Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry iChristmas and a Happy Digital 2006

The next week, this urban nomad will be in rural Egypt, inspecting temples, graves and other personal gadgets that belonged to the digerati of yesteryear. Not sure how easy internet access will be, so don't expect too many posts. Regular posting will be resumed some time after January 3rd.

Put Commerce back into Christmas?

American Conservatives are bickering over their President's Season's Greeting. Others in the US and Canada are spending their waking hours worrying whether to call Christmas trees Christmas trees or celebration trees. 'Put the "Christ" back into "Christmas"' seems to be the rallying cry.

Singapore has its own version of these problems. The company hired to put up this year's decorations over Orchard Road, which include both Christmas and Chinese New Year at the end of January, decided to kill two doves with one stone. So the "Season's Greetings" Arches were adorned with a crown that just happened to be the Chinese New Year Spirit's traditional hat. Put'em up in November, tear'em down in February and Bob's your uncle, they must've thought.

This turned out to be too big a leap of imagination for the ever-sensitive religious communities in multi-religious Singapore. Protests sounded and the contractor had no choice but to remove the hat that put China into Christmas. The result? A gift box bow, and Season's Greetings. We only worship one God: shopping.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Read My Lips

Tried to resist posting this one, but I couldn't. Of course it's from Japan. What it is? With built-in speaker and microphone, it's a handsfree set for your PC or mobile phone. The lips move with the sound. Would've worked with your iPod too, if Steve Jobs hadn't personally vetoed it.

TV Ratings belatedly enter 21st century

So Nielsen is finally starting to offer time-displaced TV ratings. The good old TV ratings will become 'Nielsen Live', and these will be joined by 'Live/Same Day' and 'Live+7'. High marks for clarity in product names, Nielsen!

And about time, too. Wonder how quickly we'll be finding out that everyone with a DVR starts skipping most ads, keeping only the funny ones. By the time that happens, watch the explosion of in-show advertising.

Big question is: when are we going to see something similar for podcasts, mobile phone TV, and all those TV and radio programs that can be (and are) viewed and listened to over the internet?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

My other car is a Toyota

What is it with Asia and Rolls-Royces? Yesterday we had one in Japan dressed up as a 'Dukes of Hazzard' prop; and here's another one disguised as a taxi in a Hong Kong streetside ad.

BMW might consider spiffing up the venerable old brand a little before this really gets out of hand.

The Great Outdoors, a great place to recharge

Even urban nomads find themselves occasionally in the Great Outdoors. Not voluntarily of course, but accidents happen.

And we all know what that means. No Signal, for instance, or even worse: No Power. Three Dutch guys have finally decided to do at least something about the No Power problem. They set up Soldius, a company solely dedicated to developing portable solar chargers for mobile gadgets.

Their first baby is aptly named Soldius1, and it charges iPods (except the iPod Video), Blackberries, and many popular types of mobile phones (a complete list is here) within two or three hours in the sun.

Sounds great! User experience welcomed.

Clear skies over Hong Kong

The WTO meeting is over. Hotel rooms are available again, road blocks removed, traffic congestion back to normal. And the summit seems to have literally cleared the air: the views are once again spectacular. Haven't seen Hong Kong like this in a long time!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Queue Code

The Japanese notion of vintage Rolls-Royce maintenance may leave something to be desired, but their sense of queueing is impeccable. Take this, China!

Passport and QR code, please

Clever use of 2-dimensional barcodes by All Nippon Airways (ANA). If you opt for e-check-in on their website the system sends you a QR code. All you have to do is print it out, take the printout with you to the airport and hold it in front of the display of the check-in machine, which will then give you your boarding pass. Simple and easy.

Don't try this with Japanese swords in your luggage, though.

Spoilers? Lowered suspension? Chrome wheel rims? Must be a Merc

No. It's a Rolls-Royce. Only in Japan.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Using phones for phone calls? Duh, that's sooo 20th century

What will they think of next? If the question is asked about Japanese handphones the answer should be 'anything'. Today's Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the Japanese Government plans to test an earthquake warning system that broadcasts digital TV signals to mobile phones.

