Credit, where credit is due

I was quick to complain about Contact Energy when I found their online billing frustrating.

How about something more positive …

Here is an email I got recently from Telecom:

The best thing about this? 

I don’t have to visit the website because the email contains all of the information I’m most likely interested in – the amount I owe and the date that the payment is due. 

As long as that looks right, I’ll delete the email and move on.  If not, the most prominent link takes me straight to the online bill, rather than dumping me in a maze of a marketing site.

The email is also signed by a real person, which is nice.

If I wanted to be really picky:

  • They could use fewer words – i.e. the first sentence only needs to say “Your latest online bill has arrived”. 
  • The URL for the link to the bill could be more human-readable – interestingly the link they provide direct to the bill at the bottom of the message is much nicer, so why not use that I wonder?
  • They could include the standard text that appears on the bill to explain that a direct debit is setup for this payment.

But, those are all small things. 

This is a much nicer user experience.  Full credit!

And, what’s really interesting about this … I’m now much more likely to be receptive to appropriate marketing messages that might be included in the future in this sort of email, or on the associated web site.

Thou shall not

Earlier this week I found myself in the Koru lounge at Wellington airport waiting for a delayed flight.

I was using the time to arrange an upcoming trip, and was quite surprised to see this brick wall when I tried to access TripIt.com:

Koru Club Fail
 

The “Your organisation…” is a bit misleading. I was just using the free wifi point.

If anybody from Air NZ is reading … what?

I realise it’s been a few years since I worked in a big corporate, so I might just be unaccustomed to being treated like a little kid by an IT department, but seriously what are you trying to prohibit here. You don’t want me to visit travel related websites while I’m in the Koru lounge?

What’s worse, you actually allow me to do it, but you want to make me feel naughty in the process? As it was I just clicked the “Use Quota” button and it let me straight through. What other sites you don’t think are acceptable, I wonder?

Quite weird.

By the way, speaking of Air NZ and TripIt…

Has anybody else run into problems with the new format e-tickets emails that Air NZ have introduced recently? I’m using Mail.app on OS X and am having a problem with the attachments:

The item in the inbox has 9 attachments, but the message itself has only 6. The 3 that are missing are the PDFs with the booking details.

When I forward to TripIt it is no longer able to automatically add the booking as it has in the past.

When I look at the same message through gmail.com it has all 9 attachments and works fine when I forward to TripIt, so it would seem to be a Mail.app problem.

Is this just me, or have others seen this too?

UPDATE (13-Oct): 

Kim from AirNZ added this comment.  Good news!

“Air NZ recently updated the design of its e-tickets, at the same time upgrading the system which generates the email and attached documents. The PDF and calendar appointment missing from the email when viewed in the Apple Mail client is a teething problem which is being actively closed down. We hope to have a fix in place later in the week.”

Getting seagulled

This series from Bokardo is excellent:

Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications and How to Avoid Them

I especially like #10 from Part III: Failure to see the larger war…

“Techcrunch is not word-of-mouth. Getting Techcrunched or Slashdotted or getting Dugg…is like being involved in a drive-by shooting. I’ve also heard it described as getting seagulled…they swoop in for the attack and are gone in a second.”

Rather than chasing that sort of fleeting glory, he recommends instead building an audience that really cares one user at a time.

You should read the whole thing.  It’s full of advice that is much better than anything you’ll find here.

Work it

I can’t believe that this isn’t already more common:

The Green Microgym, which just opened last week, is a 2,800-sq-ft neighbourhood gym that generates a significant portion of its own electricity through the sweat-producing efforts of its members. … The Green Microgym uses a combination of solar and pedal electricity for a chunk of its energy needs.”

— via Springwise

I’ve always thought that they should have monitors on each bike and a display at the front of the RPM classes showing the total amount of work that everybody has done – a kind of leaderboard to spur people on.

Displaying the number of watts generated would take that to a whole new level.

Perhaps gyms could offer discounts to members who were net generators of electricity?

Or, maybe they could make you earn your warm shower, literally?

What do you think?

iPhone Upgrade

I picked up a 2G iPhone when I was in the US earlier in the year.

I’ve been meaning to write a review here for a while.  

Here is the short version: I love it!

Upgrading to a new 3G model doesn’t really interest me for now. I’ve added 200MB of mobile data to my existing cheap plan, and have never come close to using all of that.  So, I don’t need to upgrade to get on a better plan … in fact, it would cost me more and I’d be locked in, so I don’t really see the incentive there.  

And it doesn’t really seem to me that there are any really compelling functional, or even aesthetic, reasons to switch.  

Am I missing something?  

Until yesterday, I haven’t even felt the need to upgrade my software.  

