A follow-up to the previous article Gaming the Long Tail:

Guy Delisle’s Shenzen sells for about $15 and is about 150 pages long.

Now if you look for it on Amazon, you will also find an “e-book” that is a two page review of that book. Two pages! For only $9.95! This is just an article from a magazine, and there are close to 7 thousand like it in Amazon’s product database. These e-books have no upfront publishing costs (like, actually printing a book) and their sole purpose is to spam the Amazon product index and hope for someone to mistake the e-book for the actual book.

Now comes another spammer (most likely not affiliated with the e-book “publisher”) who takes the Amazon product database and pours affiliate links into Twitter, thus advertising the faux e-book.

How did I stumble over these things? Because I’m reading Guy Delisle’s new book right now, then heard that he is at a conference right now that people tweeted about and went to Twitter search to see what people write about his appearance. And there in Twitter’s search result this e-book appeared. The long tail effect in action.

Both Amazon and Twitter are at fault for this. They both could easily identify abuse with Amazon affiliate IDs and remove those. Hey, Twitter, is it really that difficult to identify and block a bot like this?

My first little app for Android is out there. Cursed a lot, but had fun, will write more.

  • To get up and running was less than an hour. Great.
  • Michael wrote the original iPhone version, sent me screenshots, I wrote a native Android version based on his app. Ha!
  • Norbert tried to write the same app in Appcelerator Titanium for iPhone and Android. He progressed way faster than Michael and I did, but then hit the wall. Weird bugs and spotty SDK support, some stuff worked on iPhone but not on Android.
  • It’s nice to work with low resources and computing power again. Feels just like 25 years ago. Nice.
  • The Android SDK is shiny. But it gets even more shiny for later versions of Android. Yet you keep stumbling into stuff where you wish you could use the more elegant later versions. “Don’t use this, this is deprecated!” yell the docs, “use x instead, but x is marked Android versions 3.0 and up. Google recommends that you develop for 2.1 or 2.2 up, so I use the deprecated stuff.
  • This is extremely frustrating. I wish I could just develop for Android 4. Thanks to Google’s inability to stop the market’s fragmentation of Android versions, this will not happen for a long time.
  • It’s difficult to build nice user interfaces and to avoid jerky animations. Michael’s iPhone app looks and feels a lot more smooth than mine on Android.
  • Boy, it’s sad that Maemo/Meego got killed. They had Python on a phone! And real Linux SDKs! Why did it have to be this weird Frankenjava for Android?
  • Stackoverflow rules supreme. Say, how did we develop software before this?
  • The “Play” app market sucks. It feels like there is no chance in hell for a small unknown app to get noticed in that spam-infested dirthole.
  • Worse: The other markets suck even more than “Play”. It’s strange that you need to consider several markets in the first place. But then try to publish something there. Most of these alternative markets look like a collection of broken half-baked forms hacked up in PHP3 by the CEO’s teenage nephew. Forms that forget their content because of a missing required field – is it 1997 again? Try to modify the description of your app and one site will reject the form submit because the app’s name already exists in the database. D’oh. And each market wants the developer to implement their proprietary DRM scheme. Why, sure!
  • It’s tough to get noticed. I feel sorry for the journalists, they must be getting bombarded with “please review our app” requests like, uhm, mine. Tried to contact a few who wrote “Apps for Kids” articles in the past and there was little to no response.
  • See all those cute “apps for kids” blogs that claim to be mums who enjoy writing about apps they like? Well, don’t try to look behind the curtain. Contacted a few and the response I got was a pricelist. Payola. Seems like many of those blogs are SEO projects and/or a scam.
  • Then again, maybe there is simply no market for our app. It’s the Kids’ Music Player App for iOS and Android. If you have little kids (2-6 years old), go check it out or spread the word about it. Our kids like it a lot.

Why the Android app market sucks, why it’s hard to believe that Twitter is so stupid and why Amazon should do something about books made from spam (yes, books! made from spam!)

We’ve all been in love with the principle of the long tail since about a decade by now. And yes, I too think it’s great: The combination of internet technology, giant pools of content and search indexing brought all of us instant access to a vast sea of information where we can easily pinpoint the stuff that we want to know, no matter how obscure our interest is.

