A horse designed by a European Committee

I take offence to the expression ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’.  Camels are incredible animals, possibly ideally suited to the desert.   They have been instrumental in thriving civilizations and commercial breakthroughs which changed mankind forever.  A camel is in fact an animal no European committee could ever imagine.  Someone would argue it doesn’t look right, another would object to it’s saliva based on some european health guideline or other, for sure we would bicker for years about whether or not we can eat its meat; and with more than 100% certainty, the number of humps would become the bone of contention between heads of State for decades.   In total, we would probably spend millions of euro in meetings, public hearings, research and other pleasantries and end up with …a horse.

An excellent recent example is that completely stupid button you have to “accept” when visiting websites.  It is of course completely useless.  A bit like making a sign reading “attention! If you get on this camel, a lot of people will see you because you will be higher up than before“.  A paper sign.  Which camel owners will have to put on the camel everytime a “new” rider comes along.

Perhaps the best illustration of the futility of approaching technology is carrier neutrality.  To put it simply, this is the notion that Facebook has to “deal” with hate talk or sexism on its platform.  Or that it is Twitter’s “fault” that some people spread false rumours via tweets or bots.  In practical terms, this is like asking the telephone company to interfere if two or three of us start talking about building a bomb one day on our phones.  Completely and utterly ludicrous.  In fact, we could make telephone companies completely ban profanity on the telephone.  All calls could go through voice recognition systems and when a swear word was recognised it could cut off the line or send you a fine.

There are two reasons we don’t do this and both are interesting.  The first is that despite spending billions on automatic translation research, Europe still lags far behind in terms of real time machine translation.  Things you can do for free on any Android phone, simply can’t be handled by any European infrastructure in technical terms to handle the task.  Much like no French company could serve videos as well as YouTube.  The second reason is of course that we could never all agree on what constitutes “profanity”.  A French man’s “merd” is not exactly the same as a British “oh, poo!” or even a German “scheisse!”

In the same time Europeans would take to “initiate a working group to deliberate the need for a committee to address the issue”, Google staff would have solved it.  In fact they did.  Not for ethical reasons, but for commercial reasons, YouTube made video channels with profanity inelligible to take adverts.  Problem more or less solved.    Air BnB had a similar problem with users of their platform who refused tenants based on race or ethnicity.  This is no easy problem to solve.  It is virtually impossible to find a solution talking about it around a table.  Air BnB didn’t “initiate research”.  They tried, tested, improved and made it work.

Essentially the problem is one of friction.  Technological networks operate on the premise that less friction is better.  You want your phone to serve instantly.  Search results at a the blink of an eye.  What Silicon Valley does when presented with a challenge is usually to actuall add friction.  That ludicrous european website button informing us about cookies is in essence an added step.  It is meant to ensure we all understand cookies.  Except it doesn’t.  Compare it to Facebook trying to teach us about privacy.  They constantly change the way messages pop up, the content of the messages, the way they try to make sure we are all on the same page concerning who sees what when we post on their platform.  Other platforms have online mini lessons about hate speech.  You start to post something and it pops up saying “hey!  Do you know that this word you are using is considered negative in some parts of the world?  Would you rather use one of the following suggestions:……”  They even give mini history lessons relating to words or uses of words to help make sure you say what you want in a way which will actually get the message across.

Europe will never, ever catch up with Silicon Valley like this.  Artificial intelligence is not about installing a “kill” button.  I read through the blurb and it is a bit like bad French or Italian academic literature.  Too much theory and mostly outdated.  Impressive for headlines, useless in practice.  In this particular phase of technological development we need to be building infrastructure and platforms.   We need millions of experiments and we need to learn much faster.

Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the legendary Mini, is often credited with coining the expression about horses, camels and committees.  The question is whether today he would be enticed by a cushy university job, doing European research and enjoying European committees and funding, rather than building the iconic Mini car.  I think he would prefer to work for Google and just get things done.

In praise of fake profiles

If you are in sales or marketing and above 25 years of age, you are probably wrong.  The assumptions you base your decisions on are severely limited.  We often thank our kids for ideas, for keeping us “in touch”, but it is much much more complicated a matter.  And extremely important.   I have hundreds of fake profiles.   Not sure if “fake” is the correct term.  I pretend to be someone I am not as a form of market research.  In fact it is often the first thing I do when presented with a new project.

It starts with a fake Google account.  This is vital.  Search results are personalized.  You will never get it all perfect, but if you at least persuade it that you live wherever you are researching and then make sure you do Google searches logged in from this fake Google profile, the world you are seeing will be a little more like your target.  Sign up for whatever products and services you are looking for from this signed in Chrome browser.    You have to try and live the part.

