June 2010

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I have an Android phone: a Nexus One, straight from Google. It arrived independent of any phone company deals, which I thought would make it easy to use with whatever carrier I engaged when I got to France, where I would be spending the next five weeks.

We arrived in Paris on Sunday the 13th of June. On Monday we went to some phone stores and got SIMs for the three phones we brought with us. The other two were a Nokia E71 and a Nokia N900 (which is really a handheld computer, but will take a SIM and work as a phone). The E71 took a pre-paid SIM from SFR, and the N900 took one from Orange. Both worked fine. The Android was more complicated, because I wanted data working on it. We didn’t do data deals for the other two — at least not this time around — but I like the Nexus One and thought it would be cool to have one phone that would let us surf the Web, use maps, have fun with Layar and other neat stuff.

So I paid 40€ to Orange (which I had been told had the best deals) for a SIM and a plan that included telephony and 450Mb of data. It never worked. In fact, the phone part only worked for a short time. After a few days I started getting messages saying I needed to “recharge” the account with fresh money because I was out.

Looking for clues about what was going on, I went to four different Orange stores, plus other stores that work with Orange, and never got a clear reason why the thing failed, beyond “you must have used too much data.” At the fouth store, last weekend in Strasbourg, a nice young guy who spoke good English (a help since my French is worse than minimal) told me that the only sensible way to do data was to buy a long-term plan. Otherwise, “just don’t use data.” Why? “It’s too expensive.” What’s the price? He couldn’t tell me.

So I put another 35€ on the phone, so at least we could use telephony.Meanwhile I had long since turned off any setting on the phone that looked like it used data.

That worked briefly. Within another few hours the phone could only take calls but not make them. This time there were not any messages about recharging.

Now I’m in the UK, where I read that Orange claims to have the best coverage. And, indeed, my iPhone says Orange has a good signal. The iPhone — my main phone in the U.S. — works fine here, but calls are expensive, which is why I like to have a local phone of some kind. The Android works on wi-fi, but can’t seem to do telephony at all. When I call a number, I get a beep and the whole phone function pops off, returning the phone to a no-app-running state. When I call the number I get told in French to leave a message.

Since we have a 3G iPad arriving at the place in France one of these days (it was held up by French customs and other mix-ups), I was also interested in a data plan for that one. Turns out that the relatively simple plan that Apple has with AT&T in the U.S. is matched by a similar one with Orange. Unfortunately, I also need to take out a French bank account and produce other forms of documentation, before I can get the deal. So I won’t bother.

At this point, frankly, I’m kinda beyond caring. I don’t know why the phone companies want to make life so damn hard for customers — as well as for themselves. My current theory is that they’re all Enrons of a sort: outfits that make their offerings so complicated that only they can understand them — and even they aren’t that good at it.

So I just keep using my American iPhone, fortified with a $20-something/month add-on data plan that gives me 20Mb/month of data to fudge with. I use it in emergencies, like when I need to find my way from a tube stop to an address. I set usage to zero at the start of the month and see where I am. So far in June I’ve used 2.5Mb. But I’m still afraid to use more here on the last day of the month. Hey, why take chances?

Flying wide

I’m at CDG in Paris, about to depart for LHR in London, and the AirFrance plane I’ll be flying in is one of the new Airbus A380s. The plane was over-sold, so there are no windows — a low-percentage shot anyway with a plane that flies 550 or so people at a time. Got a middle in row 91 (of 94), on the upper deck.

The person at the ticket counter said they like to fly these short-hauls so the pilots “get practice.”

Well, we know they work in theory, no?

[Later...] Got in fine. The plane leaves late, but arrives on time. It’s like flying in a building. Although I missed my customary window seat, I did get to enjoy three different views, from three cameras: one underneath, one on the nose, and one looking forward from the tail. (That one produced the picture above, on approach to London.) Also had a fun conversation with a gentleman from the Isle of Man — a place about which I learned a good deal in a short time, with the help of interactive maps on the seat-back display in front of me.

Since then I’ve been on three trains, finally arriving in Suffolk for meetings that will run the next four days.

So here I am on a street in Saverne, France, getting on the Net over a rare open wi-fi hot spot. I was going to tweet something about it, but Twitter is down. So here we are.

