Why should online be any different?

Tim O’Reilly comments on how easy it is for online data to go bad, and how difficult it is to correct it. He even uses the whack-a-mole analogy:

We face this problem all the time with book metadata in our publishing business. Retailers demand notification of upcoming books as much as six months before the book is published. As you can imagine, titles change, page counts change, prices change — sometimes books are cancelled — and corralling the old data becomes a game of whack-a-mole. You’d think that the publisher would be an authoritative source of correct data, but this turns out not to be the case, as some wholesalers and retailers have difficulty updating their records, or worse, retailers sometimes overwrite newer, correct data with older bad data from one of the wholesalers who also supply them.

But why should online be any different than anywhere else. After all this isn’t exactly a new problem, as any victim of identity theft, or anyone who has ever tried to correct an erroneous credit report can easily attest to.

The problem is that in the real or online worlds there is rarely if ever an authoritative source of correct data, because we aggregate the data from so many different sources.Tim says this is a Web 2.0 problem:

As Lou said in one email, "the whole story seems to be such a strong illustration of the downsides of connected and linked databases (and therefore very much a Web 2.0 lesson)."

But this isn’t just a Web 2.0 problem.It’s a regular old database problem.


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Don’t touch that dial.

Today’s New York Times comments on the increase in television shows with extremely complex story lines, where missing an episode may make the show completely incomprehensible. The only show that really caught us was Jericho, which we now watch. The other ones they list didn’t make an impact on us.

But TiVo has changed our lives, or at least our television habits. For us, there is no more appointment television. We merely create a Season’s Pass and record episodes only to watch them later, sometimes several in a row. Which means the using shows as leaders into other programming doesn’t work for us, or for other TiVo or DVR users.

Now given the increasingly busy lives of viewers it seems that it would be difficult to ensure that you can watch every episode in order, so perhaps this will just lead to increased sales of DVDs or the shows. But I find it amazing that viewers can comprehend shows like this, but just didn’t get something like Arrested Development.


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Obesity causes global warming.

Of course I’m not serious, but there are plenty of folks who would certainly like to convince you that obesity contributes to global warming:

This latest contribution to the obesity debate comes in an article by Sheldon H. Jacobson of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and his doctoral student, Laura McLay. Their paper, published in the current issue of The Engineering Economist, calculates how much extra gasoline is used to transport Americans now that they have grown fatter. The answer, they said, is a billion gallons a year.

So perhaps the solution to global warming is not allowing obese people to fly. Of course the same problem occurs when they drive:

Their conclusion is in the same vein as a letter published last year in The American Journal of Public Health. Its authors, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much extra fuel airlines spend hauling around fatter Americans. The answer, they wrote, based on the extra 10 pounds the average American gained in the 1990’s, is 350 million gallons, which means an extra 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide.

It’s amazing the kind of conclusions you can jump to with a little imagination.


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A little help please.

Today I booked a flight to New York for Thanksgiving. I decided to use some Air Canada frequent flyer points and book through Aeroplan, so I went to their website to do so.

I tried three times to select flights, enter passenger names, and complete the purchase, failing every time. I then tried to call their customer service toll free number. Forty times. Nothing but a busy signal every time.

So I called the web technical support line, and the woman explained that it had failed because I checked a box that said "add this passenger to my profile". Apparently that feature doesn’t work, but rather than indicate it on the site they prefer to tell me over the phone. I then tried to complete the transaction and failed. So the web tech support person transferred me to a regular customer support person.

The regular customer support person told me point blank that the website didn’t work, and hadn’t since it had gone live a few weeks ago. She tried to find the flights I wanted and told me that she would have to transfer me to a ClassicPlus customer representative, and explained that because it was their problem they would waive the normal booking fee since the website wasn’t working and I was unable to use it.

She transferred me and when the ClassicPlus rep got on the phone the first thing he told me was that I should have booked my travel using the web so I wouldn’t have to pay the booking fee. I explained what the previous person had told me and he then agreed to waive the fee. After a comment about the fact that the poor service was a result of the fact that the company president wanted to make more money, the representative located the correct flights and booked them for me, which took all of five minutes.

