Progress! Advancement! Improvement!

Everyday I marvel at what the world has achieved as a collective of minds operating together, for either the greater good or simply to beat the other guy. I marvel but I also lament this reckless approach towards “improvement” that seems to have picked up many developed cultures and is sweeping them towards the precipice of their undoing.

I learned to program computers when I was eight – I was a freak and that’s how it should be. These days kids everywhere seem to be doing the same, if not breaking records and causing a stir on various application stores throughout the marketplace. It’s brilliant; it’s amazing that computing has become so accessible such that it can now influence young minds to the level by which we previously used to think it great that kids knew how to use a TV remote. I wonder if any of them know how to climb a tree or is that beyond reach for the 20+% who are classified obese in Irish society

Beyond childhood wonder, our “progress” has seen huge change in the workplace too. Most factories have now automated to the extent that labour truly is the only cost to be worried about and they have managed to resolve that issue by uprooting and resettling in a different country to keep the investors happy. It was recently said to me, with respect to a pharmaceutical plant, “it’s amazing, you walk in and there’s almost nobody on the factory floor, everything is automated but they do have a large IT department”. Well, that is amazing. A situation whereby dozens of shift workers would have been employed on a continual basis, usurped by the almighty transistor and its human button pusher. Somehow though, it’s good for the economy…

Third level qualifications are all but taken for granted these days but where are they leading us? Academic outfits have adopted the line that “we need X% of PhDs within our staff” – why? Are your current staff unable to do the job that has raised the money to pay for PhD programmes, etc? No, of course not. It’s just a metric. It shows “advancement” and helps others to compare organisations on face[less] value. However, many pursuing PhD ambitions consider it to be “slave labour” and various other unpleasant associations. Do I wish I had a PhD? Hell yeah. Everyday of my miserable life. The problem however in this world is that finding a unique idea that interests you, when everyone else already has one, is kind of difficult. Plus for some reason or other, to get a PhD these days you need to travel – sadly not something I have been able to bring myself to do for many a year now. Apparently the internet that has given rise to such great levels of research is in fact useless when it comes to publishing your work and gaining appreciation for it. I wonder if Newton flew Ryanair…

So, where are we then? Progress! Advancement! Improvement! I may be guilty of being somewhat glib here but from a cursory glance, it appears that these 3 chants of the developed world have given rise to workplaces that employ less people, business practices that demand higher entry levels keeping people in education for longer, and brainbox kids that will quite possibly soon be the breadwinners of the family unit because Mommy and Daddy are unemployed because of Progress! Advancement! Improvement! or whom are stuck in long term education with no disposable income. It’s hardly surprising that we have an unemployment crisis in this country at the moment, is it?

I know, I hear you. Progress! Advancement! Improvement! – it will solve itself. This is only a glitch as we migrate towards new capacities and occupational ways of life. I hear you, I really do. I am certainly not a technophobe; in lesser societies I would be locked up for my inappropriate and frequently public relations with technology – a technophile through and through. However, in the vane of Progress! Advancement! Improvement! ponder this if you will. If one person operating a computer can replace the need for 20 people on a factory floor, just imagine what you could do with a computer controlling their terminal…

Museum of Me

Now, if ever there was a title that sounded self-indulgent, here it is. However, its coinage is not of my own doing, albeit my activities and that of millions of others, indirectly led Intel to create that phrase and its associated Facebook analysis. Yes, the Pentium Pushers have hopped on the Facebook bandwagon by creating a very elegant gimmic that analyses your Facebook profile to discover the things you talk about most, the people you interact with most, and the general impression of your life on Facebook. They create a polished video of your life through Facebook mash-ups and things from your profile and give you a set of pictures to take home as a memento of your trip down virtual memory lane. I think it has been around for quite a while now but I only dropped by myself in recent days to get the experience of my life, literally. Why not drop by and indulge in your own personal exhibition

Free Speech vs Social Acceptance

Interesting piece on censorship in social networks. While inconclusive as to whether or not censorship happened in this instance it does raise an interesting question with respect to free speech while maintaining a socially acceptable existence. I had read earlier in the week that Google’s “What Do You Love?” search experiment ( is also removing offensive keyword searches and preventing people from searching on lewd terms. Is cleaning up the web infringing upon the 1st Amendment in the US and similarly held beliefs in other zones?