There’s one Net, one Web and one Twitter. Many paths through the formers and but one through the latter. Note the preposition. I said through. Twitter’s API allows much, but you still have to go through one company’s proprietary system. Not so with the Net, the Web — or blogging. As with the Net and the Web, blogging is NEA. Nobody owns it, Everybody can use (or do) it, and Anybody can improve it.

Somebody owns Twitter, and only they can improve it.

Twitter is a brilliant creation that has done much to expand uses of the Net, the Web, SMS and other good stuff. But we need what it does to be Net-native and it ain’t yet.

Okay, now I’ll go back off-grid to explore France. Au revoir … from my phone to your whatever.

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The backlash against “personal branding” has begun. I saw it first in this post by Yvonne in BlogHer.  Now you can feel the line begin to whip with Manifesto: I am Not a Brand, by Maureen Johnson, also in BlogHer. Bravo.

The pull quote: “We can, if we group together, fight off the weenuses and hosebags who want to turn the Internet into a giant commercial.”

My own take is here.

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Top speed, 3km/h

A canal in Lorraine

That headline is the posted speed limit where we are at the moment: relaxing on a canal in rural France. I bought two hours of slow Internet over wi-fi at a marina, and that will be about it for connectivity until next time, if there is one, on this trip, which we are enjoying totally.

Hitting the road, or actually the canal. Or a canal, somewhere east of Paris, in France. For a week.

The plan was to have some kind of data connectivity either through our new Android Nexus One or our new iPad 3G. Alas, five days of trying have failed to get the Android to work as more than a generic phone. (In spite of very competent and generous help from at least one techie better than moi.) My sub-minimal French is sure to blame, but the perversities of Orange (our mobile telephony provider here), and of mobile phone “plans” in general deserve some blame as well. Hell, maybe the Android too, but I doubt it. It seems quite fine.

Meanwhile the new iPad is in the purgatory of a customs warehouse. It has cleared, but there is no good estimate about when it will be delivered, and we have been advised not to push it. We won’t be here in Paris anyway, so I won’t worry about it until I find it still hasn’t come by next weekend.

So, what the hell. I’ll just use the whole thing as an excuse for a long-overdue data diet.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with David Siegel’s Open Letter to Steve Ballmer. Should be a good conversation-starter.

There’s only one way to justify Internet data speeds as lopsided as the one to the left.

Television.

It’s an easy conclusion to draw here at our borrowed Parisian apartment, where the Ethernet cable serving the laptop comes from a TV set top box. As you see, the supplier is FreeSAS, or just http://free.fr.

I don’t know enough French to interpret that page, or the others in Free’s tree, but the pictures and pitches speak loudly enough. What Free cares about most is television. Same is true for its customers, no doubt.

Television is deeply embedded in pretty much all developed cultures by now. We — and I mean this in the worldwide sense — are not going to cease being couch potatoes. Nor will our suppliers cease couch potato farming, even as TV moves from airwaves to cable, satellite, and finally the Internet.

In the process we should expect the spirit (if not also the letter) of the Net’s protocols to be violated.

Follow the money. It’s not for nothing that Comcast wishes to be in the content business. In the old cable model there’s a cap on what Comcast can charge, and make, distributing content from others. That cap is its top cable subscription deals. Worse, they’re all delivered over old-fashioned set top boxes, all of which are — as Steve Jobs correctly puts it — lame. If you’re Comcast, here’s what ya do:

  1. Liberate the TV content distro system from the set top sphincter.
  2. Modify or re-build the plumbing to deliver content to Net-native (if not entirely -friendly) devices such as home flat screens, smartphones and iPads.
  3. Make it easy for users to pay for any or all of it on an à la carte (or at least an easy-to-pay) basis, and/or add a pile of new subscription deals.

Now you’ve got a much bigger marketplace, enlarged by many more devices and much less friction on the payment side. (Put all “content” and subscriptions on the shelves of “stores” like iTunes’ and there ya go.) Oh, and the Internet? … that World of Ends that techno-utopians (such as yours truly) liked to blab about? Oh, it’s there. You can download whatever you want on it, at higher speeds every day, overall. But it won’t be symmetrical. It will be biased for consumption. Our job as customers will be to consume — to persist, in the perfect words of Jerry Michalski, as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs.”

Future of the Internet

So, for current and future build-out, the Internet we techno-utopians know and love goes off the cliff while better rails get built for the next generations of TV — on the very same “system.” (For the bigger picture, Jonathan Zittrain’s latest is required reading.)

