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That’s mine!

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 27 Feb 2008 | Tagged as: Internet

There’s a lot of debate around people’s data on the internet: who holds it, who owns it, who controls it, how you should be able to access it, how other “parties” should access it, and so on and so forth.
As I was uploading photos on Flickr for the first time the other day (yes, I’m the equivalent of a Neanderthal in the IT geek world, as I didn’t own a digital camera till the year 2008) it occurred to me that there’s more to it than that. Apart from the concerns mentioned above, I feel like I’m missing something. I own those pictures I took, but I don’t have a physical object that represents them (the external hard drive doesn’t count).
This extends far beyond pictures. Take mp3 vs. LP/CD/Tape. Or e-books vs. err, regular books. There’s something satisfying about having a physical object. Something you can look at, hold, feel, be proud of and have it shining down at you from your shelf. Something that gives you the feeling of ownership. And although a lot of things are moving into the digital world and future generations will have less and less to do with physical objects and deal even more in digital entities, I don’t think that feeling of owning a real object will go away. I think it’s something engrained into our genes over thousands of years, and people will keep seeking to satisfy it, one way or another.

How long till the SMS is dead?

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 27 Feb 2008 | Tagged as: Internet

While sailing in a sea of flight cancellations and alterations last week, I needed to monitor two different flights, and followed an ad for a website that promised to do exactly that. I registered for a free service that would send me notifications for both these flights and had an impressive collection of airports and airlines it covers ( I got a bit disappointed that I could only get the email notifications for free and SMS had to be paid for, but was not surprised. After all, SMS costs money, email is free.
And then I thought twice. I have a PDA and receive my emails instantaneously. The SMS notification would give me no more prompt feedback than the email (apart from the slightly more attention-demanding ringtone). It would actually be limiting the notification in terms of length of the message, whereas email can be a bit more verbose.
So how long till SMS dies? The more people have devices that do email (easily), the less meaning SMS will have. Apart from the possibility of Instant-Messaging style applications on mobile devices that would serve the same purpose, just plain old email will serve the purpose of instant, short-message communication just fine. Perception of the instant nature of SMS in contrast with the usual delays in reading and replying to emails will change as email will be just as instantaneous, and SMS will have little or no reason to exist.
The end is nigh (well, a good two or three decades away perhaps, but definitely in our lifetime) for the SMS…

I read it on the internet, it must be true

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 16 Jan 2008 | Tagged as: Internet

I was reading an article on The Times on Monday about University professors being worried that today’s young students arriving at University are lacking the deductive reasoning to distinguish between genuine, verifiable and trustworthy as opposed to random imaginary bits of information. The article associates this with the internet and websites like Google and Wikipedia. It argues that today’s young minds, being used to have all the information they could possibly want at the click of a button, and all their questions answered instantly, are lacking the curiosity and reasoning ability to question the information and distinguish between truth and nonsense.

I don’t have enough contact with the generation in question to have an opinion on the truth of these claims, but I can certainly see the danger at hand. The previous generation went through (or arguably is still in) the phase of the TV gullibility: If it’s on TV it must be true. It’s definitely a possibility that young people who grow up using the internet and learn to trust sites like Wikipedia de facto, don’t learn to be suspicious of random websites and take what they read as the undeniable truth.

On one hand, people’s gullibility regarding the internet is obvious in the amount of internet scams victims (a colleague informed me the other day that 3% of spam email actually get a reply – staggering!). On the other hand, everyone trusts well-known websites to be accurate. I had a disagreement a few months ago which was eventually settled by looking up the “truth” on Wikipedia.

This is of course in no way the fault of websites like Google and Wikipedia. Google strives to give you the websites that are more relevant to your query. It’s up to you to decide if you can trust them or not. But it’s dangerous to assume that the first result in your Google search must be a very popular website and therefore creditworthy. Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia, maintained by it’s users, which is great. It’s still up to the individual to decide if it’s the right source of information. If I want to find out information on a popular TV show, I’m happy to trust what Wikipedia says about it, and if I’m looking up what the definition of a livelock is, that will be a good place to start too. But if I’m trusting Wikipedia to give me the accurate and up-to-date information on what the procedure is to get an immigrant Visa to a country, then I’m looking in the wrong place for reliable information, and that’s my own fault.