Google Plus Nothing

I finally got my Google Plus a/c sorted about two weeks ago now and have been playing with it ever since. Like most of my peers I have been an early adopter of many social networks and mobile networking apps. I’ve been on Twitter for too long to remember, Facebook too and have engaged in a year long experiment with Foursquare that has now drawn to a close. There has also been a spattering of other services that have come and gone without really featuring in my life (nor providing annoyance to my friends).

The striking thing about my connected life until now is the vast array of apps that I needed to interact with the various networks and also the frequently, limited functionality of those mobile apps compared to their desktop counterparts. Sometimes so bad, I’d rather make the slowest quip in the world than try to broadcast it from my phone. I used to be very anti-smartphone, not getting the phone-omenon in the early days. I still stand by my opinions at the time as things were just not ready for mass market in my estimation. Times have obviously changed and even I have now gone through several smartphones and a vast array of apps for those devices. I guess knocking the adage on its head applies here: There’s no whore like a reformed prude.

Upon investigating Google Plus for the first time, the interface was immediately apparent, as a well thought out, socially unifying experience. Facebook has always been shrouded in privacy concerns and locking down information was ultimately more trouble than it was worth. Of course, I still believe that if it’s that sensitive then don’t put it online! Facebook was great for getting back in touch with old friends whom I haven’t seen since school days and it served its purpose in such regard. However, I saw little benefit in joining groups related to my interests because updates were easily lost in the deluge of friend status posts and other garbage (sorry folks). Facebook allowed me to connect with lots of people, share photos to my friends in a more private way than Flickr but not much beyond.

Twitter grabbed me from the word go. As soon as I heard about the service, being a long time blogger (back then) I could see immediate advantage to concise information broadcasts from trusted peers and leading experts. It was like a 1950’s vision of the future cartoon, where all the information on the web would be available in one, tiny, 140-character burst – get your proton pills folks! However, as time went by I found myself craving more detail from Tweets. Twitter still features in my daily life; a convenient disposal chute for my garbage and a constant stream of what is happening in the world at any moment in time.

Foursquare was an experiment for me. Although not liking the idea of broadcasting my location to all and sundry, I decided to throw myself into it 100%. Within two weeks I had succeeded in annoying lots of folk with Foursquare checkins, cross posted to Twitter and Facebook. Straight away there was a problem. So many of my friends didn’t use Foursquare and so many didn’t care about my checkins, to the point of annoyance. Little value in such a service – all things considered. It was partial fun while it lasted. I gained a multitude of badges, held 20 mayorships simultaneously, uploaded some tips and photos of locations that I visited. However, ultimately the experiment yielded a big fail for me. Foursquare has potential but not within my catchment area. People don’t actively use tips, nor post photos of interesting things at locations. Businesses are not savvy enough to capitalise on rewards and offers for regular visitors or even the mayor. Then there were all the reasonably regular (at least at one stage) “Foursquare is over capacity” messages that prevented you from using the service to checkin. Ultimately it boiled down to a silly game/ego trip that produced very little of value.

Google Plus on the other hand offered granular privacy out of the box, through the concept of circles. The notion of circles was instantly intuitive and worked so well that not only did it guard whom you shared information with but also allowed you to filter friend updates from those whom you may follow just for interesting material (e.g. tech experts and others). Sharing is so powerful, yet so easy on Google Plus. My photos, my status updates, interesting articles I find, videos I like, links that are worthy of a +1, it’s all there under one roof. On top of that they have nailed the checkin system of Foursquare in a way that Facebook never did, in my opinion. I always found Facebook checkins pointless because cross-posting from Foursquare to Facebook just annoyed people so why do it directly? With checkins on Google Plus I can checkin somewhere and only share that with a select circle (e.g. family). That way the valuable information is broadcast to those who may be interested and it doesn’t annoy anyone else. I love the way I can filter, follow and organise my contacts. I like that the interface is simple yet feature rich. I love the Android app for Google Plus. It makes using Plus on the move an absolute joy. No clutter, no mess, and no inhibiting limitations unlike so many other apps for similar services.

