Make the hard choice, get worked up about inspiring stories

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People get really worked up about crap which doesn’t deserve nearly as much attention as it receives. That crap usually comprises people making stupid comments about things and everyone else taking deep personal offence. What follows is a Twitter mob that lacks perspective.

This story on the SouthAfrica Instagram profile is an awesome item which more people should be getting worked up about and sharing but like many great and inspiring stories, it doesn’t get as much attention as the crap because most vocal and popular mob leaders became popular because it’s easier to get worked up about offensive, though frequently insubstantial, crap.

Getting worked up about inspiring and meaningful stuff is tough because it usually means you need to actually do something substantive about it, not just tapping a retweet button and complaining some more. It’s easy to whine because it doesn’t involve making a useful contribution to your community.

And, yes, I am pretty cranky this morning.

Don't use that ATM, there is a snake trapped in it!

This one is a little weird and very possibly the result of some cruel human act:

This (understandably angry) snake was found at a Caja Madrid bank Monday morning. The snake tried to attack bank patrons until the manager released the slitherer.

Police aren’t sure how the snake became stuck in the machine, but they suspect that some asshole humans may have been responsible. When the afterlife rolls around, may those responsible be forever cast into the Pit of Boomslangs and Buffalo Nickels.

(Source: io9)

A little perspective on the iPhone 4s

Apple’s iPhone 4s announcement was accompanied by some particularly fickle commentary on Twitter. The criticism basically came down to a bunch of armchair critics complaining because the iPhone that was announced was not a full version number higher than the pretty awesome iPhone 4 but was a measly iPhone 4s. I am sure it was shocking that the usual hysterical hype that has been building up for the last few months was not entirely accurate too. I mean, if there was a grainy photo of someone holding something that looked like an iPhone and who thought, for a moment, that it would be cool if the screen was bigger and the phone itself sweated unicorn tears and that photo can’t be relied on as a totally accurate preview of something Apple has historically kept ultra-secret … well, then whatever Apple comes up with just isn’t good enough!

(Give me a break)

While this measly device is just an iPhone 4s and not an iPhone 5, the fact remains is that it is, at least on specs, even better than the iPhone 4. It has a faster processor, better camera, beautiful design, the new iOS5 (which admittedly copies Android in many ways and doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel) and it has really advanced voice recognition technology coupled with some form of intelligence that enables the phone to understand your questions about the weather, movies and stuff and give you answers! The iPhone 4s is a really advanced piece of technology that we get to carry in our pockets and do things that were science fiction just a few years ago.

As far as it not being called the iPhone 5 (if you are fixated on the version number, you really need to go get some sunshine), this is what Apple does. The first iPhone was, well, the iPhone. The next one was the iPhone 3G (not even the iPhone 2). The next was the iPhone 3Gs and it was a component upgrade on the iPhone 3G. Only after the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3Gs (each was better than the previous one, by the way) did the iPhone 4 arrive (in mid-2010, I might add). The iPhone 4 reportedly accounts for half of all iPhone sales. That is pretty good. If the naming convention means anything, it is that Apple doesn’t just update its iPhone version numbers every year. The expectations of an iPhone 5 come from all the speculation leading up to the official announcement.

By the way, “speculation” means –

the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence

While some of the predictions were pretty much correct (that it would be called an iPhone 4s, that it would likely have the A5 chip and an 8 megapixel camera), the rest of them were, predictably, nonsense and yet the armchair Twitter critics I was following bought into all that wishful thinking completely and responded with outrage that they didn’t get the upgrade they felt entitled to. As my 3 year old son would say, that is just silly!

In any event, my theory about Apple updates is that Apple updates its products just enough to maintain a competitive edge over its competitors. Apple’s competitors largely emulate Apple (take a look at Samsung, for example) so it doesn’t make sense for Apple to push the envelope with each product release. Instead, incremental updates maintain its edge and the occasional leap ahead (such as Siri which I am disappointed I won’t be able to use on my iPhone 4) keeps the industry on its toes. If that theory is correct, it would have been unrealistic to expect a levitating iPhone 5 that gives birth to winged unicorns, at least not now.

