MonthNovember 2006

A little more Olympics (bear with me, watch the bollards)

So, with the budget having somehow quadrupled, what does Hugh Muir in (I blush) the Guardian suggest?

And so to money. Is there anyone who doesn’t think we submitted a bid with figures massaged to impress the IOC, or that the IOC didn’t know that?

Er, me, actually, and pretty much everyone who last year on the TV and so on was burbling about the £2 billion cost of the Games.

A meaningful budget is now being drawn up

Oh well, that’s helpful, isn’t it? Will this one include VAT?

and when it is unveiled politicians and the media will scrutinise it. So they should. But let’s be mature about it. Staging the games will be messy, costly and turbulent, but isn’t that a price worth paying if it means that shamefully neglected communities will have better infrastructure and life chances than they have had for generations?

As the comments after the article say – no, it flipping isn’t. If you want regeneration, why not just pay for it because you think the area deserves regeneration – not using some idiotic flatulent games in the wrong place. Flipping heck, Manchester would have been the perfect place for it. Always assuming they’d got rid of the bollards from hell. Watch them in action:

And then Ken Livingstone weighs in. Nobody thought the congestion charge would work, he says. (I did, actually, Ken. It seemed an obvious and brilliant way to apply road charging.) Everyone still asks: why not just regenerate the place? And nobody answers.

The athletic Iraq: why the Olympics make me feel like Cassandra

Last year, I wrote some unkind things in mid-2005 about the Olympics: making points such as

  • how weird it was that nobody asked the “Yes, but” questions before the Olympic bid (July 6 2005):
    is it just me or is it weird to be listening to the 1 O’Clock News and hear the interviewer start asking questions to the MP for Newham, such as “Won’t you be left with a lot of white elephant stadiums afterwards? I mean that’s what has happened at all the other places..” and to get interviewees saying “I’m not really sure that’s the best use of £2.4 billion…”

    Where were all these people before? Steamrollered into submission, told to keep a lid on it until the bid was over?

  • that ads in its favour were from vested interests like airlines and construction companies (June 17 2005):
    If London is cursed by winning the Olympics, those companies will get pots of money – travellers coming here, and of course all those stadia that will have to be built on the recently-levelled spaces where people used to live but have been rehoused. (Has anyone mentioned this? No?)

    So you know why the companies are in favour of the Olympics: whoever loses, they win. Hence, they advertise, and urge people who haven’t heard any sides of the argument to “Back the Bid” and text their “backing” to some daft number. No number to text your opposition to, you’ll notice.

    And about the losers: ah yes, that would be all the people who live in London. Because if Seb Coe succeeds, then they’ll all get higher council taxes to pay for the “regeneration” (more like, to line the construction companies’ pockets). And that’s about it. Given that they don’t really want the stadia, though they’d like better rail and public transport services, Londoners don’t really have any reason to like this bid, in my opinion.

  • that we needed (and got) a Stop The Bid site (Jan 22 2005), much good it did us:
    I don’t want London put into hock and the lives of millions of ordinary people upset for a reality TV event involving celebrities and micro-celebrities and non-celebrities who may or may not have taken drugs, in order eventually to provide a load of training facilities that will be in the wrong part of the country for the majority of athletes

  • that getting the Olympics will destroy Hackney Marshes (Jan 5 2005), where the marvellous Blur-soundtracked Nike football ad was filmed (can I get a YouTube link? Can I?):
    It’ll leave the city hugely indebted (the Games always do), and won’t really provide the sort of facilities that allow up-and-coming athletes need – which is a wide variety of sports facilities. The really good will soon excel and can then be picked to compete and train at a higher level, at better facilities which don’t have to be in London. Plus what about the adults? Aren’t we trying to keep them fit, to avoid the Evil Of Obesity?

Since then, what has happened? The alleged costs have ballooned, by at least 17.5% – oh, yeah, sorry, VAT, must have forgotten, silly me! Still now you’ve signed the contract, sorry, for cash, what? – towards £8 billion (shall we say that again? Quadruple what was being said 18 months ago)and finally, some commentators are starting to pick up on it. Andrew Rawnsley suggests it will be another Dome:

Who in their right mind is going to want to holiday in London in the congestion and security hell that will be the capital city in the August of 2012?

