What price privacy?

My last post was written on a Windows Phone and I was wondering what it was going to be like to use and whether or not I’d be able to blog more frequently. Well, I’m still not blessed with vast amounts of free time, but I’ve got time for this one.

There has been quite a lot of coverage over the last week because Google has changed its privacy policy so that your personal information can be shared across all its services. I am not quite sure why people have been so shocked by this- after all even though Picasa, Google Earth and the rest were acquired separately, they are now part of a single company. So why shouldn’t Google be allowed to share the information? As an analogy, if a supermarket chain buys a string of convenience stores and re-brands them; you, as the consumer, benefit from lower prices and a consistent choice of product ranges; they in turn are able to capture your loyalty card profile in all their stores. So why should it be any different for a company that sells information about you?

Well, to me at least, that last point is the critical aspect. How much information do we want other people to know about us? And how much do we want to be involved with the decision? There are good arguments for an organisation that wants to sell advertising space to know a bit about me- after all I am a forty something year old male, so advertisements for female hygiene products are going to be a waste of time, space and bandwidth for all concerned. So it can easily be acknowledged that a little targeting is a good thing. But where should it stop?

Google used to provide a page where you could see what it knew about you- for example it had worked out that I am male, aged between 35 and 45 and interested in technology, mobile phones and a few other things. Google knew that my wife is female, about the same age as me and interested in celebrity gossip. This had all been worked out from our web history. I found this interesting and told a few people about it- not surprisingly it was pretty much spot on for everyone. And although this information had been collected without my explicit knowledge, I could at least see what Google had worked out about me.

And now Google has created a single overall privacy policy and is conducting a charm offensive like no other to convince you and I that we should trust them with our personal information. And to aid in this there is a new Ad Preference Manager where we can explicitly block certain advertisers. This is largely a good thing. I have a mantra that I use in my professional life “explicit by statement, not implicit by omission”- this means that if you are building a system that is going to deliver this functionality but not that, then you should state somewhere that “we will NOT be doing that” instead of just leaving it out. Google are adopting this approach through two methods:

  1. You can explicitly state what interests you have
  2. You can control who you do not wish to see advertising to you (up to a limit of 500 advertisers at least).

However, what one hand gives, the other takes away: it does not appear possible any more to see what Google knows about you. So have they deleted the existing profile? I think not. My best guess is that the old inferred profile will be combined with the new explicit interests and you will hopefully finish up with even more accurately targeted adverts. The question is, do you want this?

The start of this post stated that I had been using a Windows Phone, with an operating system written by Microsoft. Now Microsoft have a huge number of detractors, but as far as I know, they don’t particularly care who I am. They care whether my copy of Windows is Genuine and whether I am using the latest version of Office. But they don’t care about me. Unlike Google. My test of the Windows Phone concluded with the decision that the OS is really nice, the app support is significantly weaker than either iOS (from Apple) or Android (from Google) and the overall price probably somewhere between the two. So you are faced with an interesting choice: it can be argued that Android is the ‘best’ mobile phone subsystem at the moment, but you have to give away your privacy. With a Windows Phone you pay more, get less functionality but keep yourself to yourself. And with Apple you pay even more, you may or may not keep your information private and join the mass of fan-boys.

So what to do? How much more am I willing to pay to keep my information private? And how much functionality am I prepared to forgo for the same aim? And what about you?

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Watching a train crash

A blog is an intensely personal form of communication. It is, for the writer, an immediate and occasionally quite intimate outlet for the thoughts, feelings and emotions that is coursing through your veins. But writing a blog is also an incredibly public process. I have no control over who reads this or any other post. Furthermore, I have no control over who copies, archives or otherwise keeps a record of what I said, even if I have since deleted the post. Of course, I would like to think that anyone keeping a copy will delete any record they have when I delete my version, but I am not so naive to assume that is so.

Although most bloggers realise this, sometimes emotion overtakes us and we allow ourselves to vent without thought of the consequences. I read several blogs and most of them are well thought out and the author will be able to look back at the post in years to come with no fear or recriminations. But just occasionally, even smart people will forget; one blog I read has been describing what appears to be somewhat of an emotional breakdown of an otherwise perfectly healthy woman.

I know neither the blog author nor her friend and the first posts in the series, whilst slightly uncomfortable reading, were acceptable. The recent posts have made me genuinely fear for the friend- for her mental and even her physical well being. The feeling of impotence as I watch this train crash be described over a number of days is extremely unpleasant. Compounding the problem is that I have neither the skills nor the ability to do anything for these people. I don’t wish to be a ‘white knight’ riding in on a charger (though there are other scenarios in life where that image might be fun) but that doesn’t ease the feeling. I don’t know how that story will end, I fear that the answer is ‘not well’, and I am even afraid to look at the blog again. It feels like watching a train crash-you can’t take your eyes off it, no matter how much you want to.