In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. A lot worse, in fact.

But it will get better, and I’m not saying that just because I’m still a utopian. I’m saying that because the new world really is the Net, and there’s a limit to how much of it you can pave with one-way streets. And how long the couch potato farming business will last.

More and more of us are bound to produce as well as consume, and we’ll need two things that a biased-for-TV Net can’t provide. One is speed in both directions: out as well as in. (“Upstream” calls Sisyphus to mind, so let’s drop that one.) The other is what Bob Frankston calls “ambient connectivity.” That is, connectivity we just assume.

When you go to a hotel, you don’t have to pay extra to get water from the “hydro service provider,” or electricity from the “power service provider.” It’s just there. It has a cost, but it’s just overhead.

That’s the end state. We’re still headed there. But in the meantime the Net’s going through a stage that will be The Last Days of TV. The optimistic view here is that they’ll also be the First Days of the Net.

Think of the original Net as the New World, circa 1491. Then think of TV as the Spanish invasion. Conquistators! Then read this essay by Richard Rodriguez. My point is similar. TV won’t eat the Net. It can’t. It’s not big enough. Instead, the Net will swallow TV. Ten iPad generations from now, TV as we know it will be diffused into countless genres and sub-genres, with millions of non-Hollywood production centers. And the Net will be bigger than ever.

In the meantime, however, don’t hold your breath.

Typo du jour:

I think what I ordered was the souris d’agneau à l’estragon (lamb testicles with estrogen).

Starbucks Announces Free Wi-Fi, Proprietary Content Network, the headline says, in a story by Eliot Van Buskirk in Wired. Some quotage:

“Free Wi-Fi is in my mind just the price of admission — we want to create … new sources of content that you can only get at Starbucks,” chairman and president and CEO Howard Schulz told the Wired BusinessConference. “This is a thing that doesn’t exist in any other consumer marketplace in America.”

Starbucks hopes to make money from these initiatives indirectly, by “enhanc[ing] the experience” and making the content “so compelling that it drives incremental traffic,” said Schulz as he announced the new initiative at Wired’s Disruptive by Design conference on Monday…

Each customer must log in to Wi-Fi and the Starbucks Digital Network with a unique identifier, so Starbucks won’t only know where you are, but who you are, potentially allowing for targeted messaging to offset cost further. Focus groups have been quite receptive to the free Wi-Fi and local content customers will get in return, says the CEO.

So, where will all of this content come from? Especially, when Starbucks wants it to be updated multiple times a day, so people always see something new.

In addition to the inked partnership with Yahoo, Starbucks is talking to AOL’s Patch.com content-creation division about having it create customized content for the network. In addition, the network will include free online access to the Wall Street Journal, with a percentage of subscription revenue generated when coffee drinkers decide they want to access those articles elsewhere, too.

Salivating yet? Me neither.

The last thing I want from Starbucks — or any store, for that matter — is a target on my back. I do not wish to be tagged like an animal and tracked by marketers. The only identifier I want from Starbucks is the one I give them to call out when my coffee is ready. And that may not even be my name.

The free online access to the Journal is a nice deal, since the paper, both online and off, is freaking expensive. The “proprietary local content” is a big so-what. Sure, Patch.com is good at what it does, as is WickedLocal.com. But both are already free on the Web. And it’s unlikely that local journalists are going to want to go to work for Starbucks, especially for the money they’re not likely to make.

To me Starbucks has three problems, at least two of which Schultz has addressed already and needs to address again. One is the continued belief by its employees that a cappuccino is one ounce of espresso and ten ounces of milk in a twelve ounce cup. Another is selling too much stuff that’s not coffee. The third is music that’s too loud.

Visit any Peets. There the problem is that all the seats are taken. At most Starbucks they aren’t. (Far as I’ve seen, anyway.) The simple reason is that Peets makes better coffee.

It also annoys me that the Wired story lacks links to Patch.com and the Journal.  It also forces me to copy this, even though it’s not visible in the story’s print:

Read More http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/06/starbucks-announces-free-wi-fi-proprietary-content-network/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wired%2Findex+%28Wired%3A+Index+3+%28Top+Stories+2%29%29#ixzz0quYSZGhb

I hate that. I also don’t know how Wired does that, nor do I want to take the time to know it, though I probably will, so I can hate it more specifically.