Just as with the dome, supporters of the Olympics say they will regenerate part of London. I’m all for the regeneration of the East End, but you didn’t need to do it by bringing this overblown, ludicrously expensive spectacle to town.

Thanks, Andrew (via John Naughton); I feel like you’re channeling me. What makes me so silently angry on behalf of Londoners is the fact that they were never consulted; nobody told them the costs; nobody made the case publicly. It was imposed, by a quango of people looking to benefit in their own way from the money-go-round, not truly improving the daily life of poeple who live in this giant city. No wonder that Roy Greenslade said of a recent speech by Seb, sorry, Sir Seb coe that

Sebastian Coe, chairman of the 2012 Olympics organisation, spoke without imparting a single intelligent thought. I tried to take notes but he said nothing of any consequence whatsoever, and he said it several times over. It was unrelieved by wit or wisdom and was heard in total silence by a now disbelieving crowd…

Could it be because there’s nothing to say? Even if the Olympic Games pass off successfully (though you know the papers will be full of tales of incomplete stadia and things not done; they are at every Games, and we excel here at finding fault with the tiniest thing), their aftermath will be judged as a pain. Will they make more athletes? Will they make better athletes? What are the Games meant to do for us as a nation? Apart from move our urban furniture around to places we didn’t want it so the kids could try to get around the room without touching the floor?

Don’t get me wrong: I love sport, and exercise. But this behemoth that we can’t back out of is going to make a lot of people very, very unhappy. Trouble is, there’s no exit strategy for the Olympics. You just have to wait for them to end. Maybe I’ll start a “countdown until it’s over” clock in the sidebar.

itsamobile.co.uk: blog spammer; separately – Charles Dunstone: the subtractive blog?

Let’s just get this out of the way first, for the benefit of Google. Could I just ask at this point whether anyone else has noticed that itsamobile.co.uk is a being pushed by a persistent, and rather annoying, blog spammer; the site itself seems to be trying to push stuff for which it’s apparently getting paid – one guesses as an affiliate – by a mobile phone reseller.

The whois on itsamobile is pretty useless – some character called Lee Ritchie. Interestingly, it also says
The registrant is a non-trading individual who has opted to have their address omitted from the WHOIS service.

Intriguing that Mr Ritchie seems to have what looks like a very much trading site – horrible design, but there you go – associated with the name. (He also owns topchoicereviews.co.uk, which has the same not-useful whois details.) I wonder which bit of Nominet one mentions it to when a “non-trading individual” has an extremely busy network of sites all trying to sell you phones etc in what appears on the face to be a commercial business? Anyone got a clue?

A Google search on itsamobile spam doesn’t turn up much, apart from the fact that it started ticking off Spamhound in April. The domain was registered in February. Lee, give it up. This is the way to notoriety. Google will remember you.

Pity that you can’t point out this sort of stuff in comments on the blog of Charles Dunstone, chief exec of Carphone Warehouse, provider too of the TalkTalk “free” (as in paid-for) broadband/phones offering. That’s because you can’t add comments (aka enlightenment, properly done) to his blog. In fact his is one of those corporate blogs that I’d say, overall, subtracts from the sum of human knowledge.

A quick sample:

Over the past few months we have really been working hard at improving the speed of getting people live and it now takes just 5 weeks from signing up for us to have your phone line and broadband up and running. This is something I have avoided offering until we were absolutely sure we could deliver consistently. If you want an impartial view, I have attached a link to Martin Lewis’s website, www.moneysavingexpert.com, his view is that we are by far the best value in the market place, but you might have to wait.

And wait, and wait, and wait, judging by quite a few of the emails that we receive. Also doesn’t it rather depend on the meaning of that word “value”? My point being that the five weeks will be, at best, an “average” time (mean? median? mode?) and perhaps will really be the “wished-for” time. Plus we’d be surprised if you’d not been working at improving the speed. Also, what precisely is it you’ve been avoiding, Mr Dunstone? From the structure of the sentence, one would think it was the getting the broadband up and running, when surely you mean quoting a review is what you’ve been avoiding.