Then Cultured Code announced an iPhone version of Things which syncs with the desktop.  That will do it for me.

So, I’m looking for somebody who can help me upgrade.  

According to iTunes I’m currently running v1.1.3.  I’d be interested to talk to anybody who has done this successfully.  I’m hoping it’s as easy as the initial unlock and jailbreak.

Also, while I’m at it …

Prior to the iPhone I used a Windows Mobile phone, and used Missing Sync to sync with my address book and calendar.  When I say sync I’m talking mostly theoretically.  It never really worked properly, randomly changing contact details around and dropping appointments into the ether.  

Very frustrating, and not really recommended at all!

What’s more, even though the software is now removed, it’s left some muddy footprints in my network settings:

There are literally hundreds of those dead connections listed.  I can only guess that it created a new entry each time I connected the phone to sync, and never cleaned up after itself.  It’s a pain because it means that this settings page takes forever to load, and I’ve also noticed that my Mac takes a long time to switch onto a different network connection (e.g. when I move between wi-fi points, or disconnect an ethernet connection).  Perhaps it’s somehow working through this list to check which connections are available?

Does anybody know a quick way to remove these?  

Any help with this would be much appreciated. :-)

Virel.org

A while back I was playing with microformats, and changed my contact details in the sidebar of this site to use the hCard format.

It was all a bit academic, until recently when I was contacted by the virel.org spider to say they had picked up my details and automatically included me in their search engine.

It’s interesting to see these things slowly starting to be useful in a wider context.

More info about Virel

Ten years, or less

Peter Norvig, who I’ve written about here before, has a number of really interesting articles on his site.

Here’s one that stands out:

Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

I like this:

“There appear to be no real shortcuts: even Mozart, who was a musical prodigy at age 4, took 13 more years before he began to produce world-class music.”

It’s a short article and well worth a read.

While I’m referencing this, there is also a great quote in the appendix:

“When asked ‘what operating system should I use, Windows, Unix, or Mac?’, my answer is usually: ‘use whatever your friends use.’ The advantage you get from learning from your friends will offset any intrinsic difference between [operating systems]”

Nice – I think I’ll use that.

Who’s using RSS?

The stats for this blog show that most readers are using a feed reader of some kind (predominantly Google Reader).

But, that’s not normal.

Matt Mullenweg has posted some stats across the entire WordPress universe of blogs for the month of May, and the numbers make interesting reading:

  • Active Blogs: 965,041
  • Page Views: 1,134,796,234
  • Page Views (in an RSS feed): 71,351,276

In other words, fewer than 7% of page views to WordPress blogs are via a feed reader.

I’m sure that number is much lower than most technical people would assume.  Not using a feed reader is so inefficient, eh, and who would be that silly?!

Don’t assume that everybody is like you.

Transparency

Should public data be available online?

The evidence would suggest that we can’t really make up our minds.

Three examples …

1. Electoral Roll

This includes the name and address of everybody who has enrolled to vote.

Anybody can view the details by going to a library or post shop. According to the Electoral Commission website this is “a part of the open democratic process of New Zealand”.

But, you can’t search online, other than to view your own details (if you make any changes they give you a page to print, sign and return).

While this could in theory be used to access others details (if you know their full name and birthdate) the site makes it clear that it is an offence to do that.

2. Motor Vehicle Register

This includes the name and address of everybody who owns a vehicle, indexed by number plate (presumably?)

Anybody can view these details for a specific vehicle by going to an LTSA agent and paying a small fee.

But, you can’t search online, or even submit a request online.

In 2006, following a story on Fair Go, the Minister of Transport announced that he was in favour of restricting access to this register for privacy reasons. This was welcomed by the Privacy Commissioner. I can’t tell if anything came of this or not (if somebody knows please add a comment below, or let me know and I’ll update this post).

3. Companies Office

This includes the name, home address and shareholding details of anybody who is a director or shareholder of a company.

For a number of years the Companies Office has been encouraging people to use their online services to register and update company details. As part of this they provide a full search facility, which allows anybody to look up any of the details they hold, including scanned copies of signed forms etc.

In the past there you had to pay a small fee to search the register, but now it is completely free.

I can’t imagine what the Privacy Commissioner thinks of that! :-)

Why the inconsistencies, I wonder?

Some questions…

Q: Is there a good reason for collecting the data in the first place?
Q: Should the data be available to the public?
Q: How do you stop this from being abused?

In each of these examples a big part of the reason for collecting the data is to make it available to other interested people. So, restricting access by only making the data available in printed form and only in certain locations – a.k.a. security by obscurity – doesn’t seem especially smart.

Likewise just publishing the database online for anybody and everybody to trawl through when they are bored seems to be out of line with the purpose of collecting and making the data available – it would be counter-productive if people decided to not submit information, or provide incorrect information, just to protect their own privacy.

