with that element.

For all their focus on usability, few web 2.0 products are designed with accessibility in mind. Of all the sites using AJAX to create a drag and drop user interface, how many consider the needs of blind viewers? Of all the sites that incorporate sound and video, how many factor in deaf or blind users? When bloggers add widgets to their blogs to enrich the user experience, how many examine the impact on disabled users? And when programmers write the UI code, how many consider the learning curve for blind users when they make UI changes? These are serious considerations for web 2.0 developers because, with freedom comes responsibility. If you want to push your product into various institutional markets, accessibility is a basic entry requirement.

I learned about these tutorials in a public chat frequented by Skype afficionados, staff, developers and general onlookers. The developer of the Chat Translator for Skype has been working with Marrie (the blind tutor) and other blind volunteers who helped him build accessibility into his Chat Translator extra. This application manages some of their accessibility issues because JAWs will only read chats from the window that is in focus and if multiple chats are ongoing, messages will be missed. The Chat Translator overcomes this issue because you can set an option to read all chats aloud.

Before my Christmas package from Skype last year, I enjoyed early previews of the Chat Translator and discussed the possibilities for people with disabilities at some length. But I failed to make a sufficient business case for participation and then I had some basic survival matters to focus on. This was not the first time that Skype glanced at the area of usability and disability (a.ka. accessibility) as Stuart Henshall wrote about in Skype Journal over two years ago. But each previous concept was shelved in the face of more compelling business priorities - it's all a matter of priorities I guess.

Usability is a big word these days and grabbing UI feedback from Jo(e) User prior to development is an essential part of the meagre budget of many web 2.0 startups. But usability has many elements and blind readers have an awful lot to teach us about it. Shut your eyes and visualise your way around your application and you will lose your way. Try to figure how to navigate between internal and external widgets, between mandatory and required fields in forms, around flash images and google maps . . . Blind users must develop an internal mind map of their computers, remembering vast sequential routes to information and target pages. By working with these users, developers can gain deep insight into usability.

When this chat came up this evening I had a thought. If everybody in this chat donated a few bucks and a few hours, we could build this type of development into common practice. We could incorporate user feedback from some of the most savvy users on the web into our UI design - and it need not cost much when you incorporate these principles into site and UI design from the get go. If you are interested in donating 20 bucks and 20 hours to this simple goal, please leave a comment. If more than 10 people offer to help, we'll set something formal up - otherwise - thanks for the interest.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Sethi fraud was all Mike Arrington's fault

After a frenzied week of speculation around the blogosphere, Sam Sethi has finally thrown in the towel, and posted his resignation as CEO of Blognation. And even in this closing statement he couldn't show any grace or decency. It's nice to know that it is Mike Arrington's fault that I didn't get paid for two months work plus a stack of expenses. I can sleep better at night knowing that Sam is going to sell Blognation and I can finally expect my cheque in the post. And I don't have to worry about any more threats from him because he is too busy threatening others to have time.

I don't think anybody doubts that Blognation was (and I hope will continue to be) a great idea. That is why I joined - not for the ego-boost or the party invites or the self-aggrandisement - in fact I hated those aspects of it. I'd love to see it survive but I fear that Sam will take it down with him. He writes that he plans to auction Blognation and use the money to pay his debts. I have no doubt that he will try to sell it but I have little faith in fair dispersal of the income. He has said or done nothing in the past six months to inspire any confidence in this promise.

It astounds me that in light of the debacle, so many of the comments to Sam's post wish him luck. Not so Mathew Ingram (sensible chappie) who says "this is one of the most mealy-mouthed and insincere posts I’ve seen from an alleged business person since Conrad Black stopped blogging." A year ago, Sam had his infamous spat with Mike Arrington and it is interesting to read Marc Canter's views on that part of the Sethi soap opera.

Loic has every right to call Sam an asshole. He is an asshole. A manipulative asshole. BUt that’s how they train them at Microsoft.

But Sam is gonna make a fortune on this controversy. He’ll land someplace sweet, same as Jason Caacanis did. And Scoble - too. The more controversy - the better the NEXT job is.

So, it seems not everybody was taken in by slimy Sam's charm and posh shoes. For everybody's sake I hope the last paragraph doesn't come true - serial entrepreneur my ass, more like serial cheat.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Marc Orchant fund

As promised, you can donate to the fund to help Marc's family at http://tinyurl.com/2l66wz. The world is a sadder place today.


Marc Orchant RIP

I didn't know Marc - he came later to Blognation than me, but he passed away today after a massive heart attack last weekend. My heart goes out to his family and tomorrow (it's now nearly 3am) I will add a link to pay into a fund to help his family deal with the costs. I never met Marc but I liked his writing - the topics he chose and the voice he adopted - a fine writer. We had some mutual friends but that was not a "thing" in a life when everything continues. But it doesn't and Marc is gone and I never got to meet him.

R.I.P.

Triona

Sunday, 9 December 2007

the corporate family

I haven't posted for a long time because I had some bad times and some good times - and there was no time for blogging. But events of the past week have driven the priority of posting a blog up the scale.

This week two matters close to my heart came to a head: meltdown at Blognation and redundancies at Skype including at the Developer Program. I worked on both these projects and was passionate about their respective missions - both dumped me in unceremonious fashion and rewarded my loyalty and expertise with rudeness and mistreatment.

A year ago almost to the day, I was a victim of the first big round of redundancies at Skype, weeks before Christmas. On that day they axed the entire technical writing function in Skype, as well as many others. The HR team were dressed, to a person, in black for the occasion. Both my uber-boss and direct manager gave me the same line that this would be the best thing for me in the future - I didn't appreciate it at the time and I'm not sure I do now - other than that I'm happy I'm no longer working for such people.

It took me months to get back on my feet and, along the way, a friend invited me to participate in Blognation. I was assured that funding was in place in advance for this adventurous project and I was to be editor for Ireland and play a special role in developing editorial standards. After a couple of months of serious planning including team and standards building, we met up in London as a team for the Essential Web conference. It was clear from the moment we arrived that Sam Sethi was not going to devote any time to team building and it became crystal clear by the second night that he was not paying his way either. That was in July.

My life has turned around from these grim times - I'm consulting for a really positive and winning team at Openads, and have the freedom to work and build other projects. I recovered from my second financial and emotional hit in a year and life began to settle into a nice pattern. Until this past week.

First off was the explosion of news around the blogosphere about Blognation - from the trigger, Oliver Starr, but covered in depth by Blognation rival, TechCrunch, as well as drawing attention of Dan York (who inspires and educates me and has made the best response so far I believe), Robert Scoble, Shel Israel, and Jemima Kiss of The Guardian among others.

As I was still reeling from the feelings this aroused, I had a couple of scary pings from former Skype colleagues about firings going on - another Christmas package from the Skype HR angels. This time the guy that fired me got the bullet along with many others. They have decimated the developer program and there have been hits right across the London operation.

I was concerned by how upset I was for people this week, including the git that axed my job in Skype, and I started to explore the reasons. And my conclusion is that teams are not unlike families. You may disagree internally but you show a united face in public. When teams split, by reason of redundancy or whatever, it is like splitting a family - you lose your siblings and connections. Companies do basic things to cover their legal backs when they make you redundant but they do not include any form of counselling for dealing with loss - either for those that are dumped or those that survive. A quick pep talk from the idiot that broke the team doesn't usually cut it. And while it's nice to get some redundancy money it is rarely enough to cover you to replace that job if yours is a specialist job.

Of my extended family of the past couple of years, many are in pain now and even the gits have my sympathy. In both cases the managers were the worst gits. I need to get back on track for next week, back on focus in my interesting job with a good team. All I want for Christmas is that my "work siblings" get by and that the same doesn't happen again soon.

And I'd like to forward Skype and Blognation a lump of coal to save Santa the trip.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

An essentially London take on web 2.0

On June 29th, Library House hosted a one-day conference on the Essential Web to showcase more than 40 web 2.0 products from Europe. Earlier in the week I read in The Independent that the creative sector is now as valuable to the UK economy as the financial sector, and the quality and number of suits at this event showed that powerful synergies are emerging between these sectors. The place had more suits than Moss Bros - even some of the geeks wore them (albeit with a certain degree of discomfort)!

The format for the event ensured an intense immersion into current web trends, with expert panels chairing sessions of selected 5 minute presentations around themes which covered search and identity, building large user bases, trust-based environments, collaboration and mobile web. While a few of the products seemed a tad unimaginative, most were useful, innovative and some were very disruptive.