And what does moneysavingexpert.com actually have to say? That the TalkTalk offering is the cheapest broadband. Does it say “best value for money”? No. Cheap != best, nor best “value for money”. As long as broadband is an emerging technology, which it is while BT’s still implementing ADSL Max and the 21CN, you get what you pay for. I think it would be nice if Mr Dunstone would let people comment on his blog, or at least allow trackbacks. As it is, his works will only annoy frustrated would-be customers still on dialup. Which is not what one should aim for as a CEO. What he’s doing is the equivalent of car advertising: showing people shiny ads to confirm them in what they bought. Blogs ought to be about engaging the would-be purchaser, or the already-has purchaser, or the wasn’t-considering-it-actually-until-I-got-here purchaser, that you’re the sort of company they want to do business with. The disconnect between what he says and what people will come across will only confirm them in thinking that he isn’t listening to them, or that his company structure means he can’t hear them. Do you want to be a customer of a company like that?

A statistic. At a Hotwire seminar at which I spoke recently, on trust in blogs, it emerged (from a MORI survey of statistically reliable size) that the least trusted source of information, out of a choice of blogs, review sites, newspapers, emails from a company, informataion from a chief executive, TV ads, and reviews on a company’s own website. CEOs get trusted by 2%, compared to 14% for papers and 25% for a review site.

Just how unpopular can a power adapter be? Ask Apple about its iBook/Powerbook one

So the other day I took my laptop and power adapter into the kitchen, to do a little work. Plugged it in, turned it on at the socket.

A sound: sort of brrrrack-pop! Plus a little bit of the magic smoke. Uh-oh. That’s not good. A bit of blackening around the place where the mains lead joins the adapter. No power coming out of either end. (I checked with my tongue. No, I didn’t. Kids, don’t try this at.. hello?)

Replaced the fuse in the mains lead – which had gone – but no dice. The laptop was fine, happily, but now living on borrowed, or battery time, which on a Powerbook G4 is surprisingly short, even with the screen dimmed down to almost nothing. (Clues to longevity: close every possible window; close every possible app.)

Well, I guess I need a new adapter then. A quick visit to the online Apple Store.

I’d love to give a link to the URL, but they’re transient. But you can find them yourself: look for the “Extra Portable Power Adapter 65W” (or just put “65W” into the search button, because it’s tough working out where Apple thinks a power adapter should lie in its tree).

Ok, need an adapter.. hey looky, there are customer reviews. Hmm, this garners a princely 1.5 stars (out of a possible 5). What on earth are people saying about it? (These come from the UK store, but stay tuned..)

Review: I was starting to wonder if I was being clumsy or careless by allowing my THIRD power adaptor to crack and then snap at the painfully thin end…..but no! It appears that Apple have a useless and very expensive product here. One star.

Review: The power adaptor is the worst Apple product I have ever used. My Power Book has been working perfectly for nearly 4 years but I had to buy my third adaptor now. Very poor quality! I’m looking for a non-Apple alternative.

Review: So I have had my mac for like 2 years and I finc it great, some minor annoying thing but beats windows hands down! Only problem is with these stupid adapters, It has to be ajusted to make it work and the barrel or whatever is bent, just out of normal…

Review: Two really poor design features: First: the tip of the centre prong has broken off inside laptop twice — which requires new adapter and replacement of the computers power-in socket. Second, the cord always wears through and becomes dangerouse by… Read more > the tip. Unfortunately, this part of the cord requires replacement of the whole adapter!

And so on for 9 pages. One of the last reads

Review: I can confirm all the other reviewer’s comments. This would all be barely acceptable if it was a fairly priced product, but at £55 for just a power adapter this is outrageous. I think no more than £20 would be a fairer price.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at the UK or US store, either – everyone completely hates these things.

Can’t argue with the latter point, either. Even so, there’s no option but to pony up. I needed a new power lead. But.. no wonder they moved to the MagSafe design (just like cochlear implants, can I mention?).