I’ve been so taken by Google Plus that I’ve hardly interacted directly with Facebook since getting my Plus a/c. The only thing bringing me back occasionally is a group of friends who haven’t made the jump to Google Plus yet. My Twitter activity is probably more or less the same in terms of my output but I’m finding more and more interesting stories/discussions and in greater detail, through allowable verbosity, on Google Plus. Facebook looks like it may have served its purpose for me and as soon as other friends have migrated to Google Plus, I can see it fading into the distance, barring any shake-up on the horizon. I’ve gone from regularly using 4/5 services to now using almost Google ‘Plus’ nothing.

Think like the web or even like Jon Udell

Back in 2000, the patterns, principles, and best practices for building web information systems were mostly anecdotal and folkloric. Roy Fielding’s dissertation on the web’s deep architecture provided a formal definition that we’ve been digesting ever since. In his introduction he wrote that the web is “an Internet-scale distributed hypermedia system” that aims to “interconnect information networks across organizational boundaries.” His thesis helped us recognize and apply such principles as universal naming, linking, loose coupling, and disciplined resource design. These are not only engineering concerns. Nowadays they matter to everyone. Why? Because the web is a hybrid information system co-created by people and machines. Sometimes computers publish our data for us, and sometimes we publish it directly. Sometimes machines subscribe to what machines and people publish, sometimes people do.

Given the web’s hybrid nature, how to can we teach people to make best use of this distributed hypermedia system? That’s what I’ve been trying to do, in one way or another, for many years. It’s been a challenge to label and describe the principles I want people to learn and apply. I’ve used the terms computational thinking, Fourth R principles, and most recently Mark Surman’s evocative thinking like the web.

Back in October, at the Traction Software users’ conference, I led a discussion on the theme of observable work in which we brainstormed a list of some principles that people apply when they work well together online. It’s the same list that emerges when I talk about computational thinking, or Fourth R principles, or thinking like the web. Here’s an edited version of the list we put up on the easel that day:

  1. Be the authoritative source for your own data
  2. Pass by reference not by value
  3. Know the difference between structured and unstructured data
  4. Create and adopt disciplined naming conventions
  5. Push your data to the widest appropriate scope
  6. Participate in pub/sub networks as both a publisher and a subscriber
  7. Reuse components and services

1. Be the authoritative source for your own data

In the elmcity context, that means regarding your own website, blog, or online calendar as the authoritative source. More broadly, it means publishing facts about yourself, or your organization, to a place on the web that you control, and that is bound in some way to your identity.


To a large and growing extent, your public identity is what the web knows about your ideas, activities, and relationships. When that knowledge isn’t private, your interests are best served by publishing it to online spaces that you control and use for the purpose.


Mastering your own search index, Hosted lifebits

2. Pass by reference rather than by value

In the case of calendar events, you’re passing by value when you send copies of your data to event sites in email, or when you log into an events site and recopy data that you’ve already written down for yourself and published on your own site.

You’re passing by reference when you publish the URL of your calendar feed and invite people and services subscribe to your feed at that URL.

Other examples include sending somebody a link to an article instead of a copy of the article, or uploading a file to DropBox and sharing the URL.


Nobody else cares about your data as much as you do. If other people and other systems source your data from a canonical URL that you advertise and control, then they will always get data that’s as timely and accurate as you care to make it.

Also, when you pass by reference you’re enabling reuse (see 7 below). The resources you publish can be recombined, by you and by others, with other resources published by you and by others.

Finally, a canonical URL helps you measure how the web reacts to your data. If the URL is cited elsewhere you can discover those citations, and you can evaluate the context that surrounds them.