My highlight of the day was Jaiku. I came to the event with a certain cynicism about the value of micro-blogging but this was swept away with simple use cases and an uncluttered presentation - clearly underlining the value of "less is more". When Jyri, the presenter, stressed the importance of interoperability during the panel discussion, I became certain that Jaiku and Jyri do and will add significant value to the web.

ParkAtMyHouse is another exciting product that offers a green parking solution in urban areas. People can advertise unused parking spaces for rent, and users can enter a location by post code, place etc. and view a map of adjacent parking spaces, including price and availability. As well as reducing carbon emissions from cars searching for parking in congested areas, by teaming up with US-based zipcars, the project can also reduce overall car ownership in urban areas and thereby liberate more parking spaces for the service. Based on a combination of revenue-share, advertising and strategic partners, ParkAtMyHouse has a viable and sustainable business model that could make it a real winner in the future.

Zubka is based on a simple idea that could turn the recruitment industry on its head. Veteran recruiter, David Shieldhouse, started his presentation with a question to the audience; "How many of you have referred somebody you know for a job in the past?". Predictably, all hands in the auditorium were raised. He followed with "How many of you received payment for any of these referrals?" and all hands were lowered. Zubka aims to simplify and speed recruitment by enabling companies to post job ads on their website where individuals make referrals for these jobs and get paid for successful ones. Given the enormous cost and slowness of conventional recruitment, Zubka could be highly attractive to HR experts.

The only Irish entry was from Louder Voice, which provides a review platform for web users. Unlike other online review services, Louder Voice is not a vertical portal for theme-based reviews. The service operates as a hub, where users can enter reviews and then publish the content on blogs and websites. Now with a twitter integration (which, sadly, Conor O'Neill did not present on the day), Louder Voice could and should become a core destination for reviewers both online and on the mobile web. What will make or break the service is whether it can achieve critical mass without seeding initial content by rewarding reviewers, as recently announced by welovelocal.com.

Of the 27 featured showcases, my other favourites included:

  • Trexy - enables users to remember and share online searches as search trails
  • Data Patrol - trawls the web for information about a user which it aggregates into a report that includes advice on managing the info
  • Seatwave - an online marketplace for tickets
  • huddle and Yuuguu - two companies providing collaboration tools who announced that they will collaborate in the future

There was lots, lots more and the panel discussions threw up even more food for thought. The following morning at the Open Coffee Club, I chatted with Sanjay Sharma, Director of Startups and Emerging Markets at Sun. We talked about web 2.0 and the current excitement and high-level of investment and Sanjay wondered if this is another bubble or does it have a more substantial foundation than the dot com era. We agreed that this time round, innovation has become unstoppable because user demand and user-generated content are the drivers rather than the corporate, top-down focus that dominated in the first phase.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Work 2.0

The list of things to blog gets longer by the day - and the time to do it gets shorter. Last week I stumbled across a great new idea, the Open Coffee Club, which brings together innovators and investment people in a friendly and informal environment. Clubs are opening up all over the world where members can network with each other and with other clubs when they are travelling.

With a couple of hours to spare before meetings in London on Wednesday, I popped into my first Open Coffee Club event. I chatted to Sandi Wassimer from Copious, about the joys and some of the pitfalls of working from home. New to home working, Sandi is over the moon about the extra time it gives her with her family. After spending a year commuting from Devon to London to Estonia, I know that feeling.

I caught up with Saul Klein of Index Ventures - serial entrepreneur and founder of the Open Coffee Club - who introduced me to Sam Sethi. Sam invited me to get involved in an exciting new project he's cooking and will be rolling out shortly - of which more very soon. Hence less time to spare for rulabula - I'm on a whirlwind of networking, connecting and researching right now.

I would have loved to stay longer but had to dash over to the Strand for my meeting with Rod Geoghegan at Metropolis. With my customary geographic accuracy I went to the wrong building first - just as well, it was a dump by comparison with Rod's gaff - coworking brought to a new level. Rod and I sat in a comfortable and stylish basement cafe bar next door to the restaurant - the smells were great and the menu was fancy - I must get him to buy me lunch on my next visit. Rod is in the business of helping marketers to embrace the digital age and I'm helping out with some first hand insights.

So not a minute for my rants at the moment - I did, however, get around to changing my title here, and moved from the fireside to the deckchair in honour of the sun that finally made its way into my life again last weekend. I sat in the garden squinting at the screen of my laptop - too much to do to get to the beach but at least I have a deckchair.

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Moving doesn't get easier

I have neglected my blog this month but I have a good excuse - I was moving house. You'd think that with my experience of moving, I'd have it down to a tee but no - it's still the most frustrating and traumatic thing you can possibly imagine, and then some.

In 2000 I moved to an offshore island and learned a lot about tide and time waiting for no man - and the usefulness of the phrase "weather permitting". In 2002 I moved from the island, via Ireland and England, to north west France. There I learned more about logistics as well as the joys of french paperwork, plumbing and wiring. The next move in 2003 was to England, which I thought would be easy peasy after the previous 2 experiences. But if you have ever tried to open a bank account or set up accounts with utilities etc in England, you will know what I mean when I say that it was like walking around with fraudster painted on my forehead.

This month's move was just down the road - I could almost have moved with a wheelbarrow. Except, again, I was horrified by the amount of stuff you can accumulate in a few years - mountains of expensive plastic rubbish, reams of paperwork that you don't have time to filter for keep or chuck, assorted screws and fixings that, again, you don't have time to filter - it goes on. After exporting a monster spider from Sherkin Island to France, I have learned that it's important to clean before you leave - but where does all that dust come from?

I prepared as much in advance - gave up counting when I had packed 19 boxes of books that nobody in the house will probably ever read again. Spent a couple of days on phone and internet informing people about change of address and that's when things started to slide downhill. I have never learned to tolerate fools, much as I try to empathise with the monkeys who are paid peanuts to deal with my call.

First problem was transferring my broadband service. I have been a loyal customer of virgin DSL broadband services for three and a half years - all I wanted to do was transfer this account to my new address. But virgin recently transformed itself into virgin media, adding cable broadband to its existing DSL broadband services. If I switched to cable service, I was told, the transfer could be almost immediate but would take two weeks if I stayed with DSL service, for some obscure and ill-explained technical reasons. I was happy to switch until I discovered that I could not port my existing email address to the new service and they would not provide forwarding from my old email address for more than one month. The reason is that they are phasing out the old email server over the next year - hmm. It seems that they now have two separate mail services and they haven't got the joined up thinking to connect them - it gets worse. But if I signed up to virgin.net today as a new dial up customer, I could use the old mail server. But they don't allow you to downgrade. How's that for customer service? Eventually, after losing most of 2 days on calls to what must be their entire customer service team, annoyed that nobody seemed to have notes of my previous calls, I gave up and opted to retain the DSL service that would take 2 weeks. But they neglected to tell me that 2 weeks would be almost 3 weeks because their was a holiday weekend in the mix. And, while I waited, I had to rely on a temporary downgrade to the dial up service I'm not allowed to buy, costing 3 pence per minute and taking about 3 minutes to download one email. Having ensured that I didn't have the bandwidth to sort out any other moving-related comms issues, I had to endure internet withdrawal as a reward for being a loyal customer.

The next issue was with my water provider. They privatised water provision in Britain some years ago but each region is run by a monopoly service provider. I deal with South West Water, who have happily taken about 1000 pounds a year out of my bank without a please or thank you. The average water bill in the country is less than 400 pounds but we pay for the pleasure of keeping the local beaches clean for the yoiks from London and up North that come and pollute them every summer. I was moving from a house without a water meter to a house with a meter so it's all systems change. Again, the customer falls foul of company process. They advised me to ring when I moved to provide them with a meter reading. Before I had a chance to locate the meter, let alone read it, I received a bill from them for more than 1000 pounds, requiring payment within 14 days. The bill was issued the day I rang them, before I had even moved and at a time when they actually owed me almost 100 pounds. I spent a morning on the phone to a patronising git who explained it was all my fault for not providing the meter reading. I asked for a formal letter of apology and, in its place, received a letter that lectured me about not providing my meter reading. Nice work guys.

The phone company sent me a bill for transferring the phone line, the gas people sent me a letter after a couple of weeks full of dire warnings about not taking on the debts of the previous occupants, a debt collector called the first weekend looking for the previous occupants - what other delights are in store I wonder. The plumbing is a mess, the garden is a jungle of weeds and builder's rubble and it has been raining constantly since the day I moved in.