Now the problem is: There is a weak link. And it’s the search index.

If you can automate publishing to the content pool, putting up lots of content basically turns free. And thus a new business model is born: Spamming the search index.

This is how it works: Pay someone to write stuff or take some random content from a public source and remix it. Make sure it’s indexed for search. Then wait until someone will find it.

The web is full of this. You’ve seen the splogs, you’ve seen the keyword spam sites, designed to fill the Google search index, made to lure you to a trap that is plastered with ads or affiliate links or drive-by-malware or whatever.

Google has identified this problem. The pagerank algorithm and a whole team of engineers is dedicated to reducing this nuisance and to make sure that this stuff is removed from the search index or at least doesn’t turn up on the first pages of your search results.

But Amazon hasn’t.

And that’s why we now have publishers that more-or-less-automatically write thousands of nonsensical overprized books from Wikipedia and Creative Commons content with the help of a content bot.

They then put it up on Amazon and next time a user looks for a book on some topic, one from this scam will turn up and eventually be bought. Ka-ching.

It’s an ebook or sold as a book printed on demand. These guys just put up thousands of “books” like this and have no additional upfront-costs at all.

It gets worse.

Amazon’s highly effective affiliate link marketing system makes sure that these books will turn up everywhere outside of Amazon on websites using the ubiquitous Amazon advertisement system.

And even worse.

Amazon has become the de-facto standard provider of product information databases. And this is why you will find books like these on product websites all over the web. Because they all feed on Amazon’s product index.

And all this mess just because the spammers were able to inject their stuff to the Amazon product index. This scam is so successful that there are now several companies doing just that.

Now look at Twitter’s search. Try to search for anything and you will always, always trip over dozens Twitter accounts that post just on thing: Gibberish, blog spam and affiliate links to Amazon, all day, using abridged product descriptions. These accounts are robots and their only purpose is to fill the Twitter search index.

While I keep pressing the “report spam” button for these accounts, Twitter doesn’t remove them. Worse, it’s hard to believe they need my help to detect these accounts in the first place. How hard can it be for a semi-talented database programmer to detect a robo account with 25 thousand tweets of affiliate links? And is it really that difficult to keep a list of blocked affiliate IDs from known spam accounts?

Next, let’s examine Google’s “Play” app store for Android. And its index is filled with spam, again. Developers put up dozens of the same malware app, only with different graphics or sounds just to make sure that users will be lured into the trap, again. To enlarge the number of possible victims, they use robo-translation to publish their app to foreign markets: Try to surf “Play” in German, most of the app descriptions appear to be written by Dadaists. Obviously, customer ratings and user reviews are not enough to choose relevance for app search results.

Please, Amazon. Please, Twitter. Clean up your search index. The solution to this mess would be to do what Google did to web search: Remove the spam content or at least make it far far less prominent. And so it’s doubly embarassing that the same company that tackled this problem for web search is running that spam-infested dirthole called “Play”.

Here’s why our company never bought Sun Microsystems hardware.

Some years ago, at a technology road show, Sun handed out this ballpoint pen. For free, which is nice. Everybody loves a free ballpoint pen.

Since the age of cavemen, millions of years of experience with using ballpoint pens has engraved human brains with the instinctive knowledge that to use it, you just need to push the button at the top.

Not this one. You have to twist it, which is the second thing our subconscious brain does when there is no button to press.

But there is a button at the top of this ballpoint pen. It will light up a cool, but utterly useless blue LED.

So every time you happened to grab this ballpoint pen, you would instinctively turn on a meaningless blue light effect first, feel annoyed about it, turn it off and then twist it.

This pen lasted quite a while and it always reminded me how annoying Sun Microsystems was. So this week, the pen finally ran out of ink. The light still works. There are three button cell batteries inside, considered hazardous waste. To dispose of them properly, I now have to bring them to a recycling centre.

Ok, so this story isn’t really true. The true reason we never bought Sun hardware was that we were happy with vanilla x86 hardware running Linux. But boy, what an annoying pen.