So now mobile phones can be used for emailing and blogging, as a lighter, a train ticket and a quake alarm. Did I hear anyone say 'insect repellent'? Sorry, that's only possible in Korea.

Japanese mobile phones turn into mobility phones

Another day, another addition to mobile phone functionality. This Japanese poster advertises SuiCa phones. SuiCa means Super Urban Intelligent CArd, and around 8 million Japanese use it to for train and underground rides, and for purchasing items at station shops.

It's a contactless card, you only have to swipe it across the turnstile, ticketing machine or cash register. So why not build the SuiCa chip into a mobile phone? Here they are, six models from two manufacturers.

Not sure when you can buy concert tickets with these but by the time that happens the only thing you need for a Norah Jones concert is a SuiCa phone with a lighter wallpaper.

Sushi Etiquette 101

Eating sushi in Japan is more than a culinary experience. It's a way of life (as seems to be the case with most things here in Japan). Not sure if this instruction film is a reliable guide for the uninitiated, but anyway it's too funny not to share.

Ah well, si ce n'est pas vrai c'est bien trouvé, the French would say.

Don't be evil! Now with 600 hours of free search results!

It sounded good while it lasted. But in its desperation to keep AOL from crossing over to the Microsoft camp, Google has finally lost its virginity. AOL will be helped with securing favourable placement in Google's search results by getting the inside track on how to optimize web pages for Google's algorithm. And it will place links to AOL videos in the Google Video Search homepage that will not be marked as advertising.

The New York Times, bringer of these bad tidings (registration required), even claims that Microsoft when it was faced with exactly the same demands "refused, calling the request unethical."

Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Welcome to the Mile High Bloggers' Club

After mobile phone blogging we can now also add airborne blogging to the toolkit. This is my first post from 11,000 metres, thanks to Connexion by Boeing on a Singapore Airlines 747 en route from Singapore to Tokyo.

I guess this gives the Mile High Club a whole new meaning...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Come On Baby, Phone My Fire

Mobile phone functionality increases by the day. Remember those Simon&Garfunkel concerts? No way you could go there without a lighter, because at some point the Sounds of Silence would fill the air. As would tens of thousands of lighters, lazily waved around by yearning yuppies as a moody memento to their teenage frustrations.

Can you picture it, in this day and age? Absolutely, thanks to ModTones. Mariah Carey croons Don't Forget About Us and fifty thousand cellphones with lighter wallpapers take to the air. The fire brigade will be happy, too.

Gmail goes mobile. Hurray!

This post has been sent from my Nokia N70, from my Gmail account. Google has opened up its service to mobile users across the world (and not only in the US, as some websites mistakenly claimed).

Also makes blogging from your mobile phone quite a bit easier. Small complaint, though: attachments have fallen victim to the drive for maximum simplicity on the tiny mobile screens. So no pictures with mobile posts.

Go to if you don't mind being part of Google's next step towards ubiquity.

Friday, December 16, 2005

68 Years ago: topsy-turvy transistor

This is the moment that started it all, exactly 68 years ago. On December 16th, 1947, William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented the transistor. It happened at Bell Labs, where December 1947 since then is known as 'Miracle Month'.

This was possibly the most important invention of the 20th century. Apart from that it looks like it was cobbled together by a couple of kids in a hurry.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

11 Years to the day: Net escapes command line interface

It's only 11 years ago: on December 15th, 1994 a startup called Netscape Communications launched version 1.0 of a browser called Netscape Navigator.

Tim Berners-Lee may have invented the browser, but Marc Andreesen and his pals gave it a GUI. Et la reste était litérature, the French would say at this point, were it not for the fact that their language effectively got marginalized by the same series of events.

False dreams of White Christmas

This year the Bushes are sending Christmas cards with Happy Holiday Greetings, instead of Merry Christmas. The Presidential couple is getting heavy flack from their religious pals for this, but I think they're trendsetters. Samsung are trendsetters, too - just take a look at their mobile phones. This is Samsung Plaza in Bundang, Seoul. A bit gaudy, but a refreshing change vs the boring old fir tree concept. Plus, no religious connotations as an added bonus.