But my broadband is back, my fon wifi is solid, I've found a change of clothes and there's plenty of room in the loft for my boxes. Summer starts tomorrow and heaven help the weather god if he lets me down - I'll shake my fist in despair, name him and shame him on my blog and I'll write a stiff letter of complaint - I'm getting plenty of practice at that.

In the midst of all this, I didn't get a chance to continue my commentary on Estonia or to write about elections in Ireland, the undemocratic rise to power of Gordon Brown, the shameless departure tour of Tony Blair or the even more shameless vote in the House of Commons to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act. I'm promising myself I will get to them soon unless the plumbing or the weeds get the better of me.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Peaceful protest against Estonian government meets hardline response

Just got word that there is more trouble in Estonia. At midday Estonian time (GMT+2), for half an hour people drove their cars through the city at 5km per hour, hooting their car horns, in protest at the government of Prime Minister Ansip. Large numbers of police were in the city centre, noting the number plates of the cars. The media broadcast a thank you from the police to the helpful people who rang up with car numbers, and advised that all participants will be sent fines.

With the city returning to calm after the weekend riots, it seems strange that a relatively peaceful protest is greeted with such severity. Surely a drive past is preferable to street battles and looting? As Chairman of the Tartu Communist Party in 1988, Ansip quelled protests against the Soviet Union. It is ironic that 20 years on, he is quelling protests in the guise of great Estonian nationalist. Now that's a clever bit of reinvention.

Conspiracy theories are flying around which blame foreign influence on recent events. If there is undue external influence it is not clear who is behind it. One theory suggests that the goal is to halt a gas pipeline project that would connect Russia and Germany, circumventing the Ukraine. The pipeline was constructed in the Soviet era and passes through Estonian waters. Perhaps the goal is to destablise the EU. Or maybe there is no conspiracy at all, just bad luck and mismanagement? Only time will tell.

Monday, 30 April 2007

True lives in Estonia (Part 1)

Calm has returned to Tallinn for now and there is time to reflect. Jaanus Kase contemplates on national identity, symbolism and much more - a generous and illuminating attempt at understanding the eruptions in Estonia last weekend. Meantime, Russian and Estonian speaking friends in Estonia shared their impressions with me and I hope to share their views in a neutral space.

Sometimes it is easier to understand complex stories by focusing on simple personal stories. Today a Russian Estonian (let's call him Paddy for the sake of his privacy) told me his story. At 3 years old, his family moved to north eastern Estonia to assist in the "economic reconstruction" in 1978. In this corner of Estonia near the Russian border, more than 90 per cent of his neighbours were Russian. His parents were construction workers and their home was given to them by the state (as was with everything under the Soviet regime). They settled there and worked hard. He went to school and worked hard. Paddy did not learn Estonian at school because it was not an option. And he learned a different version of history and culture to you, me and his neighbouring Estonian speakers I guess.

Paddy was a clever chap and made his way to study in Tallinn. He went to work in a Russian-speaking software company in Tallinn. There is a circle of Russian-speaking companies in Estonia which operates in a separate dimension to Estonian-speaking companies. Externally, these circles of companies do business with the same trading partners but internally, the two circles do not mix.

Slowly Paddy started to learn to speak Estonian and, at the age of 28 he was able to take the plunge and apply for work with an Estonian-speaking company. He tends to earn a lower wage because the negotiating strength of the Estonian-speaking employee is higher. But he doesn't encounter any explicit racism in the workplace, although he may not receive as many social invites as his Estonian-speaking colleagues.

But Paddy's parents are not so lucky. They lost everything in 1991 when Estonia asserted her nationhood. They scratch a living in basic jobs to survive and, because they can't speak Estonian, they are victims of the limited reportage in Russian language media. Nothing to go back to and nothing to look forward to.

Paddy is not an Estonian citizen but he has an alien passport. With entry into the EU, he now has the same inter-European travel rights as other Estonians, but he has no nationality - just permanent resident rights. Unless he marries a native Estonian who is a citizen, his children will also not have equal rights to nationhood and citizenship as their schoolmates.

Paddy is one of the success stories - he has made the leap out of the enclosed underclass of his fellow Russian-speakers in Estonia. He is not a sad, disaffected, drunken looter and nor is he an apologist for the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation. But he feels empathy with the Russian-speaking youth who disgraced themselves last weekend in the riots - he understands their pain for their parents, their lackof national identity, their sense of meaningless in a society that consigns them to the dustbin of historical revenge. He comes from a culture that is constrained by lack of cultural exchange - a Russian-only media that has its own agenda - he knows this, understands the impact but has no means of changing it.

Understanding these complex problems is tiring. Tomorrow I will tell Mick's story (another pseuodnym) - an ethnic Russian who is second-generation Estonian. Mick was disgusted with the violence of last weekend and said he was ashamed to share the same language with the rioters. More anon.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

When is an Estonian not an Estonian?

More tension in Tallinn - a third night of violence and trouble has spread to other towns across Estonia. One news report suggests this will continue to fester until 9th May and, with native Estonians working with the police to protect society, vigilanteism rears its ugly head. I fear for my friends and former colleagues in Estonia and I fear for Estonia itself. The great Russian bear is angry and the EU is caught between a rock and a hard place.

A comment on my earlier posting corrected me on my mistaken understanding of citizenship and nationality in Estonia. Wolli said

You can become French by getting French citizenship. You can only become Estonian by being born to Estonian parent(s). You can indeed become an Estonian citizen but in this country, "nationality" and "citizenship" are two different concepts.

Therein lies the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King (to quote Shakespeare roughly speaking). I was aware of many racist issues in Estonia - to discover that it is institutionalised to this degree is scary. To learn that across the EU we are supporting state-sponsored racism with our tax euros is very bad news.

We emerge from the womb as accidents of birth and cannot be blamed for our parents or location. But, in Estonia, it seems that we can. If I am born in Estonia of non-Estonian parents, I am not entitled to be an Estonian; as I take my first breath I can look forward to a life of no passport, no rights, no equality. That's sick.

Not everybody in the EU favoured the enlargement of the union. Now we learn that we have included a country that does not accord nationality to children born in that country. The European Union could fast become a failed experiment when its citizens discover that we are subsidising a new member state that operates as a two-tier society.

At the risk of flame, I question what Estonia and the EU are doing.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Rising above racism

There was more trouble in Tallinn last night but the police, no longer distracted by the need to protect a big heap of metal, seem to have gained better control of the situation - only 100 arrests and no news of any fatalities. My blog inspired some interesting comments as well as a number of personal discussions on the topic.

I'd like to quickly apologise to any Estonians who feel my blog was a personal attack on them - it was not my intention to single them out as the racists of Europe - I am sadly conscious that racism is rife in every nook and cranny of our federation and little has been achieved in the past 50 years to improve matters. But because it is commonplace, does not mean it is morally acceptable or economically or politically sensible.

In the waiting room of my doctor's surgery in rural France a few years ago (aside: a sign on the wall offered free horse manure - enquire within), I read an article in a glossy magazine about racism in France. I learned that an astonishing 63 per cent of French people admit to being racist, are even proud of it. This was in stark contrast to the UK - where racism was not only regarded as a fatal character flaw but could also land you in big legal trouble. I grew up in a country (Ireland) which was uniquely unicultural because nobody wanted to immigrate to a wet and soggy island where there was no work and no money - even if we were the friendliest, most fun-loving people on the planet.

In the 80s, living in London, I felt my share of racist slurs - my 2:1 degree was poor protection against the dumb Paddy image, and my anti-war beliefs didn't help when the IRA were bombing mainland Britain. In today's London, the hitherto dumb Paddy is the guy on the mobile phone managing the building project, and the hod carrier is from Poland or perhaps Estonia. Where racism is concerned, pecking orders change over a generation or two it seems.

In France in the early noughties, I felt the whack of racism again in the lead up to the Iraqi war. As soon as Tones went off the rails in pursuit of his place in history, the shallow veneer of Anglo-French detente disappeared and it was all "roast beefs go home" from then. And, like most stupid people who shoot first and ask questions later, nobody bothered to ask if I was English before they thrashed my trailer tent on one occasion and burnt my car to dust on another. Nor did anybody ask my views on the war. Different towns, different perpetrators, same ignorance.