The other example has less actual danger but highlights the danger of venting without thought of the recriminations. As anyone who knows me will tell I am not particularly politically correct. I tend to say what I think and frequently damn the consequences. However, I do try to care how I say things and I try to always include the requisite amount of etiquette in anything I write, say or do. OK, less on the say, but certainly when it comes to the written word I try to take care. So when I come across professional people who either publish very pointed blogs or send curt, incomplete and brusque e-mails; well I generally cringe inside. And the real problem is that by the time I get to read the words they have already been read by the intended recipient. So there is very little I can do can to prevent the damage- it is already there. In this situation the train has already crashed- all I do is to try some form of clean-up.

So with these examples out there in the blogosphere (or the world of internal e-mails) I hope I don’t ever offend anyone by the contents of this blog. If I do feel I am saying something negative I will endeavour to hide or disguise the person concerned so much that they are unaware of the point I am making. Conversely, if I am complimenting someone I will generally let them know directly (especially if I know the person). I feel I owe this to whoever I am communicating with, whether I know them or not, whatever personal feelings I may have or whatever medium I am using. Perhaps I should remind others of this, but I fear that the advice would not be taken well (but that may be due to the aforementioned lack of political correctness and subtlety in my communcation of the message)

About a blog: How to increase your hits

In the scale of navel gazing this has got to be right up there, but over the past few days I have been thinking about this blog and what I have found out over the past 15 months. So I am now going to create a blog post all about creating blog posts.

When I started to write this blog I had no clear idea what I wanted to make it into. I saw it as a forum for mainly technical items that would be a work in progress before uploading to a permanent location on another site. I also realised that there is an example of the type of entry I wished to create: It shouldn’t be a random comment on something I have seen or read, but rather should contain some original thought and try to reach a logical and sensible conclusion. As I thought about more and more I realised that I was, in a very small way, creating my version of Alistair Cooke’s venerable and much missed ‘Letter from America’

Of course the original intention of a technical forum was now pushed to the back and I posted on the vagiaries of the world. And as I posted I monitored the hits and watched what people were reading. Here is what I have learnt:

  1. Most recommendations say that you need to create decent sized postings to keep people coming back. This appears to be true
  2. You will create many, many postings but most visitors will only read 1 or 2 really popular posts. And you probably won’t know which post that will be until after the stats come in
  3. Almost no-one clicks on the hyperlinks in a post (even when you completely expose the URL)
  4. If you really want to increase your traffic then create a post with certain key words in it

This last point requires some explanation. In April 2008 I created a post that attempted to discuss the nature of art, photography and whether a photograph on a magazine cover should be an accurate representation of the image recorded by the camera. All heady stuff, except it was inspired by a TV show called ‘Dawn Gets Naked’ and considered the examples of photo manipulation performed on Faith Hill and Kate Winslet on the cover of Redbook and GQ.

So, at various points in the post there are the words “naked”, “Kate Winslet” and “Faith Hill”. Oh boy, do I get a lot of hits on that post. And I am guessing, but it is only a guess, that most people who have typed ‘faith hill naked’ into Google were not expecting to read a blog posting that discusses the evolution of painting techniques and creating accurate oil colours to depict an english monarch from 900 years ago.

My only hope is that a small number of people who arrive at the site looking for Kate or Faith read the article and stay for the thought and comment. Although, saying that, do I really want someone interested in naked pictures of Kate reading this? Well that is the beauty and terror of a blog- you have no idea who the vast majority of readers are. So welcome, one and all: Batblog is still here and still growing. I’ll keep posting, I hope you keep reading

Contents of this blog and thoughts on Twitter

It seems to me that there are two distinct use cases of a blog:

  • As an on-line diary
  • As a space to post thoughts, ideas, comments and editorials

Given the date stamp nature of the entry system, it would seem that the on-line diary would be the most common usage. But browsing around the blogosphere seems to refute this claim. I guess that there is an arrogance issue (who cares what you did yesterday?) but probably more importantly a privacy issue. After all, serious money can be made by publishing your memoirs and why would we bother to read them if all the relevant details have already been published on your blog. I guess that the final reason might simply be that people are not actually that interesting and a diary approach gets pretty boring pretty quickly. So the only real usage of a blog for a diary is in the ‘professional’ world where there may be interest in the progress of a project or what someone has been doing recently.

So, the most common usage is for thoughts, ideas, experimental stories and random musings on the world. Well that is what I use mine for anywyay. Which got me to thinking a bit more about Twitter: Maybe my knocking of Twitter was misplaced- maybe Twitter is better as an on-line diary. After all, you can limit who can see your entries to just those people who you approve and the micro-entry format suits itself much more to capturing the brief entries that you might make as you go about your day.