With Facebook things are even more dangerous.  That person in marketing you think is “up to speed with all this new stuff”, well, just isn’t.   If I have a really successful Instagram account, or a very active personal Facebook profile I only see what that particular profile’s take on the world is.   Some days I might whiz through multiple profiles to check up on them, just housekeeping.  Hard to describe just how different it feels to be in each newsfeed.  Some are simply based in different locations, with friends from a particular island or city.  Age differences are even more stunning.  The same political event which fills your friends’ timelines when you are 50, doesn’t even appear when you are 16.

It isn’t fashionable anymore, but I always make sure my fake people have a website, blog or other public trove of information on whatever topic I am researching.   This gives me unique insights into what people are looking for.   It is the “honeypot” approach.  In content marketing it is easier to just start testing ideas like this.  And when the first organic google searches land my way, it is like Christmas day!  Somebody wrote what they wanted to know in Google and came to me, fake me, this particular person.  Why?  How?  What cyberspace hole did I fill with what I just did?

If anything, building a fake profile is a humbling experience.  Because you realize just how complex a web social beings like humans create.  We earn trust.  Slowly.   A “follow” by a 13 year old is a very, very, very different action to a “follow” by a 60 year old.  He then posts what he just had for breakfast without thinking about it, while the senior citizen is carefully crafting a comment as if he is writing to the Economist.

Marketing people are often fooled by their own brand.  In the case of social media they are also sidetracked by their personal profiles and habits.  These are extremely dynamic, immature new mediums, still jostling for position, changing architecture and interfaces.   There is no agreed way to assess them, no specific assigned meaning to what we all do with them.  So get off your high horse and mingle with the natives.

My friend Jason is smarter than me and 99% wrong about social media monitoring

My friend Jason is very clever.  He has taught me a lot about advanced tech geeky stuff concerning metrics, social media and monitoring services.  He knows all the AI and Natural Language Processing stuff.  He has a company which is sure to be bought by Google or someone like that.  And he wrote a fantastic post which I thoroughly recommend if you want “the short version of the future of media monitoring for business” here.

He is also 99% wrong.  Not in what he writes.  I am pretty sure that – as usual – he can see what is coming better than I can in his area of expertise.  But in tech, that is not what it’s about for your business.  In tech, I am the best futurologist because I now the timing of what is coming.   And throwing away dashboards or whatever else Jason describes is far, far away.

If you live in Silicon Valley and all your friends use Slack, sure, be my guest.  The rest of the planet, read on.  Your country’s internet is not as rich as the guys over there.   Every day I look through analytics for customers’ sites and blogs and I am amazed.  “Seriously!  Has nobody written anything better on this topic and we are getting 50 Google organic search results for this???!!!”  Every day.  All the time.    It is not just in Greek.  I have run projects in other languages, heck, languages I don’t even understand, and still got fantastic response with content.  You can even just Google translate a page, stick it on your website and it will work.  Not talking about spammy tricks here.  People coming from a Google search for something also read longer and click on more pages afterwards.

The main reason most small and medium sized companies want media monitoring, or social media monitoring is not for fancy sentiment analysis or crisis management.  It is to sell.  We want customers.  Every word I write here is designed to make you want to hire me.  Every word I write for a customer selling shoes is thought out so as to honeypot the right kind of consumer to buy those shoes.  I love Jason’s new tool, you can try it for free at http://qualia.ai/  Sure it’s not the most simple thing to make Boolean queries, most of you clicked away just reading the words.  But it is much, much better than Google alerts or whatever other freemium, crapium you are currently using.  And if you use Jason’s smart company, it will get even more useful.

For what?  Well, as Jason correctly says in his post, we need “actionable” data.  We need to integrate it with business workflows.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, that is what I always say to customers, just before they say “you are right, but let’s just do the quick and dirty thing now to get this project done.”  Your average one-man-show marketing person struggling to prioritise social media posts and measure what the hell is going on, wants a tool to find stuff and help create stuff for repurposing content.  Very few companies bother to optimise a system, any system, enough so that it automates such decisions.  “Hey, Marketing division, you are all fired!  We have an advanced AI which can figure out better than you the trends!”  Fantastic, let’s get that in here asap.

Of course I am biased.  I loved content marketing.  I am struggling to write this paragraph without consulting some data to decide which words to use to best attract Google but since it is the last paragraph, the weighting here is not as important as the opening paragraph and I will just say what I mean: the world’s internet has not got enough content.  Google is getting better at making sense of content.   If you are not operating in English have a party, you have an enormous opportunity to easily get customers like that.  Go make better content than what is available.