Escaping back to the UK, I got a new car and licked my wounds in a society where we Irish have risen towards the top of the social pile. Only to find new racial tensions erupting because of the perceived threats from terrorism and EU enlargement. It seems that there is nowhere to escape intolerance and fear of "otherness".

And what has this to do with the price of eggs or Estonia's current social crisis? By looking out we understand the inside better - as they say, travel broadens the mind. Estonia has made very brave and effective strides to shrug off its unhappy history, but it's never enough. I am not aware of any truly inclusive society, but if we don't all strive to that goal we sink into moral and cultural torpor and might as well close the curtains on the European experiment.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Tension in Tallinn

This morning I wake to news of riots in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, following protests by ethnic Russians against the removal of a Soviet-era war memorial from the city centre. Giuliano, an Estonian blogger, is waiting for the government spin to begin, now that the event is over. His assumption that the riots were a flash in the pan is rather naive and ignores the ethnic issues that culminated in a night of violence where 1 person died, 43 are injured and more than 300 were arrested.

Tallinn is the home of Skype software development and was my second home for about a year. It is a city of stark contrasts, between the freezing dark winters and the warm bright summers and between the charming, higgledy-piggledy medieval buildings of the old town and the ugly, utilitarian suburbs of the soviet era.

Estonians are very proud of their achievements and so they might be. After centuries of subjugation by various neighbours, they have emerged as a beacon of economic stability and vibrancy in the post-Soviet Baltic states. But, lurking under the surface, is something dark and sinister which Estonia has failed to recognise or address.

The problem no Estonian wants to deal with is that of the ethnic Russians who were left behind when the iron curtain collapsed. Under the Soviet regime, ethnic Russians were the cream of Estonian society, holding the best jobs, living in the nicest houses, children attending Russian-speaking schools and not mixing with lowly Estonian children. Ethnic Russians make up more than quarter of the Estonian population, and almost half of the population of Tallinn.

There is an apartheid system in operation I discovered. Ethnic Russians are not entitled to Estonian passports and have become, to all intents and purposes, stateless people imprisoned in a nation that despises them. They are issued with national identity cards but the field for nationality remains blank unless they pass an Estonian language exam. For many of the older ethnic Russians, this is almost an insurmountable task - Estonian is a very old and grammatically complex language. A sign at the entrance to the Tallinn Summer Fair last year offered discounts to pensioners but was limited to Estonian pensioners only.

Ask any Estonian and they will tell you proudly that they have forgiven the ethnic Russians and they are all one big happy family. The facts belie this fairytale however. Ethnic Russians have become a new underclass in Estonia, doing menial jobs when they can get them with many turning to prostitution and crime in the absence of any viable alternatives. Native Estonians blame them for being lazy and naturally criminal and seem blind to the damage this apartheid segregation causes; to their communities, to their international reputation and to the long-term stability of their society.

Tensions were heightened this Spring in the lead up to parliamentary elections, with politicians playing to these deep social divisions to gain the emotional upperhand at the polls. The promise to remove the war memorial was a ploy used by the winning nationalist party in their campaign and trouble has been brewing since.

Yet the Estonian police seemed completely unprepared for the trouble that ensued. According to a friend in Estonia, they stayed in place surrounding the statue, expecting everybody to get fed up and go home. Instead, there were pitched battles through the streets of the capital between native Estonians and ethnic Russians, accompanied by damage to property, cars and general looting.

The EU wants the problem sorted quickly, adding to the stress of a government that seems incapable of facing up to the complexities of the situation. They have called in the army to stop ethnic Russians travelling to the capital today from eastern Estonia against a backdrop offury in the Russian parliament, which is threatening to sever diplomatic relations with its Baltic neighbour.

Will this crisis help Estonia wake up from its torpor and start facing the demons of its Soviet past? Can Estonia afford not to?

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Who is stealing my identity?

With yet another IT bungle, today we learn that the NHS has exposed personal information about junior doctors to the public at large. The abysmal tech failures of the mammoth health care organisation are widely reported and continue to bleed UK taxpayers dry, so I won't labour the point here. This latest gaff points to another major concern - the vulnerability of individuals to protect their identities in the most surveilled society in the west.

On the one hand, we are bombarded with dire warnings about the increasing dangers of identity theft while, on the other hand, our personal information is required to perform the most mundane transactions. Here are just a few examples I personally experienced. I learnt on the news recently that my bank information was compromised following the theft of an employee's laptop. Breaking the story, the BBC informed us that the theft occured some months ago but the bank had not bothered to alert its customers. Charming!

Hot on the heels of this story, I learn that my credit card details may have been included in the theft of customer details from a UK-based retailer - another stolen laptop - this time in the US, owned by the parent company of the retailer. And again, first thing I hear about it is on the news - not a word from the company responsible.

Against this backdrop, I am bombarded by unsolicited phone calls from a credit card company that wants to sell me identity theft protection. Seemingly incapable of protecting my data, they spot an opportunity to play on my fears to charge me even more money for their incompetence. Who are these jokers?

It's not easy (in fact probably impossible) to avoid giving your information to banks and retailers and their negligence is nothing short of criminal. But the danger doesn't stop there. Recently, I was in the market to rent a house. Property rental agencies require a myriad of references for would-be tenants, and charge hefty fees for the "service". After finding a suitable property, I picked up the referencing paperwork from the agency. This agency outsourced the referencing process to a third party, passing not only bank details but also tax and employment information to an anonymous internet-based service. They wanted to charge me 100 pounds for the service for which they paid less than 20 pounds (I did my homework), and if I failed to meet the secret criteria of this third party my fee was forfeit. The agency were surprised at my misgivings - am I the only person that notices such things? I looked elsewhere for a house.

At the same time I replied to a telecommuting job advert posted on Craigslist and was pleased to receive a positive response. Until I looked at the fine print which required me to scan my university transcript, proof of ID (such as passport or driving licence) and email them to some stranger. And, of course, if I wanted payment, they would also require my bank details, a nice haul for any criminal. That's one job I won't be taking up.

Fortunately, because I try to avoid driving, I was not a victim of the major credit card fraud that has been occuring at petrol stations across the length and breadth of the UK. There is a suspicion that these thefts are the work of a ring of Sri Lankan criminals and that the proceeds are being used to fund the Tamil Tigers. Isn't that just fine and dandy.

With the exception of the job advert, these dangers are of a physical nature. The online threats are even scarier. Maintaining my list of online passwords is a total pain and gets worse by the day - especially since I'm one of those paranoid people that likes to have a unique password for each site I join. The response from the great and the good of the internet is the Open ID initiative, described as a free distributed authentication systems. The idea is that we all set up a personal ID and password, either on our own servers or with an Open ID provider, and we can then use this single ID to identify ourselves at all internet sites that participate in the system.

Getting rid of the password hassles is very appealing but at what price? Corporate identities can be safely managed by company servers and subject to their security policies, but what of the individuals that have to purchase the service from an Open ID provider. I don't expect they will provide the service free of charge so the system will introduce a cost for internet entry which might prove prohibitive to many. And why should I trust the security policies of any of these providers which must, surely, be a magnet for hackers and criminals?

Something else that bothers me about Open ID is the profound lack of negative commentary about the initiative. With giants like Microsoft and AOL coming on board, the idea is gaining ground rapidly. But, as I said earlier, corporations can run their own servers and can impose heavy-duty security policies on their implementations. For them, the system is practical and provides them with greaters controls than before. Are these the same giants that favour the two tier internet and fight against net neutrality I wonder? Will Open ID emerge to be just another attack on internet freedom, excluding the poor and making them even more vulnerable to fraud?

Monday, 23 April 2007

Beat congestion - stay at home

With the news today that even the Queen is green, the pressure is mounting for people to take a more responsible approach to travel and its impact on the environment. But, now that cheap air travel has opened up the world to people, it is not easy to turn back the clock and tell people to stay at home. For the wealthy, there is the new trend of offsetting the impact of their trips with investment in green projects (as the Queen plans to do). But for your average Joe, this puts the cost of travel beyond reach and doesn't seem very fair.

Meantime, with increasing congestion in the skies and on the roads, we hear a lot of talk and debate, but don't see much real action. The government wants to introduce road charging to reduce congestion and assures us that this is not another stealth tax but a scheme which will benefit everybody. They claim that when the driving public becomes aware of the real cost of motoring, we will be happy to reduce our time at the wheel. What a load of codswallop.

