Today, I noticed for the first time that WordPress would now like to place ads in combination with my content. The only way to avoid this is to pay them, and that’s not what I blog for. I’m also not inclined to place my own advertising to cover costs, so I’m left with no choice but to conclude that freemium is dead, and that I should leave this plane in favour of a private blog somewhere. It’s a shame as the keyword economy is thereby broken. Is there anyone other than Technorati to manage keyword clouds? (Google and hence Blogspot are evil, so I won’t go there.)
I recently posted “does what happens on facebook stay on facebook?”, a very nice flash video revealing some rather distressing details of Facebook’s terms and conditions, as the top link in the sidebar for this site. Then I read about garlik, an online service which says it “finds, tracks and monitors your personal information online”, and that it is “the simple and effective way to protect your privacy and identity”. Right. I’m not sure why they thought consumers who are worried about an unknown company collecting and inappropriately disclosing personal information about them would trust another company. Interestingly, one criticism raised in the facebook video – government ties – equally applies to garlik: one of their board members, Wendy Hall – otherwise an apparently distinguished computer scientist – is “a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology” (source). That said, I’m not sure how this situation can be satisfactorily addressed, that is, how to search for personal information online without using third party tools, and without accessing various resources on the web in a way that is fundamentally opaque to the user. Basically, you’d need to run such an application as a desktop app, and have a traffic monitor digest each packet for you before it’s released to any third party website, in order to be sure that it is only requesting, but never supplying, information. Nonetheless, I do feel that garlik has not undergone sufficient scrutiny, and I’m seriously worried by the CEO, Tom Ilube, stating in a lecture that he intends to sell the business within three years.
Let’s see if I can introduce this as a new feature.
I had another look at Zamzar, which now allows not only conversion of different image, document and audio formats, but also conversion of videos from YouTube URLs and other flash-based movie sites. The list of supported sites is here. I had a quick look at Wikia search, which, judging from the technology which is now being quoted as being contained in it – Lucene and Nutch – seems to be a far more ordinary beast than was widely claimed. ChaCha, on the other hand, really does offer search supported by live experts. This reminded me of my old friend qunu, a system for finding volunteer tech gurus to chat with live and help you sort out your problems – and be part of the revolution. And yep, qunu is still there, still apparently growing. Casting my net wider, I found kasamba, which allows people to also get paid for their services – complete with customer ratings. click4assistance has a colourful website advertising their engine for doing the same on your company website. I don’t know whether this is what Rackspace use on their website, or whether they rolled their own. As always the same technology is available from a number of other vendors, including groopz and WebsiteAlive. I’ll certainly believe the statistics that most web customers have questions beyond what most FAQs offer. A positive surprise was the website of my – admittedly pricey – broadband provider, Zen Internet. Their website seems to have an answer for everything (actually, I did ring them up with two questions before signing up, and they answered them gracefully, not to mention not keeping me in a loop on their phone system). Finally, everyone and their aunt is talking about SecondLife. I tried it and found it laggy and boring, but maybe that’s because my laptop isn’t a Core 2 Duo. In any case, I don’t buy into the hype (yes, that is a pun). Just another opportunity for us to become even more socially inept. No, thankee! No doubt Linden Labs make a lot of money out of this. And btw, Linden Lab does not have any track record before SecondLife, as everybody keeps implying. They just have a nice name. Did anyone watch Batman Forever? Or the Matrix (of course, everybody has seen that, right?) Oh, and if you liked Minority Report, you should watch The Power of Nightmares.
I recently attended a discussion of the prisoner’s dilemma, and someone brought up the fact that when you play this on a two-dimensional lattice, you can get situations where tit-for-tatters defend herds of cooperators against defectors. However, when you introduce a small frequency of long-range interactions, this defence breaks down, and defectors start feeding off the cooperators until they have displaced them entirely. In the medium term, you’re left with a world of defectors and tit-for-tatters, who for all intents and purposes act exactly like defectors (because we’re now well into the game and all tfts have played their first rounds against defectors) until tft starts doing well again in the few places where they can play together; since tit for tat is never first to defect, tfts can cooperate and gain in frequency locally.
The exact result obviously depend on the parameters of the game, but just as epidemiologists like to ponder the consequences of long-haul flights, so do those who’ve studied the prisoner’s dilemma.
The reason I am blogging this is because it tangentially relates to something else that happened to me this week. In Yahoo email, I was confronted with the “not spam” button on a legitimate email. I reasoned that if I pressed the button, it would cause similar messages to appear in other people’s inboxes in the current or future (as opposed to their spam boxes). So while I would have paid the cost of pressing a button, everybody else would get a benefit (except myself, because due to Yahoo’s stupid interface, I still had to move the email back into my inbox in a second, manual step). So I’m punished twice for my good deed. It didn’t seem a good bargain, so I just moved the email to my inbox without telling Yahoo that it was not spam. Yahoo should know anyway that I wouldn’t move proper spam to my inbox (maybe if the contents really caused me fits of laughter, I might do it…) But why should I rub other people’s backs on the web, when they have no way of knowing I did it, and probably wouldn’t feel inclined to thank me anyway?! My conclusion is that providers have to make sure that the morally right way is always the easiest way to perform an operation (preferably, the only way), but you may have different thoughts on this. Let’s hear them!
This is very similar to an idea that Jef Raskin presented many years ago in his book, namely to create an operating system that allowed users to add commands. If I remember correctly, Jef envisaged these commands to be purchased rather than downloaded for free, not foreseeing that open source software would replace much of the commercial market of this kind. I remember wondering at the time how this was any different from Unix, where you can string together commands using pipes to gain additional functionality. From my recollection of reading the book, I don’t recall that Jef explained in detail why users should extend the command set themselves. Having used Firefox for a while now, I think I understand what was intended
I use about a dozen extensions in Firefox (and it remains stable, touch wood!), but if you’d put me in front of a machine that had all of these extensions available to start with, I would not have known what to do. This is why I can’t bear to use Opera: it has a lot of nice features, but they aren’t very accessible. If Opera were modular, I might like it better. So the message is to allow people to extend functionality themselves, because that way, they grow with the technology and can better adapt to it.
Web applications are often limited by current broadband speed and availability, as well as server response times; Firefox extensions are helping to fill this temporary lag.
Incidentally, has anyone tried Onspeed? Their proprietary compression technologies sound impressive, but I wonder whether they have the bandwidth and processing power to match their claims that they can speed up even 8Mb/s broadband.
After my initial apprehension at possible vandalism issues in trailfire, I’m beginning to think that trailfire supplies exactly the features that digg has been missing. This became clear to me when I had a look at the user pages on digg, and noted that in spite of diggers providing, in essence, a public service, they are not granted personal userpages in the way Wikipedians are. All they get are some stats and a link to their home page. There is a lack of efficiency: why should I have to click again? Why not at least provide a preview of the userpage? (Incidentally, there is a WordPress plug-in that does this.)
In the same way, digg does not provide a way to digg a site while viewing it (although this can probably be done if the site itself has an appropriate plugin*). Trailfire does.
* If you need to know, you’d use the referral url to find the correct digg item, and redirect the user’s click there; how easy this would be depends on whether you need to supply the user’s ID, and how you can obtain it; digg of course could block any such attempt if they wished – but why would they?