Received this email message to my .de address today:

Subject: “Subject for German customers”

“Dear Sir or Madam,

this is a default email message that gets sent out automatically in the licensed version.
This is written in English. However it might be better changed it to German language since only email addresses who end with *.de will get this message.

With best Regards
Email Spider —
Attention! Please never use our software to spam other people.”

Director Steven Lisberger about his movie Tron [at 3:30 in the video]:

“We were worried about being taken over by this ‘1984’ sensibility of computer data being gathered on all of us and not having access to it. The PC didn’t exist. You couldn’t really get a small computer unless you knew how to work in machine language. And we thought: Well, if everybody could just get their hands on their information and manipulate it and become part of the web, well, then the world would be perfect. Obviously, this is what happened. But the world isn’t perfect.

[In 1982,] I informed 10-year-olds that this might be the future. And they really dug it. But their parents just went to a Disney film with them that was [supposed to be] a family film that had a whole lot of things in it they had never heard of and didn’t understand. People are offended by change when it comes from a direction they didn’t expect. So they went next door and watched E.T. three times.

But their kids did not forget this film. And then, when the PC showed up, they said: Oh yeah, I know what this is about. And they became this digital generation.”

This isn’t true. Back then, the first cheap home computers were available to the general public and the PC as we know it today was introduced a year before Tron was released.

Then again, it is true. I was 10 years old when Tron was released and Steven Lisberger’s quote describes my mindset since then.

But honestly, Tron also was a wonderfully silly movie and we kids just enjoyed it for its visuals and popcorn appeal and laughed at the corny story. Come on, it featured a flying Bit!

Did it prepare us for the things to come?

Lieber Olaf Scholz,

nun willst Du* also den glücklosen Interimsdilletanten Ahlhaus beerben und Bürgermeister von Hamburg werden.

Der Wahlkampf ist im vollen Gange und Fototermine sind wichtig. Nächsten Samstag wirst Du beim Netzcamp der SPD Hamburg sprechen. Vielleicht nur ein weiterer kurzer Termin für den Wahlkampf, schnell mal Hände schütteln, für die Fotografen vor einem Bildschirm posieren, Blitzlicht abwarten, dann weiter zum nächsten Termin.

Das wäre auch ok, aber irgendwie schade.

Gelegentlich lese ich begeistert, was einige SPDler zum Internet zu sagen haben, Deine Partei hat hervorragende Leute zum Thema Netzpolitik. Du, Olaf, lässt Dich sogar schon heute von einigen von ihnen beraten. Hervorragend.

Nur immer dann, wenn es drauf ankommt – zuletzt z.B. bei Themen wie der Online-Durchsuchung, Copyright, Internetsperren, JMstG – hörte die SPD leider nicht auf die Experten aus den eigenen Reihen, sondern auf die Wiefelspütze, Gornys und Dörmänner. (Der SPD-Onlinebeirat der SPD war darüber so frustriert, dass er sich schließlich entleibte, ohne dass es jemand in der Partei bemerkte.)

Damit folgte die SPD bei vielen Grundsatzentscheidungen zuletzt zu häufig dem inzwischen schon tragischen Missverständnis der Konservativen in Bezug auf das Internet. Für das konservative Weltbild mit seinem Wunsch nach Obrigkeit und dem Anspruch auf Autorität erscheint das Internet nicht als gute Sache, sondern als ein Problem, das reguliert, kontrolliert, beschnitten, verhindert werden muss.

Auch Du hast Dich jüngst leider dazu hinreißen lassen, der CDU zu versprechen, dass mit Dir eine Vorratsdatenspeicherung ja gar kein Problem wäre. Das war wohl als kleine Gemeinheit gegen die FDP gemeint, doch nein, es war keine tolle Idee von Dir. Einige der lautesten Aktivisten gegen die VDS sind in der SPD. Rede bei sowas doch vorher mal mit denen.

Hamburg, die Stadt, die Du regieren willst, hat eine relativ florierende Internet-Wirtschaft. Naja, relativ, ich kenne so einige Gründer, die inzwischen weniger begeistert sind. Weil die deutsche Netzpolitik so erratisch ist. Wie schizophren z.B. unser Datenschutz ist, durfte der Hamburger Datenschutzbeauftragte ja gerade persönlich feststellen.