Most people don't choose to sit in traffic jams morning and evening, 5 days a week. They are there because they have to get to and from work in a country where public transport is increasingly inadequate, unreliable and prohibitively expensive. In a society which requires all schoolchildren and workers to arrive at school or work at approximately the same time every day, it is little wonder there is congestion at peak times.

There are a number of practical steps we could take to improve matters without taxing people. We could stagger school opening times for example, taking the pressure of the school run out of the rush hour. And we could also stagger the school holidays to avoid the travel chaos that occurs every holiday. In light of the inflated travel costs during school holidays, this move would be welcomed by parents and teachers alike I think.

And, rather than penalising people for driving to work, we could reward them for staying at home. Some jobs require a physical presence, such as doctors and teachers and shop keepers. But in our service-based economy a very large percentage of us could use modern communication tools to perform many of our tasks remotely. Not only can telecommuting reduce congestion, but there are proven benefits in terms of increased productivity and enhanced work-life balance. Instead of charging people to use the roads, reward home workers with grants to equip home offices, subsidised broadband and lower taxation for work done from home. Instead of building more roads and airports, invest the money in free wifi and cheap access to video-conferencing facilities in all communities.

A major barrier to the growth of telecommuting is a culture of distrust among employers, a belief that workers will take advantage of the situation and not pull their weight. This is a sad attitude that says more about the employer's lack of self-belief than about the trustworthiness of the workforce. With good communications and efficient performance management, employers will find that workers can be trusted and, with less stress, they will tend to perform beyond expectation. Companies will also benefit from a reduction in the cost of office accommodation and better staff retention. It's a win win situation.

So why isn't it happening? There seems to be an astounding lack of political will to upset the status quo in a way that would reduce our reliance on planes, trains and automobiles. A cynic might say that this arises from the vested interest of car makers, oil companies and the travel sector. That may be the case, but the time when this was acceptable is rapidly running out. When compared to the complicated, costly and socially invasive plans for road charging, the telecommute option appears simpler, less intrusive and rewards people rather than penalising them.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Virginia victims

Like the rest of the world, I was deeply saddened by the news of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech University - when 32 students and staff were gunned down by a fellow student before he turned his gun on himself, bringing the final death toll to 33. I watched the news coverage in horror, when we saw amateur video footage of the killer, striding across the campus looking like Neo from the Matrix - maybe that's how he imagined himself.

There followed the memorial service, where the President preached, and students and parents hugged and tried to find some solace and come to terms with this atrocity. I read and watched interviews with students who had been lucky enough to escape with their lives, describing their experiences and attempting to make some sense of it all. Even more horrible than the shootings perhaps, listening to these students, was their universal lack of recognition that there is a connection between gun culture and gun crime. One interviewee went as far as agreeing with the view of the gun lobby that the answer to the problem is to arm all students.

From a European perspective, the American obsession with guns is obscene and not acceptable in a civilised society. It is quite shocking to discover that bright young people, who have had such an intimate experience of the horrific results of lax gun control, are so totally blind to one of the main causes of that experience. To deny that there is a connection between easy access to guns and violence is to ignore the evidence of the U.S. homicide statistics which are higher than those in Europe by a factor of 10 or even 20 I guess.

Another thing struck me in the news coverage. One report spoke about the 32 victims of the carnage - but 33 people died. It seems that the shooter is not regarded as a victim by some which is a terrible shame. The sad loner who was so at odds with his peers and his society - is he not a victim also? And what about his poor parents, who have to add the guilt for his dreadful actions to their grief at his suicide? To lose a child is the saddest thing a parent can endure (some don't), but to lose a child in such circumstances - their lives since then must be a living nightmare.

For any good to come of this awful event, it is time America recognises the connection between easy access to guns and the all too frequent abuse of this freedom, not alone by criminals but also be socially-inadequate, emotionally-charged young people. Over on this side of the pond, we are overwhelmed with grief for all of the victims and their families and friends, but we are also astounded by the gun culture that enables it. If the tragic deaths at Virgina Tech are to mean anything, it is essential that America grabs this opportunity to review gun laws and put them beyond the reach of people without proper licensing and control. To do less is to disrespect their memories as has, sadly, been done already with the victims of Columbine and all the other tragic victims of meaningless murders on the streets of America.

Monday, 12 March 2007

UI design for the cow people

I mentioned the cow people to some people in a chat, which some people found hilarious although others were a bit less taken with the discussion. It led to the following comment from Phil Wolff at SkypeJournal.

Seriously, let's talk about UI design for cows and chickens.
Very simplified contact lists.
Maybe big buttons for a very few messages ("Go away", "I'm hungry", "I'm in estrus", "I'm thirsty", "Danger!").
Moo recognition for the cows; peck sensitive keyboard for the chickens. Webcams for chickens since they don't respond much to audio.
GPS and presence for a cow's family; you-are-getting-hotter/colder signalling for finding your mother/calf.
Alerting for feeding/milking times.
For the chickens, you'd want gear that would fit in/next to a cage. For cows, something they could wear like a cowbell or staple to the ears like an RFID tag.
Hardware must be rugged for the farm; must survive water, dirt, having critters fall all over it.
Cows would have unique power challenges; could you train cows to dock their "headsets" for a recharge? While wi-fi might give you bandwidth, you might need to use cellular technology for the longer battery life.

Bonus points: use your cow's attached skype-phone for medical biotelemetry (body temp, pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels) and send it back to a service for monitoring. Wake up the vet before a cow gets too sick. Automatically adjust the cow's feed based on general health.
Phil is the host in a public chat with the topic Skype 3.1 discussion. Anybody using version 3.0+ of Skype can create, host, moderate and promote a public chat on a website, in email, in IMs, and in Skype mood messages.

The chat threw up many bizarre observations and awful puns (i'll spare you), and a story about a chicken eating cow in India. If the cow people chat is anything to go by, public chat offers lots of possibilities.

On a more serious but equally bizarre note, was an item on the local Beeb news last week - can't find it online unfortunately so no link for now. They reported on a company that is working with algae to save the planet - they want to place large tankfuls of carbon-monoxide loving micro-critters next to every coal-burning power station in the country. They are also exporing its usage as a clean fuel that is far cheaper and more effective as a biofuel than rapeseed. These are the same, or similar microbes, to the ones which first cleaned this planet enough to sustain human life so maybe they are just the medicine we need.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Six nations - No more waiting for Johnny Injured

After a great defeat over France by England at home in Twickenham, France lost a Grand Slam opportunity in the important year when they play host to the Rugby World Cup. After the English trouncing at Croke Park, Brian Ashton called all bets off and fielded a team today that included about 10 new players - what a risk taker. The gamble paid off in spades.

The quality of play was far from perfect - the French looked like they were digesting a large lunch and England were giving away penalties with stupid errors. But England began to flow a little, and then some more - and some of these new guys were electric. There's no more waiting for Johnny Injured, England has not one but two new number 10s who both played world class games today. Brian Ashton will have problems choosing which of these guys, Flood or Geraghty, to play. New winger, Strettle, made an impressive debut against Ireland at Croke Park - today he showed it wasn't flash in the pan - he's fast and furious and a natural. And all these new guys are young and blonde and handsome - maybe all is not lost for England and the world cup.

But tactically, England also made leaps today. Did the French lunch too large or did the English close them down? A bit of both, perhaps. The English blocked Chabal, shut him down. Known as Attila at home, Chabal proved to be the Achilles heel of France.

All of Ireland was shouting for England today. Yesterday we took the Triple Crown but today England gifted us a chance to avenge our last minute defeat by France, and steal the championship from them. England is also in with a chance, but it's a bit of a longshot. The outcome of the tournament will not be known until the last minute of the last match next weekend - what a nailbiter that will be.

Six nations - fire the ref

Every year, the Six Nations rubgy tournament heralds an end to the gloom of winter with the promise of exciting international matches most weekends. After growing up in a household where the men and boys were obsessed by sport, I am almost allergic to it - but rugby is the exception - despite its brutality, there is nothing as gripping as a good rugby match.

This year, Ireland started out as favourites, but the pesky French stole our thunder when they beat us in the first ever "foreign game" to be played in Croke Park. In the last seconds of the match, they raced up the pitch and scored - damn them. The referee failed to notice that the start of this play was illegal and it should not have been allowed. The whole world saw it on TV, but that doesn't make a toss of difference it seems.

Yesterday, Ireland played Scotland in Edinburgh, and Wales played Italy in Rome. Despite being firm favourites, Ireland had a tough time of it, and only barely managed to hold on to win 19-18. After the game, Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach that looks like an accountant, made a statement that a Scottish player had tried to choke Ronan O'Gara and that O'Gara lost consciousness briefly. I assume there will be an investigation and the offending player will be banned.