Bonus link, via Bruce Sterling.

The Onion: Starbucks To Begin Sinister ‘Phase Two’ Of Operation.

When I got my first French consulting client in 1994, I found an indispensable guide in the book French or Foe, by Polly Platt. So I made sure we had hauled it east from my office bookshelf in Santa Barbara, and took it with us to Paris, where I began reading it again today, the first full day of our Summer here.

The book was fresh when I got it, and is now sixteen years old. Many of the companies mentioned are long gone, and the Internet was still off in the future when she wrote it. (She instead gives praise to Minitel, a brilliant and doomed creation of French telephony.) But still, the book is brilliant and — for Americans new to France — useful to a degree that verges on the absolute.

So I wondered if she was still around, and looked her up on the Web. Alas, she died on 26 December 2008, in Vienna. But I also discovered that in 2000 she published a companion to French or Foe titled Savoir-Flair: 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French. I’ll pick that one up tomorrow, if I can find it.

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Tomorrow we fly to Paris, where I’ll be based for the next five weeks. To help myself prep, here are a few of my notes from conversations with friends and my own inadequate research…

Mobile phone SIM recommendations are especially welcome. We plan to cripple our U.S. iPhones for the obvious reasons AT&T details here. Our other phones include…

  • Android Nexus One (right out of the box)
  • Nokia E72 (it’s a Symbian phone)
  • Nokia N900 (a computing device that does have a SIM slot and can be used as a phone)
  • Nokia 6820b (an old Nokia candybar-shaped GSM phone that hasn’t been used in years, but works)

Ideally we would like to go to a mobile phone store that can help us equip some combination of these things, for the time we’re there. The iPad too, once it arrives. It will be a 3G model.

Au revoir…

[Later...] We’re here, still jet-lagged and settling in. Here are some other items we could use some advice on:

  • “Free” wi-fi. This is confusing. There seem to be lots of open wi-fi access points in Paris, but all require logins and passwords. Our French is still weak at best, so that’s a bit of a problem too. One of the services is called Free, which also happens to be the company that provides TV/Internet/Phone service in the apartment. Should this also give us leverage with the Free wi-fi out there? Not sure. (Internet speed is 16.7Mbps down and .78Mbps up. It’s good enough, but not encouraging for posting photos. I’m also worried about data usage caps. Guidance on that is welcome too.)
  • Our 200-watt heavy-duty 220/110 step-down power transformer crapped out within two hours after being plugged in. We want to get a new one that won’t fail. The dead one is a Tacima.

Again, thanks for all your help.

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Back in October 2006, I posted Newspapers 2.o, listing ten “hopefully helpful clues” for papers needing to adapt to a world that would only get more and more of its news online. I ran the same list in August 2007, adding an eleventh suggestion. So here I’m visiting the original ten, with my own brief progress report on each, to the degree I’ve kept track. Feel free to add your own, or to subtract from mine.

1. Stop giving away the news and charging for the olds. Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There’s advertising money there. But please, open up the archives. Stop putting tomorrow’s fishwrap behind paywalls.

I haven’t noticed any major dailies in the U.S. that have given up on paywalls for archives. Love to hear otherwise, though.

I have noticed that there is more talk about charging for the news, though. Or at least news in depth. I have no problem with that, provided there’s a standard way of doing that, rather than as many different ways as there are papers.

2. Start featuring archived stuff on the paper’s website. Link back to as many of your archives as you can. Get writers in the habit of sourcing and linking to archival editorial.

I think there is more of this. How much more, I’m not sure. At the very least, there is a limit to the extent of possible linking to archives that are behind paywalls.

3. Link outside the paper. Encourage reporters and editors to write linky text. This will encourage reciprocity on the part of readers and writers who appreciate the social gesture that a link also performs.

Linky text is more common now, but most linking at most papers goes to their own stuff. All but one of the links in this New York Times piece, for example, go to other Times pages.

4. Start following, and linking to, local bloggers and even competing papers (such as the local arts weeklies). You’re not the only game in town anymore, and haven’t been for some time. Instead you’re the biggest fish in your pond’s ecosystem. Learn to get along and support each other, and everybody will benefit.

Haven’t seen it, though maybe I’ve missed it.

5. Start looking toward the best of those bloggers as potential stringers. Or at least as partners in shared job of informing the community about What’s Going On and What Matters Around Here.