I reckon that, provided it’s done smartly, making the data available online is actually the solution to the problem, not the cause.

The data should be available to anybody, but we should remove the anonymity of the person searching.

In order to search and view the data you should have to register and provide your own details (name and address etc – this could even be validated with a code sent in the mail if required), and every search should be logged and able to be queried. So, you can see my data. But, quid-pro-quo, I can also see that you’ve seen my data, and see your details.

I think a system like this could be self-regulating.

The public will be less likely to abuse the system, in the same way as employees who know their internet usage is being logged are unlikely to view dodgy websites. And, the authorities will be able to quickly identify suspicious usage, and track down the offenders.

What do you think?

Tell me why this wouldn’t work.

Smart Photo Resize

A while back I linked to a seemingly magic piece of technology, called “Image Retargeting” which could resize images without distorting the contents.

https://rowansimpson.com/2007/12/04/image-retargeting/

Well, as somebody recently pointed out to me, this technology is now available for the masses.

Check out: http://fotoflexer.com/

Load up an image, click on the “Geek” tab, and choose the “Smart Resize” option.

You can shrink or grow the image, and even select specific parts of the image to preserve or remove.

It’s not quite a smooth as the demo in the video, but it’s not bad.

Let me know if you do something interesting with this and I’ll link to the results from here.

Enjoy!

Monolingual

Here’s a useful little utility for OS X:

Monolingual

Monolingual screenshot

It allows you to remove languages, input methods and architectures that you don’t require (think: all of the translated help files that you will never use).

It took about 10 minutes to free up about 1.2 GB on my system. Your results may vary.

PS look closely at the list of languages in the screen shot above and see if any of them are familiar. Klingon, anybody? :-)

Using large data sets

Peter Norvig (the Director of Research at Google) started off his ETech presentation with a diagram showing how things used to be (back in the old, old days … like 1994):

Data

At the core, in the past, was the algorithm. Inputs were pretty simple (mouse clicks, keyboard entry). Outputs were equally simple (text, user interface). Data was used simply as a store of input and output. All of the effort and focus went into creating smart algorithms.

However the massive data sets that Google now has access to allows them to flip this model around. Rather than creating complex, elaborate, (and probably inaccurate) algorithms by hand they instead use a simple statistical model and let the data do the work.

He gave several examples. The most obvious is the Google spell checker which using this approach can guess what you might have meant, even where the words you’re looking for don’t appear in any dictionary (e.g. http://www.google.com/search?q=rowan+simson).

Another is their translation tool which can be trained to convert any text where there are enough examples to “learn” from. Ironically, the limiting factor now with this approach is not the software but the quality of the human translators used for training.

In each case being able to do this simply comes down to having enough data.

This is one of those ideas which is so obvious after you’ve seen it:

If you have lots of data the way you think about algorithms changes completely

Coming soon

Lance highlights a problem that needs to be dealt with by all Apple aficionados.

Broadly speaking, Apple are a company that make amazing new products which will be released soon.

They often don’t announce release dates until they arrive. And, as I’ve mentioned previously, they don’t seem to have any issue with selling the old version of the products right up until that date. As a result there is a lively ecosystem of rumour sites which offer up various advice about which products to buy when and why.

This is an extreme version of Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice – not only do you have to choose between the various products and options that are available to buy now, you also need to consider what might (but also might not) be available to buy at some near point in the future.

What can you do?

For a while I subscribed to a few of the rumour sites and tried to keep up with it all, but that got too tiring. I’m obviously not a true fan-boy. I abandoned that when I culled my feeds. Life, surprisingly, has gone on.

Thankfully I didn’t labour the decision when I got my iPhone. I didn’t even have to choose between the 16GB and 8GB model, as they only had the 8GB model in stock the day I was at the Apple Store in San Francisco. As per the book referenced above, one choice means far less room for regret.

So, Lance, my advice …

Buy an iPhone. You’ll love it. There are lots of reasons for this, which I’ll save for a future post, but suffice to say it really kicks ass. You can afford it. What’s more, I doubt the 3G version if and when it’s released and available here will be so much better that you’ll wished you waited, and if it is, you can always sell the old one and upgrade then.

Katakana spam

I’m not sure how I would manage without the Gmail spam filter.  A consequence of having my email address published for any nefarious spiders to pick up, I suppose.

But, even then, it’s not perfect.  I’ve had a couple of important messages spammed by mistake and so remain unread.  So, I try and look once a week just to make sure I’m not missing anything.

Lately the volume of messages has exploded, and the vast majority of them appear to be coming from Asia:

Asian Spam

Is this just me or are others seeing the same thing?  Any idea what’s behind this?