One of the problems with this latest event is that there was no Steve Jobs Reality Distortion field. It was Tim Cook’s first act as CEO and the first time he was really expected to step into some pretty big shoes. He just isn’t Steve Jobs and while Apple’s products have probably been in development for years, he doesn’t have the Steve Jobs effect. That isn’t so much the problem as it is that people were expecting Steve Jobs 2.0 with the mythical iPhone 5. Their expectations were unrealistic.

To round out my little tirade I’d like to point to two events that have more serious implications. The first is that there are still hundreds of families, possibly more, who are trying to put their lives back together after two tornadoes in the last couple days. The second is that the South African government has bent over for the Chinese government and refused a visa to the Dalai Lama, a truly inspiring man, who was invited to a birthday party and emerged as “worse than the Apartheid government”.

To end off this post, here is a classic rant about how everything is awesome and no-one is happy. Louis CK’s comments apply very nicely to this whole “OMG-it’s-not-an-iPhone-5” controversy:

How about a little perspective?

Ster Kinekor versus the Twitterati

The new Ster Kinekor website is an old story already and a lot has been written about its pros and cons. I got back into the story yesterday when someone behind the Ster Kinekor Twitter account engaged with me when I tweeted about my frustration with the site.

Winge about the Ster Kinekor website

What followed was some engagement with Ster Kinekor in a series of direct messages. I was pointed to a terrific post and even more interest comment thread on Rian van der Merwe’s blog which a number of people contributed to, including Tim Bishop from Prezence, the company that built the site (Rian responded to a couple of his points in one of his comments). The thinking behind using Flash for the site basically comes down to the number of devices that support Flash compared to the number that don’t, coupled with the apparently amazing work the Prezence team was able to do with Flash to create a relatively speedy and resource-light site.

Although I am not a designer or a developer and have a pretty superficial grasp of the technical stuff, my thought is that with all the magic being done with HTML 5 and the fact that it seems to be supported by all modern browsers and a good number of mobile devices, sites should be developed with that rather than Flash. Its probably a little naive of me to think that given how little I really know so I should probably change my approach to the following critique as a user:

Sktheatres site critique

Tim’s comment on Rian’s post takes issue with more vocal people on Twitter who complain about the site while ordinary users who are still apparently using Internet Explorer 6 (old, insecure and doesn’t even know what HTML 5 is, let alone support it) in substantial numbers (I don’t believe it and Rian points to IE6 use in SA as being roughly 5.7% at the time, now roughly 4.5%). The local Twitterati have been pretty critical of the new site and while they are in the minority of South African users who use the Ster Kinekor site and who probably find all this fancy stuff quite nice, the Twitterati are influencers, pioneers and make sense for the most part. I am probably in that boat, at least in the sense that I use Twitter to complain and vent (not so sure about being influential, pioneering or even making sense) but I keep going back to my experience with the site. I am not new to the Web or to Flash sites and I struggle to do what the site is meant to help me do: find information on movies and show times and then book tickets.

I am an edge case in many respects. I use an iPhone which notoriously doesn’t support Flash at all and I am a Mac user. I use my phone a lot and have come to expect services I use to give me mobile access via an app or a decent Web interface. Bishop pointed out (somewhat facetiously) that a new mobile site is on the horizon which will work on pretty much all mobile devices including the iPhone. That’s good news because the Flash one is a pain to use and I want to be able to do stuff like that on the go anyway. What is also clear is that the Ster Kinekor site is not going to drop Flash anytime soon, despite the vocal outcry about how heavily the site uses Flash and the design decisions which were made. That means that critics should either just deal with it or not use the site at all. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few here and that isn’t a totally unreasonable approach. It is just an unsatisfactory one. As Rian pointed out in his reply to Bishop’s comment:

And I’d also like to point out that whatever the statistic is on % penetration of Flash, let’s not forget that there is a technology that has 100% penetration in all browsers: HTML. This also then settles the mobile argument, in my opinion.