Exhibit A through Whatever: Tony Pierce. The story starts here. You can look the rest up.

6. Start looking to citizen journalists (CJs) for coverage of hot breaking local news topics — such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and so on. There are plenty of people with digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones and other devices that can prove mighty handy for following stories up close and personally. Great example: what Sig Solares and his crew did during Katrina.

I know a lot more of this is going on, but don’t have time to research it. So tell us, if you know.

7. Stop calling everything “content”. It’s a bullshit word that the dot-commers started using back in the ’90s as a wrapper for everything that could be digitized and put online. It’s handy, but it masks and insults the true natures of writing, journalism, photography, and the rest of what we still, blessedly (if adjectivally) call “editorial”. Your job is journalism, not container cargo.

I knew this was a lost cause in the first place. And I know it’s more lost than ever. I still hate the word and avoid it as much as I can.

8. Uncomplicate your webistes. I can’t find a single newspaper that doesn’t have a slow-loading, hard-to-navigate, crapped-up home page. These things are aversive, confusing and often useless beyond endurance. Simplify the damn things. Quit trying to “drive traffic” into a maze where every link leads to another route through of the same mess. You have readers trying to learn something, not cars looking for places to park. And please, get rid of those lame registration systems. Quit trying to wring dollars out of every click. I guarantee you’ll sell more advertising to more advertisers reaching more readers if you take down the barricades and (again) link outward more. And you’ll save all kinds of time and hassle.

A partially lost cause. The growth of mobile reading devices has raised the sanity level a bit, but on the whole the sins persist.

9. Get hip to the Live Web. That’s the one with verbs such as write, read, update, post, author, subscribe, syndicate, feed and link. This is the part of the Web that’s growing on top of the old Static Web of nouns such as site, address, location, traffic, architecure and construction.

Two words: Twitter and Facebook. Alas, both are private systems, and one is a silo.

10. Publish Rivers of News for readers who use Blackberries or Treos or Nokia 770s, or other handheld Web browsers. Your current home page, and all your editorial pages, are torture to read with those things. See the example Dave Winer provides with a from the NY Times.

This is a big disappointment to me, personally (that last link rocks on phone browsers); but I see Dave is still doing great work in this territory and I’m eager to see what River2 will do.

Meanwhile, The Onion has some required viewing.

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So this is what it takes to shake me out of my blogging torpor: a message on my phone with the short form of what the National Weather Service says here:

Tornado Watch

Central Middlesex County, Southeast Middlesex, Northwest Middlesex County (Massachusetts)

TORNADO WATCH OUTLINE UPDATE FOR WT 263
NWS STORM PREDICTION CENTER NORMAN OK
145 PM EDT SAT JUN 5 2010
TORNADO WATCH 263 IS IN EFFECT UNTIL 1000 PM EDT FOR THE
FOLLOWING LOCATIONS
MAC005-009-011-013-015-017-021-023-025-027-060200-
/O.NEW.KWNS.TO.A.0263.100605T1745Z-100606T0200Z/
MA
.    MASSACHUSETTS COUNTIES INCLUDED ARE
BRISTOL              ESSEX               FRANKLIN
HAMPDEN              HAMPSHIRE           MIDDLESEX
NORFOLK              PLYMOUTH            SUFFOLK
WORCESTER

Click here or on the screenshot above and you’ll get to Intellicast.com, which has excellent moving visualizations of storms in progress, among much else. What you’ll see above is rain (and worse, perhaps) advancing on the Boston area, where I happen to be right now.

We tend to associate tornadoes with flat midwestern and prairie states, but they happen often enough elsewhere. The difference in eastern and southern states is that they funnel clouds are often hard to see, thanks to the prevalence of trees. I recall one that rolled through Durham, North Carolina when I lived there in the late ’70s. The wind and the rain were so strong that I didn’t realize how close one tornado came to the spot where I was at the time (a little store off the main boulevard to Chapel Hill on Hope Valley Road). After it cleared we saw ripped up trees and an overturned Cadillac just down the road.

It always bothered me that there were no storm cellars in North Carolina. A few old fallout shelters here and there, but nothing like the space where Dorothy’s family dove into the ground in the Wizard of Oz. But here in Massachusetts they believe in basements. We have one here, in fact, three floors down. But the view is better here in the attic, so I think I’ll stay for a bit.

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