Beats shopping in Singapore's usual 30 degrees C and 90% humidity while Bing Crosby falsely promises you a white Christmas, though.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Advertising, the Korean way

In the average city in the world your senses get assaulted by around 3000 commercial messages per day.

With local variations, of course. In Seoul it's more like 10,000 a day, if you ask me. This is Bundang, one of Seoul's suburbs.

In marketing, QR rules. RFID doesn't

Nokia has announced a version of its 3220 phone that interacts with RFID chips, tiny little chips that can be embedded in anything in order to provide information about whereabouts, identity, and whatnot.

MobileMentalism makes a lot of hay about its possibilities. Once RFIDs are sitting in billboards and poster, you can swipe your phone and immediately get connected to the website where you can make reservations or buy the advertised product, they say. Don't think so.

First, everybody has to start embedding RFIDs in all kinds of media. Secondly, RFIDs are already being put in US passports and there'll be a privacy backlash against them before you know it.

And thirdly, there already is a technology that enables us to do all of that. It's in everybody's pocket and to interact with it all you have to do is print a code on your advertising medium. Americans may not know it yet, but Japanese do. The technology is the cameraphone, and de codes are QR (Quick Response). QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes that can contain information like URLs, email addresses, or even contact details such as on a name card. Even low-res camphones can be used to take a picture of such a code, whether it sits on a name card, magazine ad, poster or even a billboard.

Northwest Airlines had one up on a building in Tokyo's Ginza the other day that measured several meters, so it could be photographed from a distance. The code took you straight to Northwest's reservations website. Response percentages exceeded those of other media. I've also met several people in Japan who had one on their namecard, enabling you to import their contact details straight into your phone.

Forget about RFID. QR codes rule. Watch this space.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Lost in translation

The Wall Street Journal has a long and funny article about the utter confusion in China about the word 'stakeholder'. As in 'China needs to become a responsible stakeholder in the international community'. Since this has become official US foreign policy, American diplomats like to use the phrase.

This reminds me of the problems you have as an honest Direct Marketer in China. There is no word for 'Direct Marketing' in China. The closest translation is 'Direct Selling', which was forbidden by law until quite recently. It's one of those situations where understanding the language is not enough - you have to understand cultural aspects as well. American diplomats should know better, as understanding cultural aspects is typically part of a diplomat's job description.

Unfortunately US diplomats seem to master only one language these days: Business School English (BS English). The fact that American diplomats and politicians these days only speak about stakeholders, efficiency, accountability and delivering results is becoming a form of cultural poverty. Even my favourite publication the Economist writes about the need to reform Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. Reform? It's a shrine, for Pete's sake, not a pension system! Dwarves and gnomes these people are, trying to do the fashionable thing and come across as businessmen, rather than leaders or visionaries.

For shock treatment I recommend reading the American Declaration of Independence. During the past centuries, our standard of living has improved. Business has improved since those days, but politician apparently have not.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Dutch Intelligence Service not worth its name

Intelligence scandal in the Netherlands. Not in the usual sense of the word, though. Normally this would mean that intelligence leaked to the public. On the surface, this is what happened to the AIVD, the Dutch intelligence service. They left some floppy disks with sensitive information in a company car that was subsequently sold.

Floppy disks?! In 2005?? Sounds like there is very little intelligence that can leak out of the Dutch AIVD...

Kofi Annan signals another Hallmark Moment

Remember what day it is today? If you do, you don't live in China, because it won't be in the newspapers on the reading walls all over the country. UN Secretary Kofi Annan did remember, though. And he uses the occasion to remind some of his members that torture is bad.

Which UN member would he have in mind? No idea. Happy Human Rights Day, Kofi.

1954: "The home computer of the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons"

Another day, another milestone. Douglas Englebart got it all completely right in 1968. But 14 years earlier, Popular Mechanics got it completely wrong: this is their idea of the Home Computer of the future, published in the December 10th, 1954 issue. Still, it's funny to see how future PCs were viewed through the eyes of 1950s technology. Plus, you have to give them credit for predicting the fact that the computer would hit the home at all.

Unfortunately, it all turned out to be a hoax. The image was a cleverly manipulated version of a real photograph (shown here) that depicted a "full-scale mock-up of a typical nuclear-powered submarine's maneuvering room", part of a Smithsonian exhibit.