If you don’t know how, hire me or hire Jason.

 

The fallacy of collective brainpower

I was 12 or 13 years old when I came across “The crowd”.  It was in Greek and must have belonged to one of my many intellectual cousins.  The subtitle reads “a study of the popular mind” and I couldn’t put it down.  We were guests at my aunt’s house and I read it all before we left.   No matter it was written in the late 19th century; this was fresh and relevant!   While other kids listened to Simon LeBon of Duran Duran, I thought of Gustave LeBon’s amazingly relevant book.  Had never seen it again until recently when I got a copy in English.   And I juxtaposed it with “the Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki written more than a hundred years later and full of examples about Wikipedia and crowdsourcing and how 100 bricklayers can make a better decision than a consultant that gets paid 20,000 per hour.

But Gustave was right.  I grew up checking his conclusions against my reality.  I could see it at my school.  When enough kids get together, they turn into animals.   I could see it across the street in the early 80’s, as Andreas Papandreou, that master of deception, spoke with simple slogans while stealing billions.  When you get enough people together, they lose their capacity for critical thinking, they “go down several rungs in terms of civilization” as he says.  There is no sense of personal responsibility.  Simple slogans, repeated again and again.  Music, images, emotion.  There is no wisdom in this sort of crowd.

I love what companies like Google are doing with our collective data.     I gladly give them access to almost everything I think and do in exchange for their amazing tools.  They make my life much much better.  Yet it is clear that this is not the product of evolution in our civilisation, nor the inevitable course in technology developing.  It is a fortunate respite from a kind dictator.   All these great ideas about the collective wisdom we could develop with technology depend on a kind central hub allowing them to work.  Or, as Surowiecki puts it, we need independence of opinion, decentralization and diversity before we even get to the matter of aggregation.

Our current tech boom is to a large extent an acceptance of failure.   Companies that establish massive followings define the terms, give away stuff and up the ante in terms of infrastructure.    You reward them by buying their stock.  Or by making small companies whose sole aim is to be bought out by the giants.  In the words of LeBon ” every civilisation is the outcome of a small number of fundamental ideas that are very rarely renewed. (…) At the present day the great fundamental ideas which were the mainstay of our fathers are tottering more and more. They have lost all solidity, and at the same time the institutions resting upon them are severely shaken.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Where is what I am looking for?

Λόγω αλλαγής στον server, όλα τα ελληνικά άρθρα είναι πλέον μαζί στη διεύθυνση http://greekinter.net/

 

I moved my server so if you are looking for that previous site with my shiny bald head, look no further.  All the content from that is now here.  I also threw in some other sites for good measure, various projects from the past with information people search for.  Being a good Samaritan, I saved it.

If you are looking for Greek content, it is all together at www.greekinter.net  And I mean “all together” as in “fifty different topics all together!”  You will need to use the search function if you are looking for something specific.  As far as I can tell, Google has managed to follow my instructions and should point directly to the right content most of the time.  There are quite a few internal dead links which I will work on when I find time.

There are bound to be some loose ends here and there, it is more than ten thousand articles to tidy.  Hopefully the content is worth your trouble!

English uber alles: the language digital divide

Google assistant is fantastic.  Unless you don’t speak English.  In which case it is almost useless.  The whole “Artificial Intelligence” vogue is rather misleading.  Because when I speak to Google Allo I am still using all my experience in computing.  It works great for me because I think like a computer.  I break down my questions into chunks the way I think the computer wants to hear it.  I add qualifiers, words to help the machine understand with more accuracy.  I use terms that are more likely to work.  When we say “natural language” hey, there are classifications.  I use “natural language more likely to be understood by Google”.  It drives others crazy.  They blame my perfect accent.  “But I said the same thing!  Why doesn’t it work for me?”  

 

Here’s the problem.  Google and pretty much everyone else in Silicon Valley, they are all only thinking in English.  Your Amazon Echo is designed for native English speakers.  (Pun intended.)  All your gadgets are.  Worse still, the intelligence is designed around people thinking  in English.  All the structure, the concepts, the way it is set up.  It is rather entertaining how some people get caught up with the fact that slang and tech words are conquering the world.  That is the tip of the iceberg.

 

Silicon Valley is moving ahead of the rest of the planet with leaps and bounds.  Light years ahead.  We don’t have local information.  We can’t use amazon like you do.   We can’t pay for stuff or call a self driving car.  Amazon will not be able to deliver to the trunk of my car either.  The United States are a test bed for new tech and the gap with everyone else will grow exponentially.  And only in 2030, when computers are smarter than humans, maybe, just maybe, those computers may decide to develop all these wonderful tools for the rest of the earthlings.    And even then it will take a lot of work.  Because English is the language that provides the structure and concepts.  More likely that you will have all learnt to think like Google by then. 