Ultimately the feedback from Ster Kinekor leaves me feeling a little ill at ease about how it regards the vocal minority that is clearly passionate about usability, effective design and development. Its also a reminder that just because we make a lot of noise in our little ecosystem, when the numbers are tallied the Twitterati is not perceived to be the equivalent of pesky mosquitos. Its certainly not my happy place.

Why TechCentral's Google+ review is the worst I've read

Craig Wilson has written the worst Google+ review I have read so far. This isn’t because the review is critical of Google+ or questions whether it has what it takes to compete with Facebook and Twitter, but because the review is factually inaccurate in some respects, misleading in others and reads a little like Wilson has no idea what has been going on in the Google ecosystem. I really shouldn’t have read this review so early this morning, it just put me in a bad mood. I left a comment on the post a little earlier and thought I’d deal with the specific issues here instead.

Referring to Google+ as a Facebook-killer is possibly one of the more unimaginative categorizations a journalist can come up with. Actually, most of these “-killer” descriptions are sensationalist but I suppose that is what attracts readers, as tired as it is. Moving along …

But Circles does have its flaws. Most importantly, the suggested contact list is populated from your Gmail contact book, which is fine if you’re an Android user and all of your contacts are up to date, but less so if you’re not and they aren’t.

This is not a criticism of Circles but rather of users who don’t have up-to-date Contacts in Gmail. Circles does suggest new connections based on your Contacts and if your Contacts are not up-to-date, well, perhaps you should update them if you want better recommendations. Circles also makes recommendations based on your connections and these recommended connections may not be in your Contacts.

Fortunately, this time around Google didn’t automatically add all contacts from users’ Gmail accounts to its social platform (as happened when the disastrous Google Wave was launched). But it would still be great to be able to import contacts from elsewhere. No doubt this, along with other minor failings, will be addressed in updates.

Two things here. First, the “disastrous Google Wave” was really Google Buzz which launched with poor privacy controls in place. When Buzz launched last year it initially automatically populated your Buzz connections with your Gmail Contacts and made those connections publicly visible. It was a terrible decision, in retrospect, because Googlers who had been testing Buzz internally didn’t realise that making those connections public by default could be a bad idea. That decision probably doomed Buzz, to a large extent, and has haunted Google since then.

Second thing is that Google+ does allow you to import contacts from Hotmail and Yahoo!. The option is clearly marked:

Circles  Google+

After all, Google+ is only in its infancy so there are bound to be a few kinks.

Google+ is not complete by any stretch of the imagination. It is in a limited field test which is Google’s way of saying that it is really really in beta. It has bugs and its features are being tweaked, added and removed on an ongoing basis. The team behind Google+ is listening to feedback us early users (read: testers) are submitting and is iterating pretty rapidly.

Perhaps the best feature of Circles is that it’s possible to opt to prevent people in your Circles from re-sharing content you’ve shared with them.

This is also incorrect and a cause for concern on Google+. Users can limit what they share to specific Circles or individuals (or combinations of both). One of the early concerns was that a user could share something intended for a limited audience, publicly, and effectively negate the privacy Circles enables. Google has addressed this in part and while it still allows you to reshare posts (still a concern), it warns you that doing so may not be what the original poster intended and you should think twice before doing so.

Still, for the paranoid there may be other privacy concerns. Like Facebook, Google+ wants to encourage people to share as much information as possible, including making your Google+ profile public, if you’ll allow it.

Google has said that all Google profiles will be public and, as Wilson points out further in the review, private profiles will be deleted at the end of July. If you want to use Google+ and any other service that uses a Google profile beyond that point you will need to disclose your name and gender at a minimum (this is pretty much what Wilson has on his profile – name and gender with a profile photo). Google has not given any indication that it expects or wants users to expose more profile information beyond that to public view. This isn’t Facebook.

You could probably have a Google profile with only your name and gender and nothing else and it would be fine from Google’s perspective. That said, as Jeff Jarvis pointed out recently, social is for sharing, not hiding. If the thought of disclosing personal information on the Web really doesn’t appeal to you then you probably wouldn’t want to use Google+, Facebook or Twitter (I believe Facebook also requires that all profiles have a name and possibly a photo or gender in public view. Twitter profiles disclose whichever name you use for the profile and whatever you add to the bio section, I believe. This minimum disclosure requirement is not unique to Google+).