But let's face it, it's still a nice illustration of the fact that our predictions of the future are often highly inaccurate. A quote attributed to a 1949 edition of Popular Mechanics states that "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." And Ken Olson, of Digital Equipment Corp is famously quoted as postulating, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

Friday, December 09, 2005

Mother of All Demos celebrates 37th birthday

37 Years ago today saw an historic event that has thoroughly influenced all our lives.

In what has come to be known as the 'Mother of All Demos' Douglas Engelbart demonstrated the first computer mouse, hypertext, screen windowing, computer presentation (such as PowerPoint), online system,and other modern computing concepts at the Fall Joint Computer Expo in San Francisco on December 9, 1968.

Funded by ARPA, NASA, and the US Air Force, the oNLine System (NLS) was designed around an SDS 940 time-sharing computer with a 96 MB storage disk. It could support up to 16 workstations.

The system was completely set up to demonstrate network technology, which at the time was still part of the future. Each workstation consisted of a raster-scan monitor, a three-button mouse, and a device known as a chord keyset. The input from the keyboard was sent to a 5-inch CRT monitor, which was enclosed by a special cover and a "superimposed" video image was then received by a professional-quality black-and-white TV camera. The TV camera information was then sent to a closed-circuit Camera Control and Patch Panel, and, finally, displayed on each workstation's video monitor.

The landmark 90 minute session gave a true glimpse of the future. It showed things like object addressing, dynamic file linking, and shared-screen collaboration. NLS was linked via leased telephone lines to ARC members in Menlo Park, California and the main display of the presentation was on a large 20 foot projection screen with Engelbart addressing the audience wearing a headset.

At this point I'd like to remind you it was 1968.

Douglas Engelbart was a true visionary, The members of his team later went on to the famous Xerox PARC Lab, fuelling the fire that keeps Silicon Valley's virtual chimneys smoking to this day.

For phishing, there's the Internet; for everything else, there's MasterCard

So the final word is out: phishing is a lot more dangerous than identity theft. At least, that's what you might conclude from two studies that appeared almost simultaneously.

Yesterday AOL Time Warner, together with the thoroughly bureaucratic-sounding National Cyber Security Alliance, reported that you run a 25% chance of being targeted by phishers (thanks Reuters for the simple graphic). The next day saw fraud detection company ID Analytics releasing a report claiming that identity theft with credit cards is not that big a problem.

Turns out, it takes a lot more time faking an identity than reporting a stolen card, so for criminals it ain't worth the effort. Interestingly, the analysis also found out that the bigger the credit card security breach, the smaller the chance that you'll be the victim. There's a very logical explanation for this: fraudsters can use stolen identities at a rate of 100 to 250 times a year. So if someone hacks 40 million card accounts or so, the chance is less than 1 in 100,000 that the hacker steals your identity instead of someone else's.

That's vaguely reassuring.

Don't just stand around! Here, let me fix this

Interesting development. Last week an Israeli security expert discovered an Internet Explorer vulnerability that could be exploited via Google's Desktop Search. Although this was clearly a fault in IE itself, Google rather than Microsoft was the one who ended up patching the leak by adapting its Desktop Search software.

Does Google care more and better for the safety of its users' surfing experience than the other guy? Or is this the first victory for Google's business model over Microsoft's more traditional approach? Watch this space.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

And the wireless winner is....

Intel expanded its annual Wireless Hotspots Poll to Asia, and not too soon either. Clear winner was Pacific Coffee on Victoria Peak (weirdly shaped building in centre of picture), followed by Starbucks at Circular Quai in Sidney.

Wireless surfers clearly don't just sip coffee and read their email - they enjoy the view as well. Third place was for Suntec City Convention Centre in Singapore, which doesn't offer great views but much greater speeds and coverage over a larger surface and more restaurants. More than half of the Top Ten takes the scenic route: Shanghai's entertainment centre Xintiandi on 6, China's Great Wall on 7, HK's Ocean Centre with its stunning harbour view on 8, Korea's Jeju Island on 10.

