The Last One, Personal Computer world and me

Still clearing out the office, ready for the move. Still chucking out my life by the recycling-bin load.

But, today, lurking in a corner, I found this 26-year old issue of Personal Computer World:

Boy, did I get it in the neck for this one.  Not from my publisher or my colleagues, but from other journalists and editors. They thought it was a huge joke and that I (at the time, both the writer of the piece and the editor of the magazine) had made a monumental mistake.

It’s only now, looking back, that I realise that they probably didn’t even read the article. Or, in fact, read the coverline which ends with a question mark. Truth is, they were probably jealous at the attention we were drawing away from their titles.

The program in question was called "The Last One" and it not only worked (eventually) but, for donkey’s years, its publisher made money out of a consulting business wrapped around the software.

Marck Pearlstone was the programmer who was called in to rescue the project in the early days, when it was very buggy. He’s been my partner (and the programmer) in Brainstorm Software for the past ten or eleven years.

If you’re interested, The Last One generated application code for commercial applications.

Antony Brewerton: On branding the library

Found myself speaking at Re-imagining the Library the other day, sponsored by CILIP and Talis. The audience was a mix of public, corporate and academic librarians and the speakers were charged with sparking off some fresh thinking. None did this better than Antony Brewerton, head of academic support at the University of Warwick. Previously, he was at Oxford Brookes University and before that at the University of Reading.

Anyway, his presentation was excellent. The others I saw (I had to nip out, unexpectedly, for a couple of hours to take a briefing for some urgent writing work) were very good but if there was a prize for best presentation he’d have won it. He was intelligent, articulate and amusing on the tough subject, for librarians, of branding.

To give a flavour of the man, he decided to take the theme of ‘inspiration’. He looked at pennies dropping, Rodin’s Thinker, a light bulb (incandescent, naughty boy), but while good, he felt there was something better. Then he thought of Newton and the famous apple.

Well, and this shows the calibre of the man, Antony couldn’t have any old apple, it had to be special.

He spent hours in greengrocery shops studying the goods. Eventually, he found the perfect apple. Then he needed the right light for the photography. He found it outside on a bright day. But then the pesky apple, while it had all the right colours, didn’t reflect the light properly. So he took it indoors and gave it the Johnson’s Wax treatment. Back outside, he placed it on a large sheet of white card and finally got his shot.

Sadly, I can only find a monochrome picture but, as soon as I find a colour one, I’ll put it here.


You can already see what a fine apple it is and how magnificently it’s been polished.

And the caption was:


Brilliant. So simple. Addresses the undergraduates’ second most important issue (after beer). Or do I mean third?

He cited Theodore Levitt who said, "Purchasing agents don’t buy 1/4 inch drills; they buy 1/4 inch holes."

So true. And so easy to forget.

Thanks Antony.

Traditional media vs social media – Shel Holz ‘gets it’

A man called Stowe Boyd has been attracting a lot of attention to himself by lashing out at people who "don’t get it" when it comes to social media, new media or whatever you want to call it. Most people I know in the social media world hold Boyd in high regard. I have yet to reach that particular Nirvana.

Ever since I first entered the blogosphere (as a latecomer in 2004 with a mainstream media background) I’ve noticed that, when cornered, fanatical insiders like to hurl the "you don’t get it" accusation, without clarifying quite what it is that needs to be got. At least Boyd tries to help in this regard, but with mind-numbingly long posts.

A couple of days ago Boyd took Shel Holtz to task in a post headlined "Shel Holtz Is The Perfect Example Of PR People Not Getting It". I guess he knew he’d provoke discussion with that one and crank up the links to his blog (which carries ads, of course). Just like he did when he chastised the organisers of the Office 2.0 conference last year, making liberal use of the attention-grabbing word f**k.(My asterisks.)

Perhaps what he didn’t expect is that Holtz would reply with a long, reasoned and definitely not mind-numbing, response.

If you want to understand what’s happening in the media space – traditional as well as new – Holtz’s post is a fine place to start. (It’s ostensibly about digital press releases but it’s way more valuable than that.)

When Second Life anonymity bumps into reality

I signed up for Second Life in June last year and, thanks to a pair of poorly performing computers, didn’t take it far because I was too irritated by the process.

I cranked up the performance of both machines and really got stuck in over the Christmas period, first of all meandering around as someone who looked like a fitter version of me. Then I wanted to be less threatening (big, bearded, old) etc, so I changed sex and made myself look like a modest young woman.

This was all fine, apart from when I was being propositioned, until I started chatting with someone while I was lounging in an armchair on the stage at Cisco’s amphitheatre. He walked up to the stage and we exchanged pleasantries. Then it turned out we were both into social computing, both providing services to Cisco and he mentioned that his web address was in his profile. I clicked and it turned out we had met in real life.