At the end of the day it all comes down to people’s judgement of what’s genuine and what isn’t. But it’s very important, especially in our age of information overload, not to simply absorb any piece of information that comes our way without thinking about it. Being on the internet (or the TV for that matter) doesn’t mean it’s true.

Google all-knowing eye

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 21 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Internet, Software

A colleague ran into a very interesting Google protection mechanism. She searched for “soapExtensionTypes” and got a 403 page saying “We’re sorry, but your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application. To protect our users, we can’t process your request right now.” and a captcha to allow you to continue (try it). It gets even weirder:

  • It takes 3 correct captcha responses to get it to proceed to the search (making really sure you’re a person!)
  • Even if you change your mind, ignore the captcha and search for something else (something safe), it still won’t let you, until you give a correct captcha response. They really do block your access
  • It’s session-specific. If I respond to the captcha correctly enough times to unblock the search results and then do the search from a new browser window, I get it again.

This is interesting. As the 403 page says, Google does this to “protect their users”. This implies that they’re worried about gaming results, otherwise how could a search on anything harm anyone besides me? If that’s the reason though, the search strings on which they decide to enforce this seem peculiar. I won’t rant about “soapExtensionTypes”, it’s reasonable that any way they use to determine which searches to block may get a few wrong. But if this is primarily to prevent gaming the search engine, why do searches like “football tickets” not trigger it? I imagine that’s the type of thing that people would mostly be interested to game.

Oh well. It appears that I am now on Google’s provisional black list, as any search I do is blocked by a captcha (although if it’s a safe search string it only asks for one correct captcha response). I hope it goes back to “just working” soon.

Needle in the Internet haystack

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 10 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Internet

Search engines are a lovely thing. If you need something, you search for it (in most cases you google it) and the ideal website magically comes up. People don’t bother adding websites to their Favourites, they know they can search for it if they need it.

I’m getting a bit too used to this. But it’s very much dependent on your search string; searching for the right text can make the difference between finding the right thing or not. I usually don’t bother looking in the second page of the search results unless I’m after something quite obscure - if it’s not in the first page then I’m probably using the wrong search string.

These thoughts came to me when I made an unsuccessful search that astounded me. I visited the Wimbledon website a couple of weeks ago to try to get tickets for next year. I glanced around and didn’t bookmark it, so today I searched for it again. I first tried “wimbledon tickets 2008″, expecting this to return the page in the official website with the relevant information. It didn’t. Actually, if I hadn’t been there before I might have confused the first result ( to be the official one. Searching for “wimbledon” returned the official website on the first hit. It just goes to show that searching for the wrong thing, and especially text that companies look for in order to make money, like (re)selling tickets, can throw you off quite a bit.

Almost as an afterthought, I wondered where the official Wimbledon website appears on the search for “wimbledon tickets 2008″. I was astounded to find it in page 21, a shocking 204th place in the search results list! Makes one wonder whether the search results may be gamed, doesn’t it?

What Location?

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 06 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Internet, Software

Google recently released My Location for Google Maps. The idea is that you download this to your mobile or PDA, press 0 while in Google Maps app and your (approximate) location is displayed on the map. This doesn’t need GPS, as it uses the mobile network masts to calculate your position, presumably with some triangulation.

It seems to me like a good idea - a you-are-here on the map feature for non-GPS users, and with a ridiculously easy interface.  So I downloaded it to try it out, mostly to see how accurate it is. What I get is:

“Your current location is temporarily unavailable”

They say that this is beta and will not always work or be very accurate, but they’re working on it, yada yada yada. Fair enough. But I’m getting the same error wherever I am, for the past week. It hasn’t found my location once, it just doesn’t work for me. That temporarily word in the error message is starting to sound mockingly tiresome.