But that incident pales into insignificance when you consider what happened at the next match of the afternoon. Over in Rome an English referee, Chris White, seemed blind to some rather nasty behaviour by members of the Italian team. We know rugby is a brutal game and none of the players are saints - they will break rules when they think they will get away with it. But in the 28th minute of the match I watched Mauro Bergamasco clinically clench his fist and punch Stephen Jones in the face. But the ref didn't notice or didn't care and while Jones left the pitch with blood streaming from a cut above his eye, the game continued - not even a penalty awarded. This was one of several infringements that the ref did not notice and, in my opinion, had a definite impact on the game and the final scoreline.

Jones returned to the pitch in the second half and he looked angry - who would blame him. It must have galled him terribly when in the closing minutes the same Bergamasco (there are two on the Italian team) scored a great try which put Italy in the lead - the man shouldn't even have been on the pitch. And to top it all, the ref finished the game by lying to the welsh players that they had time for a final line out and then blew the whistle before they could take it.

I've been looking to see what other people feel about this - and I'm surprised at how little there is online about the Six Nations. There are some nice quirky blogs but nothing substantial outside of the BBC site, where Nick Mullins, a sports commentator, is having problems keeping up with the spate of comments - 140 now and still counting. Opinions are mixed - Italian fans don't seem that bothered that the awful refereeing detracts from their victory. Welsh fans are, understandably, pretty miffed and there are some pretty strong feelings out there.

Rugby is gaining in popularity and the quality of the game is improving. But how long will it continue to do so if this sort of behaviour continues unchecked. This weekend we witnessed blatant assault (choking and punching) and the referee lied to a team in a manner that ensured they lost the game.

I'm not normally one to subscribe to ref-bashing and conspiracy theories about game fixing. Around our dinner table, I heard enough ref discussion to last me several lifetimes, but what I saw yesterday was disgraceful. Either the ref and his squad of helpers are completely incompetent or they were made an offer they couldn't refuse. Whichever proves to be the case - if we ever find out - they should all be fired and publicly humiliated. Bergamasco should never be allowed on a rugby pitch again and Italy should forfeit the match.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Multicultural to multispecies - meet the cow people

England is the most multicultural place I have lived in and now it's becoming a home to multispecies exploration. According to the Beeb, scientists in the north of England have applied for a licence to clone human and cow embryos for the purpose of harvesting cell stems that are important in the treatment of alzeimhers, Parkinsons, and stroke victims (at least).

While I'm trying to fully absorb the notion of multispecism (or is it multiispeciesism), the news in the same week comes up with the medicine egg - where we use chickens as drug factories of the future - butt out Pfizer and Roche. This notion is based on the idea that we impregnate breeds of chickens with different immunities - and an egg a day will keep a particular illness away.

Meantime, Richard Branson, who is locked in conflict with Rupert Murdoch over media space in the UK, has my votes for winning the battle. Why? Because he's an adventurer and innovator. His latest thing is a cryogenic bank for rich guys that want to live forever. I'm not going to be a customer for that service, but I do love his guts.

And, in our last gasps on a planet we have disrespected, space is the next frontier. Adventurers will be essential in this coming exploration.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Dutch developers and eirepreneurs

After using Skype as my main comms tool for over a year, I've got some experience. But this week, I "picked up" a buddy in a public chat - new to me. For the first time since I finished at Skype, I requested authorisation from a user after she asked a battery of interesting questions in a public chat. And we're chatting since - the internet rocks on.

My new buddy is a Clever Clogs lady from the Netherlands who is a front runner in developing mashups for Grazr. If you are a feed freak and/or interested in data pipes, Grazr and Marjo are the way to go. I like the Grazr interface and am looking forward to working with Marjo on ideas for feed filters.

In recent weeks I have Skyped a lot with Dutch people - seems to be a cradle of fun and disruption. Today, at one point, I was chatting in 4 separate IMs with Dutch geeks who don't know each other. Not sure what they put in the coffee but they seem to have great ability to turn idea into reality. I met Bart Lamot when he volunteered to write JNI connectors for Linux and Mac for the open source Java API for Skype. I met Jurrien (link to follow) on that project also - a student that brightens my days with his dedication to clean, reusable code. And then there's Ike that all Skype users love as the Paraveterinary in the Skype forums and runs a solid virtual business. Ike runs a Skype-powered virtual office service from Friesland - no better woman for the job - she's organised and she can multitask better than me.

And then there's Marjo of RSS world - who inroduced me to Grazr where I found a Grazr feed of Irish Twits - the Eirepreneurs - now is that fun or what?

Monday, 5 March 2007

Not doing one thing right!

I've made myself a personalised Google home page and the feature I like most is being able to see the latest feeds in my Google blog reader. Which is where I came across Doing One Thing Right: Couchville, by Michael Arrington on Tech Crunch. It's a review of a TV guide service that doesn't try for bells and whistles - just does one thing right. Great - except that the review does something wrong. In the text of the article the writer to refers to Coucheville (note the additional e) including a link to http://www.coucheville.com. There is no such address.

Over at http://www.couchville.com, don't wait up for the surge in traffic - it ain't coming, except from nit-pickers like me that can't help spotting typos. We all make mistakes, but the headline which implies that a sub-editor spotted the error but didn't make corrections to the body text - that's not just a simple mistake, that's poor process. If readers are to trust online sources, writers must be consistently accurate and check sources and references.

I don't know anything about the editorial processes at Tech Crunch - maybe this is a rare case that slipped through usual checks - or maybe they rely on writers to police their own accuracy. I'm sure they will act to correct the mistake.

This trivial error (unless you are couchville, of course) reflects a general issue affecting the credibility of web content. Now that we are all self-publishers, a couple of issues are emerging which affect the value and nature of online information.

First there is the issue of accuracy: Much as we all love Wikipedia, it can be prone to manipulation and should be taken with a pinch of salt. The things we enjoy most about self-publishing - the immediacy and freedom - are also its greatest weaknesses. To coin the old adage - with freedom comes responsibility, but many bloggers don't know the simple rules of grammar and journalism - why should they?

Second, there is the issue of clarity: As social networks and globalisation take people across cultural boundaries, there is an ever-growing need for people to use simple, clear language which is easy to translate. Any designer will tell you that simple doesn't mean easy. One happy outcome is that writers must move on from the awful practice of ization - when "How will you make money?" is turned into "How will you monetize?", or "developing products" becomes "productization". A possible victim of cross-cultural communication will be the conditional tense - because words like might and should translate badly, will they disappear? I read once that native american languages have no tenses perhaps it's not a bad idea to lose a few.

Looking forward, the semantic web aims to ease data sharing between applications and communities based on the Resource Description Framework. While transparent to users, the semantic web presents a big new learning curve for writers and other content developers.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

People power - why not?

While You're at It, Why Not Generate A Little Electricity, in the Wall Street Journal, introduces some people who want to harvest human energy. It's an attractive if somewhat kooky idea that conjures up images of the matrix and what to do with our prison population, immigrants, and other social annoyances. However, when you think of the amount of energy people use at the gym, on the sports field, at night clubs - it makes sense to try and harness it.

An extreme sporty Californian persuaded an international fitness club outfit to run an experiment in a gym in Hong Kong. Cost is high and returns are low - less than 200 dollars a year for an investment of 15,000. Enviu, a group of young Dutch environmentalists, have built a dance floor that powers its own internal lighting. Here the price tag is 26K, for some measly floor lights - hmm.

But hey - what does a dance floor normally cost to build and what are the future plans? The WSJ article belittles these projects by presenting scant figures with a distinct bias - I don't think it's fair to judge these projects in simple terms of ROI - looked at as proofs of concept where valuable lessons are learned, these projects are pretty damn cheap.

And the WSJ piece also neglects to mention that the project is finished and the world's first sustainable nightclub opened to the public in Rotterdam, in October 2006.

These are small steps but, as the Enviu people say, part of the value is in making sustainability sexy and cool, not just a geeky, hippy thing. While people power is unlikely to solve all our energy needs, it can help reduce the requirement for non-sustainable resources while increasing our awareness of the direct relationship between energy and consumption.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Summer madness - London 2005

July 2005 was a humdinger of a month in London. The city played host to Live8 and won the bid for the 2012 Olympics; meanwhile the Make Poverty History campaign made its way into the G8 summit in Scotland. Then the stories changed on 7/7. I was blogging the news as it was reported (or mis-reported) - the extracts are in sequence.

