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Observations on Everything

Is Phone Fraud a Terrorist Threat?

Hand holding phone receiver.Now we have a form of phone fraud that’s specifically targeting Canadians. Unfortunately, it seems to be pretty lucrative. For the full story see CRA phone scam uses fear of tax man to swindle ‘not so smart’ Canadians.

The real problem with this is the difficulty that police forces have in combating this scam, and many others like it. In all coverage of this sort of thing, we have local police forces saying that they have difficulty solving these sorts of crimes. The difficulty arises because the criminals are often offshore and they use the Internet to place calls. The more clever ones prey on the most vulnerable by faking Caller-ID strings to make people think a neighbour is calling.

It’s beyond me why someone doesn’t ask where this money is going and what its being used for. It’s easy to say that the calls appear to be coming from India, but the few times I’ve been able to pry information from scam calls like this, they’ve been in Pakistan. Northern Pakistan. Granted, I’m about to engage in “geographic profiling”, but it seems to me that if scammers are calling from a location that’s controlled by groups we consider to be terrorist threats, it might be reasonable to conclude that the money is going to fund terrorist activity. Is that a big leap?

The scammer in the CBC article says that they take $10,000 per day from vulnerable Canadians. It also shows that they’re extracting money in small amounts. Four prepaid Visa cards to pay off a thousand dollars. That’s going to fly right under the financial monitoring systems designed to track money laundering.

But doesn’t sending $3.5 million a year to a potential terrorist organization sound like something someone should be paying attention to? Why isn’t our impressive communications surveillance infrastructure being used to trace the VOIP packets used to make these calls back to their source? Why aren’t our voice recognition systems set to flag the obvious keywords used in a scam like this? Can we at least disrupt these sorts of communications?

Local police forces are incapable of battling this kind of criminal activity, simply because they don’t have the tools or skills available. Action needs to be taken at the federal level.

Photo credit: Martin Cathrae.

Information Era

Holy crap. I just discovered that in a digital era, relying on gatekeepers of reproduction to earn a living is impossible. People told me that being an independent writer / artist / musician / developer was going to be a tough way to earn a living, but still I held to my parent’s paradigm and somehow believed I’d get paid for every single physical copy of my work ever made. Now it turns out that I don’t stand a hope of being as rich as Stephen King / Picasso / Paul McCartney / Bill Gates, and that even to earn a subsistence living I need to find a new model for delivering value. But instead of dealing with this I will demand that you pay me for using recordable media for your own creative works, I’ll demand that we revert to an impossible outmoded system, while still begging you to send me money and whining that it’s not fair. I refuse to take responsibility for following my dreams / muse / passion instead of getting a job like everyone else. My failure to adapt is your problem, not mine!

Six Degrees of Redirection

This is a story of feature creep. We started with an idea that was truly useful: link shortening services. These services allowed people to take bloated SEO-laden links (like the ones on this blog) and reduce them to compact links under 20 characters. Perfect for pasting into an e-mail, even better for a length-limited Tweet.

But link shortening isn’t rocket science, and I’m guessing even the US Patent and Trademark Office thought the idea too obvious for a patent (I mention this only because that in itself is an anomalous achievement, but I won’t digress into another patent rant here). So competitors emerged pretty quickly. How do you distinguish yourself in the link shortening business? Simple, add statistics! (BTW “statistics” is the plain old boring word for “analytics”, which is a made-up crapword designed to fool marketers into thinking they’re not doing math).

Then after statistics, some brain cell thought up the idea of loading the target window in a frame, adding a “value-added” toolbar. Not that the value add was provided to the user, who got to lose a little screen space and not see the actual target URL, but for the person providing the link, who presumably could track minutiae like how long you spent on some page.

Next, services hopped onto the bandwagon. Twitter, Facebook, RSS feed aggregators and others all started adding a link-shortening, information gathering layer to any links posted on their sites.

So now we have a link on Twitter that goes to a short link generated by the author of the tweet. The author of the tweet has copied a link found on Facebook, which then redirects to a short link to a blog aggregation that goes to the bloggers short link that then goes to the post.

Six degrees of redirection. Each one making the web more brittle, more subject to the loss of an intermediary, less permanent, less connected. Every time one of these services goes out of business, hundreds of useful connections between content will get lost forever. None of this is good.