If it’s worth saying, my lead had lasted five years, no fraying, just the general imperfect use. It’s always been obvious that the place where the lead goes into the machine is an obvious POF – point of failure. Any pull on the lead that’s not in line with the cord is going to generate big leverage on the laptop socket and the plug. That’s bad design by anyone’s lights. I’ve often wondered why Apple didn’t do something like HP does, which is to have a plug at right angles to the socket, and the cord in line with the plug, ie right angles to the socket. But then you have the problem that a pull on the cord could really destroy the plug, rather than pulling it out. Compromise, compromise.. which is why the MagSafe thing, as long as it’s not too sensitive, must be a better solution.

But I won’t be hurrying to take this new lead into the kitchen.

What government is crap at: websites that work

If anyone can get the VAT form linked to on this Treasury page to download on a Mac, I’d appreciate it emailed. It’s only 29KB. But can I get it on Safari or Camino or Firefox? Nope.

If it requires a Windows machine to work, I’ll just grind my teeth. “The document you have requested is available for download only”, the page declares. Yeah, well, actually making it downloadable would be a start then, don’t you think?

I mean, this is just ridiculous. A government department that can’t commission a site so that web users can acquire the documents it insists they need. (It’s for my wife, since you wonder.) I’m just speechless. It matches the amazing incompetence of Siebel’s work for the Department of Work and Pensions, which I encountered before.

Except this is just linking a file. It lives in a directory. It’s a PDF. How can the Treasury break that? How??

Mac apps are going through a boring stage: all flash, no insight

It’s the truth. Sparked off by looking at those still in the running at the MyDreamApp contest, where one lucky (I think that’s the word) program will get developed from the remaining five into a fully-fledged shareware app, based on what people have voted for.

At MyDreamApp people have, apparently, voted for getting one of:

  • a virtual window to the outdoors when you can’t get out
  • a file syncing program (gee, there are none of those in the world)
  • a recipe and cookbook program (for sure, I consult my computer while I’m cooking – don’t you? Oh)

I mean, it’s stupid. Proves what has just been demonstrated on I’m A Celebrity: committees make worse decisions than individuals. (The group of men had the question: are men or women more likely to pass the driving test the first time? They all voted. They got it wrong.)

(Aside: aren’t Ant & Dec fantastic on this? They really make the show. Apart from the bears in cages we like to call celebs. Following a bush tucker trial in which to win a meal the participants had to eat the following (amputated) items: kangaroo eye, kangaroo tongue, kangaroo testicle, kangaroo penis, kangaroo anus – Ant (or maybe Dec) did the link to camera: “Eye, tongue, testicle, penis, anus… wallet and watch, I’m set for the day!” Brilliant.)

Anyhow. MyDreamApp is going to be MyNobodyBoughtMyApp, and all around there’s little sign of someone coming up with a really surprising product. The Rogue Amoeba blog has had a grumble about the Delicious Generation of developers (Delicious as in Wil Shipley’s Delicious Library, not del.icio.us, which while simple is a powerful idea. As for Delicious Library, I’ve not yet got any idea why you’d take the time to catalogue what items you own, by scanning their barcodes with your iSight. Sure, you can, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth doing. And you built an app around it, Mr Shipley? OK, you’ve made money, but left me mystified.)

Meanwhile, what everyone seems to be trying to do at the moment is provide an app that will let you dump your brain, or at least day-to-day computer experiences, in it, and then retrieve some bit of it later. I cite Yojimbo and Eaglefiler.

I’ve tried Yojimbo. Didn’t stick. I’ve tried Eaglefiler – I had it open and running for days. Nothing happened. I didn’t really want to file stuff in it. There are other similar programs (DevonThink, I think) and the truly awful NoteTaker.

They’re all awful because they’re about interface, rather than APIs. OK, Eaglefiler has got an Applescript interface, but I’ve not been attracted to it enough to investigate.

Besides which, as I’ve said before, VoodooPad is the perfect place to dump *and export* all sorts of things. PDFs, Word documents, URLs.. you can prepend or append or just import them all. And it’s got a really good Applescript dictionary that includes the verb “taunt”.

Huh?
tell application "VoodooPad" to taunt
–> “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!”

It’s a very cool app whose usefulness goes far beyond what one normally goes with it; there are hidden depths, and widths too. That’s not my impression on lots and lots and lots of things I see and try out there.