And the victim was

Published 24 July, 2005

A 29 year-old Brazilian electrician - I bet he never expected to die on the floor of the tube in Stockwell. "He looked Pakistani" said the best eye-witness in the land (or so he seemed at the time) but he was Brazilian. We lived next door to Jose and Maria from Portugal for a while, in the grounds of a chateau in France. We were renting and they were the old retainers. Jose had been in France for 31 years, left there about age 20, bit of a soccer player. After 31 years he would still wear vest, shirt and at least 2 jumpers until July. By mid-July he might be seen to bare his arms, but only in a heatwave.

They speak Portuguese in Brazil and they wear lots of warm clothes when they are away from home. Maybe he didn't understand English, maybe he was cold, but why jump the barrier at the station. No money for a ticket? Illegal immigrant? Pocketful of drugs? Just scared and pure unlucky? Will we ever know?

Until recently I would have assumed that secrecy would prevail and mistakes would be covered up. During recent events the police have been remarkably candid - perhaps because they realise they have to if they are to have any credibility as guardians of our security. An innocent man was pumped full of bullets on the tube by police marksmen working on bad intelligence - nothing good about it. But at least they admitted it - that's a start.

Pin the tail on the donkey

Published 23 July, 2005

Today the Met (London Metropolitan Police) apologised for the Stockwell shooting and admitted they got it wrong. Five bullets pumped into the wrong guy.

Why did he run, ignore calls to stop, leap over the ticket barrier? His intention was to escape his pursuers - Why? Was he deaf? Did he not understand English? Was he going about a relatively minor piece of mischief, such as carrying drugs or pirated CDs? Or was he one of London's vulnerable "care in the community" people - festering in an alternative reality in a dingy bedsit in Stockwell.

I will add the policeman that pumped 5 bullets into the chest of a "frightened rabbit" to my list of victims of this madness. He has to live with himself tomorrow and the day after. I want to know how they got it so wrong - is their intelligence so flimsy and unreliable? Are we just pinning tails on donkeys or have we got something to go on?

More trouble in London

Published 23 July, 2005-07-23

Last Thursday it seemed to be happening again - three tubes and the number 26 bus in Hackney, just by Bethnal Green. Nobody hurt because the bombs didn't work. One theory goes that the recent police raids uncovered the bombers' stock of detonators and they had to improvise - badly it would appear.

One fanatical islamic scientist wanted for a variety of freelance projects, must speak English like a native, be of impeccable character (i.e. below the security radar) and be available at short notice. The role will involve frequent travel abroad and multiple passports will be an asset. The candidate will be working with teams of young people and strong motivational skills are essential.

I just made that up because I am trying to imagine how you recruit for these activities. Seems it's not so easy to make a bomb that works, which was just as well for Londoners at the moment. But there's little consolation to be derived from the knowledge that this week's lot of suicide bombers botched things up.

Botchers they may be but they got away! This is very scary. On the tube at Shepherd's Bush (up the road from the BBC for maximum news coverage) one man was described as lying on top of his bag while it detonated but failed to explode. He then got up, ran out of the tube and down the tracks to freedom. Off home for a nice cup of tea no doubt. Like running away after a schoolboy prank.

And where is he drinking his cup of tea - in your local caff, next door, by the coffee machine at work? He might be teaching your children or nursing your granny - he could be anywhere, anyone, he is the enemy within. He's as british as anyone else but he follows a different course - his moral map is not british. He probably went to school here, sat through the endless assemblies full of CofE moralising, preaching tolerance and inclusiveness and forgiving. This CofEness is a unique identifier of the english psyche, part of the english condition. Why is Mr. Suicide Bomber unaffected by the monotonous, repetitive power of the assembly?

Thursday was followed by Friday (as happens) and a man in a winter coat is shot dead in a tube train in Stockwell by armed policemen. One of the world's best ever eye witnesses was on the TV half an hour later, describing the scene. He was sitting on the tube at Stockwell, reading his paper, on his way to meet his boss at London Bridge (incidentally, my sister's daily route to work). A guy half trips into the tube, is pushed to the ground by 3 armed men, and "they unloaded 5 bullets into him". He described the absolute pandemonium that followed as people fled the scene. He was giving up on work and heading to the pub for a stiff scotch instead. Another aspect of the english condition - the pub is a great refuge in a crisis.

Now, London is in shock, like it hasn't been in recent weeks. People being shot dead in the tube is not British - it's something that you see on TV or in Bruce Willis movies. Five bullets seems a bit excessive, but he was wearing a big bulky jacket on a hot day and ignored calls to stop. And in the current climate, failing to stop is either extremely dumb or a sign that somebody has a lot to hide, perhaps a bomb.

I was planning a trip to London today. My sister was planning to go up west shopping today. We've both cancelled and people are cancelling all over London this weekend. Why are we scared now after taking it on the chin with stoicism 2 weeks ago, in the face of such carnage? This week's bombers failed but they got away. Will they try again? How many more of them are there? 4 bombers on a carefully orchestrated and executed mission is a major incident. 4 bombers on a botched mission could become an everday occurence - any 17 year old with a rebellious streak could take a shot at martyrdom - if it works he wins and if it doesn't he runs away. And there's plenty more where he came from. Or am I getting paranoid? If I am, I am not alone - paranoia, fear, hysteria - they are all creeping in.

Meantime, New Yorkers are subject to random searches on the subway because of the bombs in London. There's something almost peevish about this - like they are jealous of all the attention London is getting because New York should be the mother-of-all targets. Ken Livingstone ruled out such searches in London on logistical grounds. Getting to and from work in London is stressful enough as is without adding the prospect of interminable queues for searching.

However, how will people get to work? People are becoming increasingly worried about tube travel and are seeking alternatives. Friday morning's shooting was the last straw for some - it's just not cricket to have to deal with a shooting on the way to the office. Bombs are one thing, but police marksmen and dead bodies are another.

Are we about to see a revolution in London society, as people stop going to the office and work from home instead. If we're not out and about on the transport network they can't get us. Even with an endless stream of fanatics, they can't get us all in our houses, can they? This is not giving in to terrorism, in fact it pulls the rug from under it. Perhaps we should have a national work at home day to try it out and send a clear message to the enemy - we'll recognise you because you will be the one on the empty tube looking for a crowd to blow up.

I don't like talking about terrorism - it is a misused and emotive term. The notion of waging war on something as vague would be laughable except that it's true. This week, for the first time since September 11, I felt terror - the terror of wondering whether the person next to you is about to trigger a bomb. The absolute terror of realising that a faceless enemy hates you with such intensity that he will not stop until he gets you. The blinding terror of feeling completely and utterly powerless to protect yourself. All day, every day.

With every statement, the police and politicians remind us that these acts are the acts of criminals and not of a community. But the noises coming from Islamic communities do not reassure me. Pakistan may be licensing its religious schools but it is also pointing the finger firmly at Britain, saying that it needs to clean up its act. Muslims feel quite at liberty to say that as long as Britain is at war in an Islamic country she must expect what she gets. Excuse me. Why is that so? I don't agree with the Iraq war - what is legitimate about killing me? A 7 year old child has no say in the wars we wage - what is legitimate about killing them?

Why do so many people in this country lack a sense of allegiance to their country and who give religion priority over community? Why do so many people in this country think it is acceptable not to speak English, and not to mix with English people? How has this occured and how can we fix it?

Ever since Enoch Powell's infamous Rivers of Blood speech in the 60s, English society has been very reticent about discussing ethnic issues - it is dangerous territory, full of potential pitfalls for the politically correct. In France they are not nearly as sensitive and 63% of french people admit to having racist opinions. They think it is quite OK to do so. I don't. However, I do think there should be a couple of basic rules for all immigrants to any country - learn the local language and send your children to school with local children.

My mate Nina taught English on a voluntary basis to muslim women in Hackney. One of her students came to her in desperation after her husband divorced her (the immam came to tell her), took their children and left her penniless and on the verge of homelessness. And she did not have enough English to get by. Nina took her to social services and the housing department and the hospital - she was also ill due to the damp in her bedsit. There isn't a Nina living on every block and there are many women in England who are not so lucky, isolated from the host community by lack of English, completely dependent on the goodwill of sexist husbands.