Du könntest der erste Regionalfürst werden, der mit einer Vorreiterrolle in der Netzpolitik auch einen Standortvorteil für seine IT-Wirtschaft definiert.

Hat die SPD inzwischen eine positive Vision zum Internet?

Sag Du es mir. Vielleicht wäre es ja ein Grund, Dich zu wählen.

* Sehr geehrter Herr Scholz, Ihr Genossen duzt Euch alle. Wir im Internet auch. Ich hoffe, Du hast nichts dagegen.

Die c’t hat mal wieder LCD-TVs und Bluray-Player getestet. Natürlich sind Sonderfunktionen wie Youtube, Online-Videothek, Widgets nette kostenlose Beigaben, aber was hat man davon, wenn Websites ihre APIs ändern oder der VOD-Service eingestellt wird und man kein Update mehr für die Firmware erhält?

Der Youtube-Client meines LG-BD390-Bluray-Players ist nett, doch kann er die jetzt verfügbaren HD-Videos von Youtube nicht herunterladen, obwohl die Hardware diese abspielen könnte. Der integrierte Videoplayer spielt Filme vom Fileserver aus dem lokalen Netz, hat aber seine Macken. Das neue WebM-Format wird er wohl nicht nachträglich lernen.

Das Bluray-Format ist noch immer im Fluss: Hersteller LG weiß seit Monaten von Abspielproblemen im Regiekommentar von populären Titeln wie “Oben” oder “Wall-E”. Auch bei Basisfunktionen hakt es: Damit das Gerät Filme tonsynchron an einem LCD-TV des gleichen Herstellers abspielt, muss man Einstellungen im versteckten Service-Menu des TV-Geräts ändern.

Firmware-Updates zu diesen Problemen gibt es nicht, LG kümmert sich um die nächste Gerätereihe. Testberichte zählen Features auf, doch man erfährt wenig über die Firmware-Pflege der Hersteller in den Monaten oder Jahren nach dem Kauf.

Da ja eh alle Linux benutzen, wird man sich hoffentlich mittelfristig auf Standards einigen. Meego oder Android wären eine Möglichkeit: Youtube, Videoplayer & Co. will ich lieber als externe Apps nachinstallieren statt allein vom Gerätehersteller abhängig zu sein.

Es kam Wehmut auf, als ich den über 20 Jahre alten Sony Walkman bei ebay reinstellte.

Unser Töchterchen wird wohl nicht mehr erfahren, was eine Audiocassette ist. Vinyl haben nur noch ihre Großeltern. Minidisc hatte ich einst, DAT war mir damals zu teuer, DCC war schon bei Markteintritt gescheitert. Sie alle hatten nur ein kurzes Gastspiel als Tonträger.

Die CD ist auch auf dem Weg nach draußen. Wir sind zu Hause gerade dabei, alle unsere Compact Discs als FLAC-Dateien auf dem privaten Fileserver abzulegen, die Tonträger selbst verstauben im Keller. Das Komplettwerk der Beatles wird jetzt ganz offiziell auf einem USB-Stick in Apfelform verkauft.

Als Kind habe ich über das alte Tonbandgerät meines Onkels gestaunt. 8-Track kenne ich nur aus alten Filmen. Mein Schwiegervater erzählt mir von Lochkarten und -streifen. Bei mir ging es mit 8-Zoll Floppies in der Schule und 5,25-Zoll Floppies zu Hause los.

Seit Jahren keine Floppy mehr gebraucht.

Den alten Walkman wollte keiner haben, der erste Auktionsversuch endete ohne Gebot.

Pirate Bunny Pink by geishaboy500 on flickr

Hallo Piratenpartei, Du ehemals wilder Haufen. Man hört so gar nichts mehr von Dir. Machst Du eigentlich noch was? So richtig Opposition, mit Forderungen, Vorschlägen und konkreter politischer Arbeit? Lass doch mal wieder von Dir hören. Ach ja, und werde doch bitte Deinen rechten Freundeskreis los. Der schlechte Umgang bekommt Dir nicht gut.