Of course, it could be that the next great app is just being coded right now by someone in their bedroom, and we’ll greet it by saying “I never realise I needed to do that, but I do!!”. That would fit: committees don’t do good work. Individuals do. (Ask Fraser.) After all, Flying Meat is – I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong, but I think not – a one-man band. So was Ranchero, producing NetNewsWire.

In the meantime, could all the people writing “apps where you can store that page you looked at” give it a rest – please?

(Though all that said, the Linkback Project is very interesting. Um, yeah, works in VoodooPad. And Omnigraffle. And Keynote, via a plugin. This is fun..)

One good thing I’ll say about thelondonpaper: its sudoku ranks

Solely this: its ‘difficult’ sudoku really is *hard*. Fills up the train journey, in fact. Probably the most useful thing in the whole paper.

Meanwhile, we’re now moving to the time of year when the free papers will be properly tested. It’s going to be cold, and windy, and rainy, when the distributors are going to have to stand on street corners and try to persuade people who just want to get out of the rain/wind/cold to take a shoved-into-pocket hand out and grab a paper which they don’t really need to take anyway.

I’d be aiming to sell good weatherproof hats and coats to those distributors if I had a shop.

Seeing too much of this already: spam with the captcha filled. By humans.

Hmm, here’s a spam on the Free Our Data blog, which Spam Karma allowed through: about sharetips. (It’s always flipping share tips these days. A letter from a reader to the Gdn explained why – basically, that you can’t touch the companies involved because their assets are offshore.)

But why did this spam get through SK, which effortlessly swats away thousands of spams pretty much any given day?

Here Spam Karma’s report on the characteristics of how the spam got through. Bad things about it are in red; good ones, in green.
-2.2: Comment contains: 5 linked URLs and 0 unlinked URLs: total link coef: 5 >= threshold (2). Non-URL text size: 1985 chars. Translation: Your comment is full of URLs and junk. I don’t like that.
0.5: Valid Javascript payload (can be fake). You seem to have filled in my comments form on the site.
0: Encrypted payload valid: IP matching. You seem to come from where you say you come from.
5: Successfully filled captcha. Oh, you exist. You’re not a computer.

A human, it seems, took the trouble to key in some letters when Spam Karma metaphorically rubbed its chin and said “Hmm… can you do this, then?” A captcha is one of those annoying forms you have to fill in on Blogger etc – the wavy letters and so on. It’s meant to ensure you’ve got a human at the screen. And we did, here.

Where did that come from, then? The IP address: 125.23.81.218.

Which is, according to whois,

Bharti Televentures Ltd., Broadband and Telephone Service, 224,Okhla Phase III, New Delhi, Delhi, India

Well, now we got trouble. Folk in India being paid by sharepumpers to fill in comment forms on out-of-the-way blogs? That’s really worrying. First that it’s profitable enough; second that they can pay people that little (it’s going to be fractions of pennies per site, yet they have to buy computers and give them internet connections..) and still profit.

What’s the betting for the first uses that the $100 computer will get put to?

Police told O2 to shut down network after July 7 bombings

From a speech given by Ken Cukier, the Economist’s technology writer, to the CEPT conference (I’ve no idea what CEPT is, I admit – central emergency planning er, trust?):

..a few weeks after the [London July 7 2005] bombings I called mobile operators in Britain as well as Ofcom, the regulator, to inquire as a journalist about what had happened that day, and if operators had actually shut down their networks. The response I got was uniform; they basically said: “Get behind the yellow tape, shut up, and go away.” Even a report six months later on mobiles in crisis situations by the GSM Association, the industry’s trade group, was devoid of details about the incident because of a lack of cooperation from operators.

Normally, this might have been the end of it, even if it should not be. But the London Assembly, an impotent political body other than power of the pulpit, conducted an investigation that it released this summer. It showed huge deficiencies in the way that the government and police handled the situation that day, particularly in regards to communications. It documented why and how the mobile operator O2 (formerly BT Cellnet, now owned by Telefonica), closed its network to the public on the improper orders of the City of London Police. It took this step two hours after the bombings happened, and kept it in place for almost five hours later — which actually hampered the emergency response. To their dishonor, some police officials actually misled the London Assembly about the communications problems on the day, the report documents.