 

2030 is still material for science fiction.  Today, now, it is clear that we all have to move to the Valley or fall behind.  We have neither the data with which to develop such advanced tools, nor the number crunching power.   The entire planet sends their thoughts to Google every day  Out position, habits and preferences.  It is no conspiracy theory, it is simple mathematics.  Not impossible to catch up, just really really hard.

The debate-izer of online noise

Was recently checking out imzy (www.imzy.com invitation only, they gave me a dozen if anyone wants one) and it got me thinking about the time we spend trying to reach a conclusion online.   Imzy has quite a reasonable user interface for a community type website.  It is surely better than Facebook’s and uses better thought out colour, graphics and notifications for what it does.  But I want more.

Very often in online discussions the whole thread becomes unreadable. Comments, responses, nested responses, people answering at the wrong place, others waffling on and some with gems of wizdom. What would be fantastic is some more automated way of turning a 150 comment saga into a “pro and cons” type exposition.

Having the “most liked” comments on top isn’t the best way.  It might just be that the online bullies are liking each others’.  My idea might need an actual person (whoever is running the show on the particular topic/page) to manually whizz through the comments and throw them into a basket of sorts.  Ideally it will present a tree like graphic which expands and contracts to demonstrate which facets of the topic had been covered.  That way we won’t be going around in the circles so common with online debates.

Older users of online forums will counter that we can do the same thing with categories and locked topics and featured topics and….well, you get the picture.  They are obviously “older users” and have missed the whole digital revolution.   Fast and furious, cute and cuddly, interactive graphics which are “good enough”.  Stuff we can take in our peripheral vision, that’s what we want now.

In the late 1380s in London the fashion was debating societies. At the end of the show the person running the two hour event, presented everyone with the conclusions, as in a summary of what had been said for and against.   For all of us who love discussion and truly seek the truth rather than trying to enforce our opinions on others this would be a wonderful thing to strive for 600 years later.

Apple’s (real) product recalls and Brad Pitt’s (alleged) whores

If you Google “apple product recall” you get less than a page of results.  That is peculiar, isn’t it?  Try searching for “recall history” or anything like that and you more or less get the Google equivalent of “what you are looking for does not exist in this galaxy”.  So then being Greek, I use the terms  “ανάκληση προϊόντων Apple” and get 32 thousand results.  Obviously the propaganda masters at Apple don’t bother with Greece.  Much like Apple support doesn’t bother with Greece and other “minor” markets.  They just rely on the well documented pro Apple journalist bias.  If I want a more serious and organised list of Apple product recalls, I can go for the United States to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  That gives me many many more Apple product recalls.  And that is when you realise it is not just that Apple users are fanatics.  The company puts a lot of PR effort in making information disappear.    As it lobbies Washington to fight Samsung with legal fines and other restrictions.

PR and lobbying are of course well established form of corporate action.  Will Apple get fined for the whole Irish tax debacle?  Of course they won’t.  Hold up a bit with all the emotionally appealing “think different” adverts of us all flying about in the perfect future, white clothes, white background, white devices and white hoverboards.    Earlier this year Apple recalled  iPhones, iPads, iPods and Mac computers sold from 2003 to 2015.  And you think Samsung is the problem?  They admitted to 12 “incidents” which means that there were probably hundreds.  It is rather entertaining to watch liberal America up in arms against the “irrationality” of Donald Trump.  He lies in your face, changes views, claims the internet as an information source and generally does pretty much whatever he wants with absolutely no attention paid to facts or logic.  Yet “70% of the most active iPhone states vote Democrat“.  So you are accepting irrationality from your phone’s manufacturer, but think it is not OK for a President.

Who is more likely to have had an affair?  Brad Pitt or Stephen Hawking?  A politician or a doctor?  You will make a guesstimate about any of these questions based on your available information.  Do you read gossip magazines often?  Do you work in a hospital and hear rumours of infidelity often?  Apple makes product recall information disappear because it knows you won’t bother to search or think about it as long as I did today.  If I ask you about Brad Pitt again, but this time it is via chat on your cell phone, you will answer even more succinctly if you don’t like typing there.  Especially if you are using the iPhone keyboard which for some ridiculous reason is different from other keyboards on the planet.  As humans we are always looking for shortcuts.