The principle of indirection, Hyperlinks matter

3. Know the difference between unstructured and structured data

When you create an events page on your website, and the calendar on that page is an HTML file or a PDF file, you’re posting unstructured data. This is information that people can read and print, and it’s fine for that purpose. But it’s not data that networked computers can process.

When you publish an iCalendar feed in addition to your HTML- or PDF-based calendar, you’re publishing data that machines can work with.

Perhaps the most familiar example is your blog, if you have one. Your blog publishing software creates an HTML page for people to read. But at the same time it creates an RSS or Atom feed that enables feedreaders, or blog aggregation services, to automatically collect your entries and merge them with entries from other blogs.


When you publish an iCalendar feed in addition to your HTML- or PDF-based calendar, you’re publishing data that machines can work with.

The web is a human/machine hybrid. If you contribute data in formats useful only to people, you sacrifice the network effects that the machines can promote. If you also contribute in formats the machines understand, they can share your stuff amongst themselves, convey it to more people than you can reach through word-of-mouth human networks, and enable hybrid human/machine intelligence to work with it.


The laws of information chemistry, Developing intuitions about data

4. Create and adopt disciplined naming conventions

When people publish calendars into elmcity hubs, they can assign unique and meaningful URLs and/or tags to each event they publish. And they can collaborate with curators of hubs to use tag vocabularies that define virtual collections of events.

The same strategies work in all web contexts. Most familiar is the first order of business at every conference attended by web thinkers: “The tag for this conference is ______.” When people agree to use common names in shared data spaces, effects like aggregation, routing, and targeted search require no special software.


The web’s supply of unique names (e.g., URLs, tags) is infinite. The namespace that you can control, by choosing URLs and tags for the things you post, is smaller but still infinite. Web thinkers use thoughtful, rigorous naming conventions to manage their own personal information and, at the same time, to enable network effects in shared data spaces.


Heds, deks, and ledes, The power of informal contracts, Permalinks and hashtags for city council agenda items, Scribbling in the margins of iCalendar

5. Push your data to the widest appropriate scope

When you speak in electronic spaces you can address audiences at varying scopes. An email message addresses one or several people; a blog post on a company intranet can address the whole company; a blog post on the public web can address the whole world. Web thinkers know that keystrokes invested to capture and transmit knowledge will pay the highest dividends when routed to the widest appropriate scope.

The elmcity example: a public calendar of events can be managed in what is notionally a personal calendar application, say, Google Calendar or Outlook, but one that can post data to a public URL.

For bloggers, this principle governs the choice to explain what you think, learn, and do on your public blog (when appropriate) rather than in private communication.


Unless confidentiality precludes the choice, web thinkers prefer shared data spaces to private ones because they enable directed or serendipitous discovery and ad-hoc collaboration.


Too busy to blog? Count your keystrokes

6. Participate in pub/sub networks as both a publisher and a subscriber

Our everyday calendar programs are, in blog parlance, both feed publishers and feed readers. Individuals and organizations can publish their own feeds to the web of calendar data while at the same time subscribing to others’ feeds. On a larger scale, an elmcity hub subscribes to a set of feeds, and in turn publishes a feed to which other individuals (or hubs) can subscribe.


The blog ecosystem is the best example of pub/sub syndication among heterogeneous endpoints through intermediary services. Similar effects can happen in social media, and they happen in ways that people find easier to understand, but they happen within silos: Facebook, Twitter. Web thinkers know that standard protocols and formats enable syndication that crosses silos and supports the most open kinds of collaboration.


Personal data stores and pub/sub networks

7. Reuse components and services

In the elmcity context, calendar programs are used in several complementary ways. They combine personal information management (e.g., keeping track of your own organization’s public calendar) with public information management (e.g., publishing the calendar).

In another sense they serve the needs of humans who read those calendars on the web while also supporting mechanical services (like elmcity) that subscribe to and syndicate the calendars.