Wow. I didn’t know that. (Perhaps I’ve not been reading enough disaster reports.) O2 shut down the network? The police tried to cover it up?

I met Ken at the “future of news” conference at St George’s – where I heard that marvellous definition, that news is “stuff you care about, stuff you want to pass on”.

Oh, and another bit in his speech:

In the most creative response [ahead of Hurricane Katrina], Wal-Mart allowed any employee to simply turn up to any store and work — a mutually beneficial thing for both employee and employer, as workers fled the worst-struck areas for safer regions. The result was that two-thirds of Wal-Mart stores were back open within 48 hours of the storm hitting land. This, while the public authorities were in utter disarray. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, couldn’t even find a boat to collect people off their rooftops.

Then again, FEMA were having trouble finding their behinds with both hands at that stage.

The point though that he makes is solid: let people communicate, even at times of dire emergency and disaster, and the result isn’t chaos, but self-organising order which often does better than the centrally-imposed order which “important people” think should be imposed.

One thing, though, Ken. I think now we can call it the “internet”, not “Internet” – rather as we don’t call the stuff we breathe the “Atmosphere”. It’s reached that level of pervasiveness. I’m sitting on a train typing this and there’s Wi-Fi. Not free, so I’m not using it, but it’s there if I felt like ponying up. (Somehow, I don’t.)

Another reason to hate online poker sites: credit card fraud and its effects

So I log in to pay the balance on my credit card. My, the outstanding balance seems high. What’s this new transaction?

Latest transactions: 03 November PKRSER.COM 500.00 U.S. DOLLAR £271.02

ARSE. So not only do I already hate online poker, but now some clown has cloned (or similar) my credit card to spend their scummy time there. You know, I was delighted to see the online poker (etc etc) companies shrink like pricked balloons (somehow it was apposite) with the US legislation banning it, but now I just want them to vanish altogether. They’re a waste of time, of money, and they just encourage this kind of crap.

Because when you ring up the credit card company, they’re completely understanding. Oh dear, how’s that happened, do you use the internet?, of course this won’t be charged to you, hmm.

But while you don’t have to take the cost, you do take all the damage. I have to cut up my credit card, while they issue me with a new one, once I’ve signed a form to say No, Mr (or Ms) Fraud Department, I had nothing to do with that transaction. So I have to get that card number changed on all the sites that use it. I have to deal with that. Can’t I keep the card, and you just put a stop on any transaction from an online gambling, gaming, lottery, etc site? Oh, no, the man answered, because you don’t know where the next fraudulent transaction will come from – doesn’t have to be an online gambling site.

He had a point, I thought. Then he ruined it by saying “Of course, you don’t know it’s fraud. It might have been misapplied.” Pardon me? “They might have typed in the wrong number.”

You’re saying that somehow someone making a legitimate transaction on an online p0k3r site accidentally typed in a number that wasn’t quite right but, oh happy day for them, they stumbled on the right combination of my number, plus my expiry date, plus perhaps my authentication number, to make the transaction happen? “I’m only saying it has happened. I’ve heard of it – people apply it to the wrong account,” he said defensively. Then he ruined it even more by suggesting that it’s people inside Barclaycard entering forms which show transactions for particular cards getting the numbers wrong.

Well, I’d really like to know quite how often that mistake – which sounds like the classic chimps writing Shakespeare sort of effect – happens. Especially given that an online site is hardly going to be working on a paper-based transaction. Perhaps over the phone?

Scammer: “Hello? Barclaycard? The credit card number is 4929 mumble mumble mumble.”

Helpful Barclaycard person: “Oh, don’t worry sir, I can make up the numbers for you!”

Meanwhile, I’m left with the pieces of my credit card, and the certainty that no online gaming site will ever, ever see my business legitimately. In fact I’d dedicate myself to bringing them down, except it requires being elected to power in the US, and nothing is worth that pain.

Seriously, though – how much credit card fraud is due to online gaming sites? Anyone got the numbers? It’s a given that it’s rising, but how fast? (And it makes me glad I don’t take Google adverts here, because you just know what sort of ads this post would get plastered with.)