In other words: view comes first, wireless network quality follows at some distance. Maybe companies on high floors should rethink their VPN filtering policies and cover up the windows instead.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rumour about a vague hint indirectly describing remote possibility of democracy

Hong Kong craves democracy. So much even that today's South China Morning Post is prepared to grasp every possible straw and making it the leader on the front page.

A quote (and I'm not making this up): 'The central government may hint in vague and indirect wording that there could be a possibility of reaching full democracy by 2017.'

Sounds like something straight out of The Onion. This is not grasping a straw. This is grasping the shadow of a hypothetical straw that might, just might, appear by the time the clouds that block the sun have moved.

Or not, of course. Meanwhile, I suggest the South China Morning Post leaves rumours to blogs.

Remembering Ray

On Thanksgiving, this most American of holidays, Ray Considine died. Author of The Great Brain Robbery and WAYMISH (Why Are You Making It So Hard [to give you my money]), we first met when he came out to Singapore, to do the keynote at DMAsia 2002, and stayed in contact ever since. Sales and Customer Relationship Guru pur sang, and Direct Marketer. There was no way not to be impressed by Ray, and his boundless energy in teaching the world about his favourite subjects. And now he's gone to the great Customer Services Department in the sky, where no call is ever monitored and every problem gets solved, and where response is always 100%. We'll miss you, Ray.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

New mass extinction reported

Paparazzi are a dying race. Unmourned too, if you ask me. Here is the final nail in their coffin: a tele lens for your camera phone. No more need for gossip magazine publishers to send in a horde of heavy lens-equipped hoodlums.

Of course this was invented in Japan, a country where people value privacy highly. From now on tread carefully because nowhere is safe any more.

Monday, December 05, 2005

We can't stop the accidents. But we do go a bit easier on the Patek Philippe ads these days

And here's the even dirtier underbelly of China's pollution problem: another lethal accident in the death traps they call mines. Fortunately this time the Shanghai Daily hasn't put a Patek Philippe ad next to the picture of another group of desperate survivors.

Pollution makes Hong Kong look like an old photograph

China has a huge pollution problem. It's getting so bad that the problems are not confined to China itself anymore.

This is Hong Kong, on an average day. Compare it with the ubiquitous pictures of Hong Kong's famous skyline, against a dazzling blue sky - haven't seen a day like that in a looong time. On a bad day you can hardly see across the harbour. There's one advantage, though: nowadays you don't need Photoshop to get that nostalgic 'sepia' effect at sunset...

Internet started life under another name, grew up; turns 36

Today it's 36 years ago the Internet's predecessor, ARPANet, became operational. In those days the whole network fitted on the proverbial napkin, in this case one belonging to Lawrence G. Roberts, the ARPA guy who headed up the project.

Larry Roberts presented his plan first at a symposium in 1967, got the budget, wrote the brief, and awarded the job to IT consultancy Bolt, Beranek and Newman. BBN built a network of four nodes. Each node was a small computer called an Interface Message Processor (IMP), the first routers ever built. They connected the four computers on the network using 56kbps digital links over leased lines.

The first of these links was established on November 21st, 1969, between UCLA and Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Ca. Two weeks later the network was up and running. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Empire strikes back

Liability warning pictograms enclosed with a remote control from a company in Tokyo that, incidentally, looks suspiciously like a B&O design. Americans often make fun of Japanese abuse of Engrish. So now Japan strikes back, ridiculing American liability culture? Note to readers: do not dry your pet in your microwave.

Talk to the Hand

European scientists have developed an artificial hand that can be hard wired into the body's nervous system, allowing touchy-feely signals to reach the brain.

Singaporean scientists are jealous. Why didn't they think of this? Installing an artificial hand in a strategic place in your home (say, your child's night table) enables parents who don't have time to come home to caress their kids and touch them reassuringly if something's wrong. Or then again, maybe that's not such a good idea.

Anyway, possibilities are endless and not only limited to replacing either body parts or Singaporean hugs. All that's needed is a little thinking out of the box.

For instance, you could even put audio sensors in the thing. Would give a whole new meaning to the increasingly popular expression 'Talk to the hand', as described in Lynne Truss's extremely entertaining book.