It is the same reason homeopathy has lasted so well despite being complete rubbish with absolutely no results on any level.  (No, not even placebo.)  No matter how much evidence you pile in front of someone they respond “well, one time my son had a terrible rash and it just wouldn’t go…but homeopathy saved him”.   One time, one highly subjective personal experience trumps everything else.  And you can’t outTrump Trump.  Stupidity is unbeatable and we are all terrible judges.  You don’t know if the new iPhone is any good like you don’t know if you are more likely to get hit by lightning, a car or a falling piano this year.  In fact I suggest you are more likely to guess whether Brad Pitt does drugs with Russian prostitutes than to objectively compare an iPhone with a Samsung phone.

It is a bit like a husband-wife argument about who does most around the house.  Each of us focuses on their own contribution.  What it costs each of us in terms of energy.    Apple computer users have put up with the absolutely ludicrous application navigation wheel for years.  When pushed they will claim it is “the best”.  Like iPhone users claimed they didn’t need copy-paste until they got it.  Or two buttons on a mouse until Steve Jobs presented the magic mouse.  They “burned Pentiums to the ground” one month and the next were “using the incredible power of Pentium”.

So leave Brad Pitt alone.   And check those product recall lists before you start talking about Apple.

 

R.I.P. people that get tired of tech

Spent a good hour tidying cables today.  Three boxes full of them.  You can do a fairly good review of what came and went in the past four decades just by explaining the hows, whys and whats of these cables.  How we used to load software from audio cassettes.  Peculiar items needed to get early modems to work.  Dozens of cables from things that had caught on, so the cable was in all sorts of gadgets, and peculiar cables from technologies that failed.  It is easy to understand all those people that simply announce they have had “enough”.

I don’t even try to keep up anymore” announces a friend.  Yet straight after that he wants me to help set up something on his smartphone.  It makes no sense.  Sure, at times, gadget mania gets out of hand.  And we have all failed in predictions or made bad buying decisions.  But tech is life.  Since some ape picked up a branch and whacked another ape, we always look for better ways of doing things.  Faster.  More fun.  Think different and all that.  At worse because we get bored of the old stuff.

Why on earth do you do that to yourself?”  Another friend wondering where I find the patience to try and hack my kids’ latest game, or set up something peculiar on my home network.  Tinkering is a way of life.  Looking for better ways to live.  Tweaking and adapting.  People complain about how technology is distancing us from nature but we are simply adapting.  Charles Darwin would be proud of my cable collection.

Data comparisons show just how far ahead the U.S. is in tech

It started with a friend’s interesting project.  https://gotelonica.wordpress.com sets forth to draw comparisons between two European cities.  “Everyday stories, vivid images, mutual interests and hopeful efforts”… will have to be good enough though because finding decent comparative data is pretty complicated!

If you search the internet for “city comparison” or anything like that, you are most likely to find a US site comparing US cities.  Mobility in the United States is a fact of life.  And great websites cater to all sorts of ways to discover if your new job offer is as good as it sounds.  Or if you should buy a house there or anything else you are interested in discovering.   Similar efforts within Europe are almost non existent.   UN Habitat data doesn’t include Sweden’s second largest city.  Interesting online articles with catchy titles such as “these are the world’s dirtiest/most dangerous/best cities” rarely include both Thessaloniki and Goteborg.

In fact an American website offered the best weather and crime comparison.   Thessaloniki has a lower crime index and higher safety index.  Which doesn’t say much unless they analyse exactly how they get, process and quantify the data.  Being Greek I know for a fact that the stats coming out of that particular civil service are far from perfect.

You may eventually find some meaningful ways to compare the cities, if you try hard enough.  Gotelonica is an excellent idea because statistics are almost meaningless on their own in such a complex environment.  European cities cannot be set side by side like American ones.  We have no real federal or state system in place.  The European Union is meant to help us work in different places but in fact there is not that much mobility.  And the lack of data is a pretty convincing evidence of this.

We are decades behind America and it shows.   Much like my objections to Greek Police statistics above, almost any matter (other than the weather) concerning European cities is bound to become political.  Different measurements, different resources allocated to statistics, different infrastructures which make the numbers rather drab tools to paint a true picture.  It makes it even harder to build any sort of technological platforms or apps.  So we just sit around while Google and Facebook speed along by getting users to volunteer information, live with their tools and then use machine learning to offer better judgements than any European tool ever could.  Google traffic data is the best pan European resource for how fast you will get from A to B.  While we argue about how and why our GPS alternative never got off the ground, Maps just keeps getting better.

So next time you start talking about European tech entrepreneurs, take a moment to consider how hard it is to get decent databases to work with.  Or to attract other Europeans to your city to work for you.   Or even to calculate ahead of time the chances of either of these two happening.