What gives? They don’t say anything about coverage - I’m in the UK rather than in the US, so if it’s US-only coverage it would explain it, but I can’t find anything about that on their Help Centre.

Verdict so far: Nice idea, but seriously unimpressed with results.

Customer Support for Dummies

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 05 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: Internet, Software

I’m so sick of customer support answers that assume I have the perceptiveness and IQ of a hibernating mushroom on valium. 

I’ve done a fair bit of customer support in various jobs so far, and I am well familiar with the two annoying types of complaints:

  • The I-don’t-know-anything type: This is the complaint that your software doesn’t work, coming from a person who isn’t actually familiar enough with computers to turn them on and open a file in Notepad, let alone use anything more complicated.
  • The I-can’t-be-bothered-to-describe-my-problem type: This is the complaint that just says “this doesn’t work for me” or something equally laconic and unhelpful. No description of the error, no information on the environment, no steps to reproduce it.

So having had to tackle this myself a few times, I can understand why the first response to any complaint I make is to assume I am stupid and don’t know anything - because this is a big percentage of complaints companies get and it’s best to start with the simple things first (”can you check that your monitor is actually connected to your computer sir?”). So I endure the silly questions, I wait for the “customer support advisor” to go through the first pages of his script and hope they’ll get to something helpful (usually, to refer me to someone else).

I do however draw the line at support staff who clearly haven’t even bothered to read my email. I recently emailed my (online only) credit card company to tell them that the payment method I’ve been using for months is now not working for me, possibly because they included a new security feature (as described in my blog entry about Too much security). I wrote a lengthy descriptive email, pasted the error message and gave enough background information to suggest possible causes. What I got back, was a paragraph copied from the Help section. “Please make sure you are at the payments section and click on the Make Payment link…”. The person did not even read my email. It was really annoying.

Perhaps customer support staff can’t be bothered to pay attention. Perhaps this particular person wasn’t intelligent enough to tell the difference. But this is most definitely not good customer support.

Unless if, as my girlfriend says, when the say “support” they mean emotional support (”oh, your computer isn’t working, there there, all better now…”)

Too much security!

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 30 Nov 2007 | Tagged as: Internet

My bank is on a spree of extra security and it’s becoming increasingly intrusive. I now have to have a calculator-sized debit card reader in order to make payments to people, which means that I can’t do it by just logging in to e-banking from wherever I am, I must be at home with access to their little gadget (unless I’m expected to carry it with me). And when I make online purchases (through websites participating in the Mastercard SecureCard or the Visa VerifiedByVisa scheme) I go through an extra hoop of authentication directly to my bank.

The former is particularly irritating, because it’s not really for my security as advertised, but rather theirs. It ensures that I have my debit card in order to move money via e-banking, so if someone steels my PIN and password, they still can’t steal money. This is very obviously protection from the bank’s naive customers that reply to the hundreds of emails of the this-is-your-bank-please-give-us-your-security-details type. But it’s just an inconvenience for the rest of us that recognise this type of scam, it offers me no protection whatsoever.

The latter is fair enough, it keeps people from stealing my credit card number, expiration date and security code and using it to buy stuff of the web (well at least from participating websites). But today the scheme stopped me from making a payment to my own credit card(!). No explanation. Just failed. Well, this is much more secure. If I can’t spend money online, I definitely won’t be losing any money online.

Eventually, I never lose money anyway because the bank will refund payments that were fraudulent. Even the bank doesn’t bear that cost directly, as they are insured against this type of thing, although I’m sure that the volume of fraud increases their insurance premium.  I understand that banks lose loads of money from scams and naive customers, but there must be a line drawn between protecting the bank and preserving usability and convenience for the customer. It seems that we’re starting to move away from giving more power and control to the customer and starting to close things down again in the name of security.

This Dilbert comic strip says it all:

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