It took me about 45 minutes to accomplish what should have been a very simple transaction, and was given a birds-eye view of an organization that doesn’t communicate, clearly has low morale, and obviously has a very high cost of support per transaction, given that it took three people to sell me a couple of tickets.

So the lesson to be learned here is make sure your website works perfectly before you open it to the public. And if it doesn’t work, make sure everybody knows, and just admit the problem. And please don’t waste my time.


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Opening up your music.

Jon Johansen, the man who cracked DVD encryption, has now cracked iTunes encyption, which means that you can now play songs that you legally purchased on devices other than the iPod.

Now I love my iPod, and I’m not about to purchase a different device. But if I’ve paid for a song, then I believe that I have the right to listen to that song wherever I want, on any device I choose.

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, does not keep music from being stolen. It merely limits what an honest customer can do with something they purchased in good faith. That isn’t good for anyone, and it just isn’t fair.


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Mac means never having to say IE.

My primary machine is a MacBook, on which I run Camino, Firefox, and Safari as browsers, and I’m pretty happy with them. Even if I could, I doubt I’d be running Internet Explorer. Microsoft built a browser and included it free with Windows years ago seemingly for the express purpose of killing Netscape. And then they let it stagnate. It only became a concern when Firefox appeared and started to take away market share.

This time I don’t think IE will be killing anything.Even Walt Mossberg suggests that there’s really nothing new there. It didn’t even take very long for the browser built for security to expose a vulnerability.

Hey, no browser is perfect or secure. But I think I’ll stay with browsers that are growing with me, rather than browsers that only respond to customer concerns if their market share is threatened.


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The simple life.

I was at the Thoreau Club the other day. It’s a private health club in Concord, Massachusetts, close to our former home in Westford. We took our goddaughter to her ballet class, and the grounds consist of a few buildings set in the forest, a beautiful sight as the leaves change color in New England.

Now what I recall most about Henry David Thoreau, the club’s namesake, is that he went to live a simple life at Walden Pond.No modern conveniences, even the sparse few that existed at the time. So I guess I was a bit surprised that when I opened my laptop it immediately connected to a free wireless service and I was able to work – with the most modern of conveniences.

While it is certainly pleasant to be connected anywhere, I couldn’t help but feel that someone had missed the point of Thoreau completely. Sometimes you should just be able to relax, surrounded by nature.


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We’re moving backward.

When I was a kid I was just born a little too late to experience the whole "Duck and cover" response to nuclear weapons. I grew up thinking that the world was becoming a safer place. Yes some countries that had always had nuclear weapons still had them, but they had the relative sanity not use them.

It’s over 40 years later and my youngest son came home with his girlfriend the other day and with some concern asked if I had heard that North Korea had launched a nuclear missile. Now my son is almost 19 so he is rational about this stuff, and I explained that they had merely tested a nuclear warhead underground.

But as I said that I realized that we now live in a world that is arguably less safe than it was 40 years ago. That we have actually moved backward to a less peaceful world.

I’ve worked all over the world and lived in both the United States and Canada, and I personally have found pretty much everyone easy to get along with. I just can’t understand this strange need for humans to want to kill each other, which seems to be pretty much testosterone driven.But if we don’t figure out how to stop it we’ve pretty much failed our children’s generation.


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Every morning I go to a coffee shop called Williams Coffee Pub near my house. I go there because it has free internet, and it is comfortable enough to work there. But their service isn’t that great. It takes quite a while just to get a regular cup of coffee. If you want a latte or anything special they give you a number to take to your table, and I’ve waited as long as 10 minutes for my order. It can sometimes take over an hour for them to get around to cleaning the tables, and since there is no self-bussing area, I’ve sometimes had to push over several breakfast dishes in order to get a table to sit down at.

Contrast this with Starbucks, where I’ve rarely waited more than a minute for any beverage, and the tables are cleaned very frequently. But they don’t have free internet.

So I keep going to Williams in the mornings to work, but I’m constantly reminded of the poor service, and the lack of attention to detail, so I never recommend it to friends. But I go to Starbucks to relax, and I always recommend it, and often meet folks there.

And I always think to myself, why is it that Starbucks can accomplish what Williams can’t?


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