What if the conversation had taken a different tack?

What if he’d propositioned me?

How would that have made me feel?

Worse, how would it have made him feel?

Obviously I can head that sort of behaviour off at the pass, but it does trouble me deeply that I – someone who is normally open and honest – had actually created a situation through my deceptive appearance where people could be lured into behaviours they would certainly not adopt had they known who was behind the avatar.

Yet, my non-threatening appearance encourages friendly conversation and leads to insights that I might not arrive at were I to say, up front, "Hi, I’m really a male journalist". Until the meeting with someone I knew, I was fairly relaxed about my pose. And, it has to be said, having fun. After that meeting, the deceptive aspect bothered me a lot.

I am researching Second Life to discover whether it has a practical business value. Maybe, after this stage of my participation, I’ll revert to the real me.

But you can be sure that other people in Second Life are setting out to deceive quite deliberately.

Anyone want to share their thoughts on the issue?

When PR and bloggers collide

Once upon a time, PRs considered me to be an "opinion former" and they used to hound me endlessly about their clients. Quite often they had no idea about my interests or specialisations. While it’s nice to have such a level of attention, I much prefer today’s more thoughtful approaches. Those that contact me now usually know where I hang out (very broadly – collaboration and information management behind and at the edge of the firewall).

In a reminder of the old days, today I received an email from a well-known PR firm trying to interest me, as a blogger, in the activities of its even better-known client. My initial reactions in blue:

Subject: Blogger interviews with head of ******* UK

Gosh, the head of the UK arm of the company. And me just a humble blogger.

We’re in the middle of organising a blogger relations programme to coincide with the business launch of ***** *******.  In short we’re looking to see if any bloggers would like to participate in a interview/chat regarding the launch (and other ******* topics) with the managing director of ******* UK, ******* ******.

Before the Queen dishes out honours, the organisers ask each prospective recipient whether they would accept. This seems like a parallel approach. A bit of flattery, a chance to hob-nob… A chance to avoid embarrassment.

Your name along with around four others was recommended as a potential interviewer.

Wow. Five bloggers in the whole of Britain. And I’m one of them. Why? It’s not as if I’m gasping to blog about the company. Maybe it thinks that after such an irresistable offer, I wouldn’t be able to help myself. But I bet the MD will be scripted to within an inch of his life. Where’s the interest in that?

The time it would take place would be early December.

Thank goodness I’m going to Silicon Valley at that time.

Basically, I’m testing the waters at the moment to see if anyone is indeed interested. 

Make this a public invite and the bloggers will be queuing, matey.

Anyway, hope you’re well and hope to hear from you soon.

An unusually matey ending. I scanned my machine (104,000 emails and all my files) and can find no mentions of your name, just three cookies which show I’ve visited your blog. I am well thank you, since you ask.

STOP PRESS: A re-scan discovered seven emails from you and one mass mailing. So my sincere apologies for the last remark. We have been in touch as a result of our blogging activities.

I suspect this blog post is going to go down like a lead balloon with the people involved. This is why I’ve anonymised them. I have (or had) good relationships with both the PR firm and its client.

Normally, I’d hit the ‘delete’ key or say ‘sorry, not interested’ but, because I was being approached as a blogger, I thought the email was interesting. It certainly reveals some background to new media PR activity.

I’m not sure what made the PR firm single me out. The offer didn’t relate to the subject matter of this blog. And it certainly didn’t relate to thinkerlog. And, frankly, it barely worked for the IWR blog.

Presumably the PR firm wanted to invoke warm feelings towards its client and the opportunity in the hope that this would result in more positive and less critical coverage than they’d get from the regular press.

Then again, I could be completely wrong. Anyone care to pitch in?

At Dave Snowden’s urging…

Sorry about the echo chamber effect, but I posted something recently about the new generation fitting into company culture. This sparked off a long post from Dave Snowden, which led to some IM messaging, which led to a column I wrote years and years ago. He urged me to republish it.

So here it is, from MacUser UK issue number 49. I have changed the name of my son to Xxxxx. That’s not his real name.

"The computer’s my best friend," are the last words a parent wants to hear from a nine-year-old.

They certainly shook me up when I overheard Xxxxx, my youngest, describing his life to a recent visitor. The remark was prompted by the fact that there had been some sort of upset among the kids in our street and Xxxxx had temporarily fallen out with all the others. It seems that Xxxxx had made claims for the Macintosh which none of the others had believed.

This incident brought to the surface something which has been worrying me. We’ve all heard of the obsessive programmer who has few friends – the trade term is ‘terminal junkie’. Sitting in front of a totally obedient computer and making it do your bidding is an addictive process. If that’s how adults want to spend their lives, that’s their business. But it bothers me when I see the same thing in children. Fortunately, Xxxxx probably averages a couple of hours a week with the computers so I’m not too worried about him becoming an addict.