That said, there may be other privacy concerns looming. This is bound to happen as services like Google+ and Facebook struggle to find a balance between persuading users to share more and enhance the network’s value, on one hand, and protecting their right to choose how much to share with who, on the other hand. My view is that Google is off to a good start, even with some of its initial mistakes which are being picked up and addressed in this limited field trial.

Furthermore, a look at Google’s terms of service suggests that “by submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and nonexclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any content which you submit, post or display on or through the services”.

So if you are, say, a professional photographer, you may want to think twice before using Google+’s photo sharing capabilities. But then, Facebook’s terms of service are equally draconian and alarming. For most users, however, this isn’t anything to be worried about, unless they have something to hide — or plan to in the future.

This is a convenient alarmist approach which typically has relatively uninformed users and journalists shouting that the service “owns” their content. We just saw this with Dropbox and we have seen it in the past with Facebook. It is misleading and just designed to attract traffic rather than accurately inform users about what is going on.

What users need to bear in mind is that social networks like Google+ and Facebook take broad licenses from users to be able to run the service. This license is broad, so is Facebook’s, and the question is how far the licenses go. Twitpic’s terms of service, for example, go further than is required for the service to be oper
ated and the service has assumed the right to sell users’ content. That is unacceptable and people should think carefully before using Twitpic. In fact, I think Wilson’s comments are dead-on when it comes to Twitpic. As for Google’s license terms, professional photographers should think carefully about adding their work to any social network because their work is their livelihood. That said, Google’s wording doesn’t include the right to sell the photographs, just reproduce and manipulate them.

Sparks, meanwhile, seems far less refined than other Google+ features. Essentially an aggregator that uses all of that information Google has about you to suggest content you might like, Sparks is somewhat underwhelming in that the content it suggested to us was neither particularly relevant nor interesting. Still, it’s early days, and we have no doubt that the more time we spend on Google+ the better its suggestions will get.

Sparks is actually a very interesting product. The idea is to run a search for topics which interest you and Sparks will give you curated content (not ordinary search results) which you may find interesting and which you could use to spark a conversation (hence where the name comes from).

As far as I can tell Google+ doesn’t base the content in Sparks on personal profile data at this stage. I have a spark for “industrial design” which I haven’t really mentioned much and isn’t listed in my profiles. Google gives me articles which I may find interesting without reference to my profile data. Sparks is really smart because it gets around the question of who to follow for interesting content and instead works to present better results. It is almost a counterpoint to feed readers where you are the curator or have to rely on other curators to identify the best sources.

As unimpressed as I am with Wilson’s review, I want to reiterate that this shouldn’t be regarded as a slight on TechCentral or on Duncan and Candice who I regard as two of South Africa’s best journalists. TechCentral is one of a couple innovative and excellent local news services and I have tremendous respect for the work being done there. With the exception of Wilson’s review.

Google+ is part of a grander Google strategy which seems to be intended to reinvent Google as a social search and marketing business. Google has been working on this strategy for a while now and has made a number of changes to existing services pretty much under the radar. Google+ has attracted huge attention because it is a credible threat to Facebook and Twitter. With enough users it could be the next big social service on the Web but it faces an uphill battle against both services which are fairly well entrenched in their respect markets. I don’t know if Google+ will ever supersede Facebook and I’m sure if it has to do that to be regarded as a success. What I do know is that it has been very well received already and I love using it. It is sticky, stimulating and very well designed and developed. It also keeps getting better, as buggy as it is sometimes. It should feel pretty slick and compelling when it becomes publicly available.

If you would like to read some pretty good articles on Google+, here are a few I have been reading lately:

ANC SMS spam ahead of elections

The Democratic Alliance was heavily criticized in the last day or two because of it’s massive SMS election campaign. I didn’t receive the most recent SMS the DA sent out (which makes me wonder about it’s database) but I did receive this gem below from the ANC instead. As you might have guessed, it is unsolicited and has no opt-out mechanism.

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