Audience: The Social Media Killer

I’ve been engaged with social media since forever. Always found it fascinating, even exciting. I really like Twitter. Now Quora seems interesting, but in a semi-social-media sort of way. There’s a bit of a shift happening. A lot of “early adopters” have been doing the Quora thing for a while and now it’s on the upswing of that familiar knee function of exponential growth.

Meanwhile, Twitter seems a little less vibrant. Is it because all the cool kids are playing with Quora? Partially. After all anyone with a real job only has so much time to dicker with this stuff, unless you’re a rare beast: a Professional Social Media Guru that’s a real job. So maybe Twitter is a little less shimmering with excitement because really interesting people are spending less time on it.

But that isn’t all. That only explains part of it. Read more

Spam via Zoominfo, Another in the Don’t Trust Series

Update: Part of the problem is the “allow people to contact me through this address” flag, which was set on. Hard to believe I’d let that happen, but I’ll assume that part was my failure, although the spam in question came in directly, not through Zoominfo’s servers. It’s probable that there was still a loss of data integrity at Zoominfo.

One of the great things about maintaining your own domain is the ability to put up a good fight when it comes to spam. It’s a real battle. This domain has been registered since the late 90’s, when an open Internet meant that just about anybody could harvest contact information from domain registration databases. Read more

Let’s Just Call it the Canadian Conference Board of Incompetence

In The Conference Board of Canada’s Deceptive, Plagiarized Digital Economy Report Michael Geist attacks the Conference Board for a variety of faults that call its claims of objectivity into question. Subsequently, in Conference Board of Canada Responds, Stands By Its Report he comments on their inadequate response.

What is perhaps most informative is this quote from the response “The Conference Board regularly produces custom research. Our guidelines for financed research require the design and method of research, as well as the content of the report, to be determined solely by the Conference Board.” [Note to conference board: that is how you cite sources.]

This quote suggests that they take full responsibility for the incompetence, sloppy methodology, poor fact checking, and many other faults in their work. They appear to either be completely disconnected from reality or to be fully aware that they have no credibility whatsoever.

I suppose it doesn’t matter which.

Social Media: Why Facebook; Why Twitter?

As either a younger member of the boomer generation, or an older member of Gen-X, I’m a member of a big demographic that seems to have a hard time understanding social media. The most common reaction I get to mentioning something on Facebook is “I will never have a Facebook account!”

I realize now that part of the bad reputation that social media has with middle-aged adults is due to the fact that most of these people are parents, and everything they know about social media sites has come from their kids.

This led me to a great insight. Good social media sites are malleable to individual users, and that’s what makes them so powerful. I am certain that my Facebook experience is vastly different from that of your average teenager’s, and that’s a good thing.

A middle-aged friend recently asked me about Facebook and Twitter, with the subtext “I don’t ‘get’ either of them.” I’ve reworked my response a bit in hope that it will be helpful to others:

The main purpose of Facebook is to get found by people you already know but have lost touch with, think of the people you would invite to a high school reunion. Simple as that. It’s also good for keeping up on the big stream of small things that winds up being news in a nominally mundane life. It works well if you’re not “always on” the net. You can pop in every week or so and catch up. If you ignore the clever little time-wasting applications and notification noise, it’s a useful tool. In short, Facebook is good at making an electronic link to people you already know.

Twitter is much more geared to making new connections and is really something for those of us who are “on the ‘net” most of the time. What it’s best at is finding new clever people, and getting breaking news. Information travels very quickly in Twitter, and to a large extent it’s filtered to the interests of the people you follow, which means you get more information about the things you care about. As a writer, it’s also superb at making you edit things down. The 140 character limit is brutal, but it enforces the practice of a clarity that can carry into other writing.

So how did I do? Is there anything else that “defines” these sites?

A List of Twitter Types

I’ve been “hanging out” on Twitter for about three weeks now. My interactions with it have evolved quite a bit over that time.

When I first got on, my attitude was “what’s the point?” That became “okay, so this is the best part of Facebook minus the dumb applications and a lot of FB’s cool-but-useless user interface.” But along with this functionality came a challenging signal to noise ratio. How can you decide who to follow? It’s certainly not by popularity. Some of the most followed accounts are little more than posts of the form “(hook text) (external link) more on (topic) at (posters_site).” In other words, “Here’s something vaguely interesting on a topic we cover. Hopefully the first link will generate the expectation that our site has even more useful information, and you’ll start using us as a source.”

If that’s all Twitter had to offer, I’d be gone by now. But despite the noise, there’s quality in the signal when you find it. I have interacted with people with unquestionable intelligence, people with expertise in interesting areas, and people with humour and insight. Twitter is also undeniably a superb source for news, both global and local.