What I am concerned about, though, is the willingness of major corporations to treat human beings, and children in particular, as guinea pigs. We have a powerful movement dedicated to the abolition of laboratory experiments on animals, yet we have no such movement to protect children from a parallel, if less visible, exploitation.

In particular, I am bothered by a programme which Apple is running in America at the moment. The company is giving out computers for selected children to use at school and at home. Whole classes have computers and other classes in the same school go without. The kids are expected to go through all the grades with the Macintosh as a learning companion. The idea appears to be a grand experiment to see which kids do ‘best’ – those with computers, or those without.

Ignoring the inevitable jealousies, similar to the goings-on in my street, I can’t help wondering what effect the American programme will have on these children’s lives. It’s a fair bet that they will end up more interested and enriched from their experience with the technology. There is also a significant danger that, after this saturation exposure to computers, they’ll end up preferring Macintoshes to their real-life friends. Or should I say ex-friends?

Given that schools measure results in terms of academic achievement, the computers in schools programme will probably show that computerised kids achieve better grades than non-computerised kids. What will the schools do? Buy hundreds of thousands of computers so that every child benefits from the very best education? That would be nice for the computer company that donated the original equipment. All the courseware would be written for that machine, who would want to throw away that investment?

But what about schools who can’t afford the technology? What about schools who decide against a computerised education? What about the individuals and families who can’t afford the home computer to match the one at school? What will happen to them? When the ‘proof’ of a superior education is wheeled out, what right-thinking parent would want to deny their child such an opportunity?

We mustn’t forget that we are talking about institutions which currently have to account for every trip to the photocopier. In the UK, computers will have to cost as little as a few pounds, unless there are really powerful arguments for their adoption. A good sign for the pro-computer lobby is that computers get cheaper all the time. So by the time the schools and the computer manufacturers have completed their studies, the darned things should only cost a few hundred pounds. And with a falling school population, the number of machines needed will be lower still.

I’m sure that many people at Apple Computer believe that this programme of donating computers to schools is a way of putting something back into the community. "Life is better with a Mac," or so they believe. This is true, but only up to a point. Life is more interesting, more stimulating and school is more fun with a Macintosh.

But real life is something else. Real life is all about human contact. It’s not about stimulation by electronic devices which end up claiming more of your affection than your friends.

We’ve seen how our love affair with the motor car has fragmented society and how it isolates us from others. We’ve seen how television commits masses of people to silent communion with its flickering images. We’ve seen millions of youngsters turn to drugs for their rather solitary pleasures. The computer is just another step along this rocky road of isolationism in which people matter less and less.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We could recognise the dangers and temper the computerisation of school with ‘human studies’ lessons.

These could cover basic things like ‘meeting people’, ‘making friends’, ‘how to disagree without coming to blows’, ‘how to have a party’… the list is endless. The kids could be dragged away from their computer screens two or three times a week to get a taste of what life without computers might be like. Practical classes could be the highlight of an otherwise sterile week.

Do I exaggerate? I really don’t know. Let’s just say I’m worried by the way things are going. Like most things taken in moderation, computers can be good for you, but taken to excess they could easily ruin a life. I wonder how long it will be before an irate adult decides to sue a computer company for a lost childhood and an inability to function as a normal human being?

The Americans’ use of language

I can’t help it, I am in awe of the way some Americans use words.

I just love "corporate sock puppet". What a terrific way to describe a politician who’s in the pocket of big business.

This post was sparked off by the Save the Internet folks today.

Before you mention it, I know the term’s not new. (The earliest mention I can find is 2002.) But it tickles me every time I see it.

Effective communication. Do they learn this stuff at school in America?

How SME’s can interest journalists: a podcast with moi

Alex Bellinger, who created the UK’s first small/medium enterprise podcasts, caught me on the hop recently and asked a bunch of pointed questions about how SME’s should handle the press. He’s no slouch when it comes to PR but he thought he’d use me to get the journalist’s perspective.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, or you want to treat yourself to my Estuary English, advance 7m45s into SmallBizPod number 30. Alternatively break yourself in gently and get to know Alex first. The Tebbutt/Bellinger exchange is about 25 minutes.

Sentiment analysis from Corpora

I met the exceedingly nice Orlando Plunket Greene a couple of weeks ago. He explained all about his software/service which assesses the sentiment of an author from their written material. I used it recently to track the mood of journalists writing about net neutrality. It was interesting to watch the moving average as it drifted down towards neutral.

Since I met with Orlando, his company, Corpora has announced a $500,000 deal to embed the software in the infrastructure of a global news vendor this year. I have no idea who the client is but I expect we’ll find out soon.

If you want more on sentiment analysis and Corpora’s particular expertise, you might find my column at Information World Review of some use.