In our desire to be inclusive, we have been too tolerant and turned a blind eye to sexism which came packaged with religion. In hindsight I think we are realising we have been too tolerant about a lot of things. Far too many people living here have no sense of allegiance to England; it was never a requirement. The last thing we need right now is nationalism, but it is important to be loyal to your home - this is a kind of essential social value.

Plea - recover the bodies please

Published 09 July, 2005

I think people in England have been confused, scared and distracted since Thatcher first kicked welly. It took a pair of gobby Irish shites, a successful Olympic bid and 4 bombs to bring Britain back to its senses and restore its confidence.

The world expects wailing but instead they get calm. Public displays of emotion are not British - the way of things here in a crisis is to straighten your shoulders and make yourself useful. And people were very useful - offering help instead of running for cover.

We're back to the times of suspicion. In the 80s a mate of mine travelled to London, first time out of Ireland, and got rather drunk en route, as you do, it can be a long and emotional journey. Destination Kilburn, he got a bit dozy waiting for the tube and, in his confusion getting on the train, forgot a bag of precious music tapes - did I mention he was a musician and a mighty good spoon player?

Shortly after his arrival at base, sans music, the police were at the door and arrested the lot of them. They had carried out a controlled explosion in the tube station and were a mite annoyed - so was my mate, his precious, unique store of Irish music was dust.

My mate was no threat to anyone but himself perhaps, and left London, disillusioned, as quickly as he had come, sad lesson learnt. Being Irish and living in London in the times of the Harrod bombing, the Canary wharf bombing - you are not the most popular person in the boozer. You have to modify your tones, whisper at times, in case your accent might give offence or draw the wrong attention.

I cannot imagine how difficult it is for London's Muslim communities this week - victims like the rest of us but with the harsh, hostile glare of public suspicion hanging over them. Separated from the local community by social and political events that are not of their design or desire. Pity the parents grieving their children, and the children grieving their parents.

This vicious and lamentable assault struck at some of the centres of the Islamic community in London - in Aldgate and Edgeware Road - the former is a focal point for the poor, and the ultra-rich Arabs congregate aroung the Edgeware Road, just a stretch up the road from Park Lane and Marble Arch. Whoever did this thing did not care for poor or rich, Islamic or no.

What does this tell us about our enemy I ask. Not a lot is my non-forensic, non-police-like response - haven't got a notion. But I hope the police have. I hope the police catch these plonkers before ordinary people do. I hope they get the evidence together to stitch them up good time.

However, top priority is to recover the bodies that are still trapped - bugger the forensics. If my kid or next-door-neighbour was missing, I would care less for forensic evidence and prefer to dig in and be done with it. Are the forensic teams hampering recovery or am I just too cynical for words?

As time goes by, Kings X becomes our Ground Zero. We've always had the capacity to f**k it up ourselves, with stray cigarette stubs and the like. What blows it for me is the people/bodies are still trapped. Fix it now, please.

7/7 and then there were seven

Published 07 July 2005-07-07

I turned on the TV and the news was bizarre - a power surge seemed to be knocking out tube trains all over London, huh? As time went on the power surge story sounded more and more ridiculous. When the bus blew up my fears were confirmed - these were bombs.

It was a number 30 bus, on its way to town from Hackney Wick. A tragic way to mark London 2012. Two people confirmed dead on the bus and there's speculation it was London's first suicide bombing.

Spent the morning trying to call people. Gradually the texts started arriving but some messages were taking hours due to mobile network congestion I assume. On 9/11 my dispersed family (including some in the states) didn't manage to complete the check in until about 1am.

Last week I walked that route in the sunshine as I wended my way to the Papageno. It must be weird there tonight. The renowned bulldog british spirit kicked in like lightening today - talk about stoicism or is it just plain ordinary shock.

And so, Tones had to leave G8 and then they were 7. Only for the afternoon, but he's still in town which won't leave much horse-trading time tonight. I'm sure Jacques likes to get an early night and George will be busy at his prayers. Can we squeeze some reality out of George by tomorrow - from a country where it is illegal to teach evolution why would they believe in global warming?

The road to 2012

Published 07 July, 2005

What a day it was for Tones yesterday - he's on a roll and so is England. What a coup - Olympics 2012 for London, exactly what the country needs. If you're not familiar with London you are probably visualising palaces and princes and, with Princess Ann on the bid team, I think we can be assured of lots of royal waves during the event.

But forget the royals and think Hackney - the poorest borough in Britain - source I presume of the "hackney cab" and "hackneyed" conversations. It's my favourite place in London, my second home for a number of years and where I made many lifelong friends - I even met himself there.

My favourite approach to Hackney is to take the 253 bus through the windy streets of the City, via the smells, colour and chaos of Whitechapel market, and finally up Cambridge Heath Road towards Hackney. Along the Whitechapel Road you pass the Jolly Beggars pub where one of the Kray brothers is reputed to have nailed a guy's hands to the floor! The side streets were the hunting ground of Jack the Ripper and small wonder really. For centuries Whitechapel has been the first port of call for immigrants to England - a vast, seething, melting pot of cultures, ideas, languages (and potential victims for murderers and gangsters) . . . They reckon there are 252 languages spoken in London (there are fewer than 250 ISO country codes).

I like to get off the bus at Bethnal Green, the southern point of Hackney where there's a lovely Museum of Childhood (in Hackney!) if you have time on your hands. Alternatively, the Rose and Crown pub right by the bus stop can often be more tempting. To the right, the Victoria Park Road leads to one of London's finest public parks and straight on is the grime and bustle of Mare Street - main street Hackney. The far side of Victoria Park is our goal - the wasteland that is set to be transformed into a 21st century dream.

London's amazing network of canals runs through Victoria Park - you can traverse north and east London along the canal paths without seeing a car or a bus. You do, however, encounter the occasional fisherman, thousands of pounds worth of kit, ice-bag stocked with beer, large dog lounging around and mouth full of squirming worms. I kid you not. The worms wiggle more effectively if they are warm. It's an ancient Cockney tradition.

Ali, my flatmate, introduced his 4 year old son to cycling by taking him on a ride north westwards along the canal path through Islington, and King's Cross and right up to Camden Lock - the poor lad slept for a week after his ordeal. Ali was a 40+ bicycle courier - usually a young man's game but Ali had boundless energy.

If you travel north east on the canal from Victoria Park, it takes you past the Top of the Morning Pub where a pit stop could be in order. It's a pretty typical pub for the area - like many places near the park it has an air of faded gentility, a bit run down, a bit rough and ready, but noisy and lively and friendly. And they come in every imaginable size, shape, colour and sexual persuasion.

Onwards from the pub and you arrive at our destination - Hackney Wick (drop the H if you want to sound local), gateway to Hackney marshes and London 2012. Acres and acres of space lost to the dog walkers and local football clubs. They never built a tube line to Hackney - because it was too poor and now an ongoing reason for its poverty. People thought I was insane to live there because of its cruddy transport links. But if you get into life in Hackney, you only leave when you have to. And with a 38 bus running door to door from home through Holborn, Covent Garden and onto Picadilly, what need had I for a smelly tube?

With no tube Hackney is a foreign country to most Londoners. It has so many hidden secrets - the marshes, the canals, the parks, the music, the markets, the pubs and some very cool people. Hackney usually makes it to the news for bad reasons - drug crime, bad schools that sort of thing. And it has its grim side, no doubt about it. But there's a common ground in poverty and there's a "we're all in the same boat together, man" attitude that is easy and relaxed.

A bloke I knew wandered, blind-drunk, into a Supermarket by Ridley Road market one evening, filled a basket with goods including more beer, staggered outside without paying and sat down for a little rest. When he was awoken by the security man he spotted that his beers had been nicked from his basket. They immediately replaced the beers at no charge and sent him on his way! It was only when he got home he discovered he had spent no money.

Ali used to go to Tesco's in Well Street late on Saturday afternoons to buy up the goodies on knock down pricing. He witnessed an incident where a staff member on the butchery counter spotted somebody eating the goods and accosted him. The hungry customer broke into a run down the aisles, chased by a growing number of the staff. Cornered finally in the back of the crowded store, six members of staff hoisted him up on their shoulders like a corpse, transported him thus from the premises before dumping him on the pavement outside to the amazement of onlookers. I don't see that happening in Kensington.

At 8.50 this morning a power surge occured at Liverpool street station - several people injured - other stations affected - walking wounded leaving King's Cross - now described as a major incident and entire system is being shut down. Initial reports of a bomb/terrorist incident have been discounted. Must turn on the TV.