The other problem is that few of us are consistently brilliant, so even on an individual level there’s no telling how many mundane posts you’ll have to read before encountering the gem that makes it worthwhile.

So I have developed a list of user types for Twitter that I use as a guideline when deciding who to follow:

  • The “I am a Channel” type is interested in their follower count above all else. Every post they make returns to a gateway on their site, so they can pump up their traffic stats. Some are more subtle, but the ultimate goal is to make their web properties a destination.
  • The “monetize” type is intent on convincing you that they know how to monetize your online presence. Inevitably this leads you to a pitch for their e-books and/or training courses. Somehow I get the feeling that these people are all modern equivalents of the “Make $1 Million from Classified Ads” artists. why do I get the feeling that the way you monetize is by selling e-books telling people how to monetize?
  • The “I am a social media maven” type — which is distinct from an actual social media expert — is a variation on “monetize”. All you have to do is buy/subscribe, and they’ll show you how to get to the top of the social media heap. By and large, these folks would fare far better if fewer of them appeared to be laid off auto workers living in their mother’s basements. The ones who seem to have some class wind up being the ones who value connections above all else. As I’ve said before, there’s something unsettling about “hook up with me on LinkedIn as a trusted source, even if I don’t know you from a serial killer”.
  • The “random link” type finds purportedly interesting information and tweets it with a useless explanation, as in “wonderful (link)”. I suppose that somewhere out there, the simple act of posting makes the link worthwhile, but in my experience so far, 85% of the links go to stuff that is old, dull, boring, or just plain not interesting. A complete waste of time. Explain what’s interesting about the link, please.
  • The “topic feed” type usually picks a well-defined topic to post about and either relates facts about that topic or posts links with information relevant to the topic. Focus is the key to success here. If the topic is pig farming, it no good can come from posting random comments on abstract art.
  • The “expert” type goes one better than the topic feed. These are people with a real interest and some expertise in their field, and they regularly post observations and insights along with the “topic feed” fare. A significant number of posts from these people reference original content that hey have compiled or authored.
  • The “personality” type is someone who has a real world profile and is using Twitter as another channel for communicating to their audience. Think Obama.
  • The “community” type is a member of a smaller community that uses Twitter to keep up to date. This is what Twitter seems to have originally been designed for. Some of these communities have “personality” types, who have a significant profile in within the scope of that community.
  • The “shared mundanity” type posts nothing but tidbits from their life. As in “listening to x while doing y”. There’s a fine line here. Much of the charm of Twitter is getting a snapshot into other people’s lives, but we don’t need the whole film; odds are that you’re just not that interesting. If none of these posts have any meaning, if they don’t transcend mere observation, then the unfollow button is not far away.

The real challenge here is that most people exhibit a mix of these types, and probably a few more that I haven’t identified yet. Twitter is all about constructing your own community and becoming a part of it. It’s social media at its most fascinating.

Newspapers are Dead. Expect a Very Long Funeral.

Writing on ojr.org, Getty Storch asserts that “Papers must charge for websites to survive“. There is a lively debate in the comments that follow, most of them are in disagreement with Storch’s analysis.

This includes mine, which I reproduce here.

Anyone who thinks newspapers can survive on local content needs to spend a few weeks on Twitter. Here is a medium where news arrives in near real time, is reliable (since misinformation is rapidly corrected by others), and relevant. This applies just as well in a global environment. I have seen real reports from people on the scene of demonstrations in Thailand and Athens, and learnt about the supply of gas from Russia to Slovakia from people in cold buildings. Twitter and similar channels tell me about traffic jams on my route downtown, about power outages and emergencies in ways that no newspaper or even television station can ever dream of achieving.

Twitter has merely brought something that has been happening for a very long time into the mainstream. As a case in point, I learnt about the death of Princess Diana via an international online chat almost three hours before the local media picked it up. This is a decade ago. Times have changed.

Information is now free and it will remain so. Any attempt to charge for access to it is absolutely doomed. The only hope that news media, particularly “print” media have for survival is by adding value. This means aggregating sources, adding perspective, and performing astute analysis. Even so, most of the revenue from these activities will be derived from online advertising, and those revenues will be orders of magnitude below what the industry currently sees as normal.

The newspaper as we know it is dead. There is no model that will resuscitate it, period. Rigor mortis has set in, the patient just doesn’t fully realize it yet.