I have another use case for Twitter though: One that I am currently trying out, though I am not sure of the value of using an on-line service (I think that paper and a pen may be a better bet, or at least just using the PIM functionality in your phone): I am throwing up the snippets of ideas for articles onto Twitter. So, today I found myself wondering

  • Whether Twitter will make an on-line diary (kind of self referential that one!)
  • How routine it has become for me to drive, fly and sit on a train to get to work each week. Travelling across a sea to another country just to go to work should be mind blowing, but it is just another week, just another load of frequent flyer points
  • At last the ‘Check Engine’ light has gone off on my car. I think that I over filled it with oil and so I have been waiting (and hoping) that by driving a lot and burning off the oil the light would go out. I guess I get to find out on Thursday when I drive home- we’ll see.
  • As I sat in a room of engineering types I couldn’t believe that the basic processes for managing a large scale constuction project were so poorly defined. At first I thought that this must be specific to the oil business (us being a bunch of cowboys and all that) but then things like the cost over-runs at Wembley Stadium have nothing to do with oil and they were at least as bad as anything that I have heard of
  • How old do I look? And how old do you see yourself as? Internally I still see myself in my early to mid-30’s. OK, life changed a lot then (kids, jobs, moving countries etc) but I don’t feel as though I have aged since then. All except my knees- they definitely feel as though they have aged. I just wonder what the rest of the world sees. Answers on a postcard please….

I threw most of those points up onto Twitter, so that they would act as a spur to me to write them up. But my problem is frequently not the ideas, it is finding time to turn those ideas into sensible prose. And yes the quality of this post does entirely prove my point.

Splitting the contents of this blog

I have two presences in the world: a personal one and a professional one. I like to think that the two are separate, but the truth is that they are probably not. However, the contents of this blog often clearly fit into one or other, but probably not both. I am thinking here of a lot of the technical, geeky stuff- which is professional (you don’t think I do that in my private life do you?) as opposed to the photos of my family.

So, I have created two new Categories and am using them to split the entries into two feeds:

And each of the feeds is now sent directly to the relevant home page. Of course, if you come directly here, you can see all the entries in all their glory.

The Quality of Self Publishing and Californication on TV

Not that many people have noticed, but I haven’t had time to post anything in a while. A number of influences have resulted in me thinking about the quality of my (and others) posting in the blogosphere. And this may be a dangerous comment, given that most people reading this firmly inhabit the same world, but I think I should say it.

I have written this several times before- the difference between most, if not all, blogs and traditional media is the concept of an editorial process. In my “real” job I wouldn’t ever publish a technical document without it being peer reviewed, critiqued and going through several editing cycles. And yet, on my blog (here) I can publish all and any thoughts without any checks.

In some situations this is a good thing- the very act of spontaneously writing can be good. In many situations it is not.

Furthermore, I am in no way a professional writer. I have friends who are journalists and authors and I can recognise the additional quality, care and craft in the words that they use.

Finally, I was watching a TV show, Californication, that is somewhat about a professional writer who is “reduced” to writing a blog. At the end of many episodes he voices his latest blog posting. The following is a transcript of his supposed latest posting. I am not proposing that it is great literature- even I can see the derivative of Dickens in the third sentence- but as I sat and listened to it I realised that is was better than anything I have ever posted

Will this stop me from posting? No. Will it make me take a little more time and care over the words I write? I hope so. Unfortunately, the upshot of this is that the postings may be less frequent.

Good Morning LA. In the land of the lotus eaters time plays tricks on you. One day you are deaming, the next your dream has become your reality. It was the best of times, if only someone had told me. Mistakes were made, hearts were broken, harsh lessons learned.

My family goes on without me while I drown in a see of pointless pussy. I don’t know how I got here, but here I am; rotting away in the California sun. There are things I need to figure out- for her sake at least. The clock is ticking, the gap is widening. She won’t always love me, not matter what

I have had to create my own punctuation and I am not sure if the grammatical mistake (while/ whilst) is my mis-hearing, an intentional mistake on the part of the writer to convey a the nature of writing the blog or genuinely a mistake. But that notwithstanding, and overlooking one glaring omission, the passage of time, the changing dynamic of family and the discordance in our personal life all rang true. Or maybe I am reading too much into it, and as women frequently tell me “Get over it”. If only I knew what it was.

Record of my life

Not sure if there is a protocol for what you should post on a blog. I would kind of like to keep this one with a large enough technical content to make it worth reading for people who don’t even know me, but at the same time the very nature of creating a date stamped history allows a sort of very public diary to be created.

This entry is very much in the latter category:

Today I received my first phone call (ever) from my youngest son. Age 3 and a bit. And just starting to really talk. This is going to make me smile for the rest of the day. And give him a great big hug when I see him in about an hours time.