In general, a reusable web resource is:

  1. Effectively named
  2. Properly structured
  3. Densely interconnected (linked) both within and beyond itself
  4. Appropriately scoped


The web’s “small pieces loosely joined” architecture echoes what in another era we called the Unix philosophy. Web thinkers design reusable parts, and also reuse such parts where possible, because they know that the web both embodies and rewards this strategy.


How will the elmcity service scale? Like the web!, How to manage private and public calendars together

The master of online living and organisation speaks again. We would do well to listen and perhaps even adopt a point or two. It would make many things more streamlined.

iTunes gifting scam

Surfers who link their debit or credit card to iTunes have reason to be cautious after a Reg reader found his bank account plunged into the red overnight following £1,000 in fraudulent iTunes gift purchases.

Reg reader Peter woke up one morning last week to discover an email informing him of a “£10 Monthly Gift for”, an account he’d never heard of.

Apple describes iTunes Monthly Gifts as a “great way to give a gift that keeps on giving”. The vouchers, sent to a recipient’s email address, can be used to purchase music and audio books from the iTunes Music Store.

Peter checked his iTunes purchase history, where to his horror he discovered scores of these “Monthly Gift” purchases – all of which had been generated within a short space of time on 19 January, but only one of which generated an email.

As a result of the fraudulent purchases, Peter’s bank account plunged from its £700 positive balance to £300 into the red, forcing him to borrow from friends in order to pay household bills until the mess was sorted out.

Peter promptly contacted both Apple and his bank (HSBC) over the scam. Apple responded with an automated message before suspending his iTunes account, a day after the damage was done. HSBC reacted better, restoring funds to his account so that Peter was able to make his mortgage payment, and sending him a form so that he could confirm in writing that he had had nothing to do with the disputed transactions.

Peter – who has had an iTunes account for years, spending an average of around £5 a month and never using it to make a gift purchase – is highly critical of Apple’s handling of the matter.

“After years of buying Apple products and using iTunes to buy some music and apps now and again, they’d taken the whole day to get back to me and basically claimed no responsibility or offered any help,” Peter, who works in IT and is aware of the security issues around online accounts, told El Reg.

“How is it even possible for iTunes to be used as some type of glorified bank account? Why the hell would I want to use iTunes to transfer money to people?

“It it completely unacceptable that Apple has turned iTunes into some type of pseudo-PayPal without the security measures, monitoring and care being taken to run something so important,” he concluded.

Peter is unclear on how his iTunes account might have been compromised. Phishing attacks (or worse) aimed at iTunes users are far from uncommon – though Peter reckons it’s more likely the hacker guessed his password rather than he mistakenly handed it over. In general, malware infection or the use of the same password on another site that falls victim to a hacking attack are routes towards becoming a victim of this type of attack.

It’s unclear how Peter’s account was compromised (we’ll probably never know) or how many other people might also have been affected by the same scam. The fraudulent gift purchase most closely resembles the mass compromise of iTunes accounts linked to PayPal, widely reported in August 2010.

A quick search of “iTunes + fraud” reveals that Peter’s case is far from unique, with other victims who link their iTunes account to a debit card account also waking up to discover hundreds of dollars in fraudulent purchases. Unlike the iTunes / PayPal scam, the many victims of iTunes-related bank fraud were not all hit around the same time, so the minor variant of essentially the same scam has escaped media attention, at least until now.

Peter’s tale of woe raises questions about whether iTunes ought to allow monthly gifts, given that it is a secondary facility that appears to be easily abused. “iTunes isn’t just a system for buying a bit of music; it’s turned into a banking system that can wipe out your finances and put whole families into financial limbo,” Peter warns. ®

This has made me think twice about my iTunes a/c. I had a problem some years back were I was accidentally charged by Apple for something and it took months to resolve. I’d hate to go down that road again.

Posted via email from jbwan’s posterous

IP Freely via With all the talk in the tech world about running out of existing IP space, we sometimes forget that the man in the street might not fully grasp what the problem is … Read more