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?

During a trip to the US in 1993, I found this strange text embedded in a road in Washington D.C. and took a photograph of it:

toynbee.jpg

Having just read the novel ‘2001’ with its fantasy of possible next steps in the evolution of mankind and its mind, this was a cryptic, haunting message by an unknown troubled soul. I kept wondering about it over the years.

Others did, too: Googling the message over a decade later found a small documentary film project by a group of hobbyists. It turns out that these Toynbee Tiles had been found in several unexpected locations in and outside the U.S. and the story behind them appears to be a beautiful mystery worth making a film about it. They asked for dates and locations of Toynbee Tile sightings, so four years ago I sent them my 1993 photo and wished them best of luck.

And now, their handcrafted film is finished. It appears to be good: The documentary “Resurrect Dead” has been accepted to the Sundance Film Festival.

But the story doesn’t end here. Here’s an email the filmmakers sent me yesterday:

Hello Everyone in my Contact List,

For decades, hundreds of cryptic tiled messages have been embedded in the roads of cities, towns and highways from New York to Rio, Brazil. The mystery began in Philadelphia in the early 1980’s. The tiles all repeat a variation of the message:

‘TOYNBEE IDEA
IN KUBRICK’S 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER’

Half a decade ago, I became involved in a documentary project that investigated the ‘Toynbee Tiles.’ The story was a good one, and a few weeks ago the movie was accepted into the Sundance film festival. This is all great news, but I’m not writing you to brag about it.

Until now, the film has been self-financed by Philadelphia based director, editor, producer, writer, cameraman and score composer Jon Foy. And by self-finance, I mean that he paid for it with what he earned at his day job cleaning houses. His story proves that talent, hard work and perseverance can get a movie into the most prestigious film festival in the world… but that’s about it. Once it’s there you need some real money, real fast to see it through. There’s a final pressing of the film, merchandise, publicist, legal fees and a million other expenses, small and large.

And that’s why I’m writing you. Our 4-person team needs money and has started soliciting private donations via kickstarter.com to help raise it. You can read more about the project and watch a video here:

Resurrect Dead – A Sundance Documentary in Need of Your Help

If you can, please consider donating something to the project. Also, please help spread the word, by forwarding this message to anyone you know who might be willing to help. Any amount is appreciated and if you look at the gifts, you’ll see some incredible deals. For example, if this movie takes off even a little, a limited edition DVD signed by a suddenly famous director would be an instant collectible. Thanks for taking the time to read this solicitation/plea.”

While Jon already reached the original donation goal, he’s still in debt thanks to this movie. So dear readers, why not donate a bit more to get him and his team out of the red?

Update: The film team has set up a blog about their Sundance visit.

German tech journalist Volker Weber has an N900 to play with and he already has some insightful observations:

“I like it. Not as a phone, but as an adventure. This will be a fun ride. [more..]

The N900 has zero navigation buttons. The iPhone has one. While the iPhone is easy to understand, the N900 is not. A beginner will have a steep learning curve. The first thing you have to learn is that the Maemo 5 UI has four distinct layers you need to be aware of: [more..]”

Four years ago, Ubuntu Linux replaced XP as my main desktop OS at the office and at home. Most things work fine, with some major annoyances left (see below).

Now that we want to upgrade our computers at home, these annoyances feel big enough that I now consider switching to a Mac. Are there other people here who went from Linux to Mac? I’d like to hear your comments if the following things are nicer in OS X.

  • Mail, Calendar, Contact Management and Sync

    Gnome Evolution is the default mail client of Ubuntu. Tried it with each new release, but after all these years, it’s still a big clunky mess. It stalls every now and then, is slow with IMAP and forgets calendar data. Evolution syncs with mobile devices, but not with mine. Thunderbird is a much nicer mail client, but it’s not integrated with Gnome as well and it doesn’t sync. KDE is still recovering from its 4.”zero” release and doesn’t feel usable yet, so I didn’t try its solutions for this problem.

    I “just” want to read my messages, deal with appointments and remember people’s address and birthday data and sync all these to my computers at home and at work and to my mobile devices (an iPod Classic and a semi-old, dumb Nokia phone).

  • Photo management

    My wife and I love to take photographs. But we both want to work on these photos as a single collection. Right now, we use f-spot on a single computer. f-spot is somewhat okay, but slow and it crashes sometimes. It expects photos on the local hard drive, not on a network share.

    Is there a solution to manage one private photo collection on two computers if it’s not on the local drive?

  • iPod Management

    Our drm-free music collection (flac and mp3) lies on a network share. With gtkpod and a samba mount on the local 100mbit network, it took over 20 hours to fill my iPod (and no, it’s not really a big collection). Banshee and Rhythmbox were slow as hell, as well. Amarok didn’t even play sound from Gnome in Ubuntu Jaunty. All of these apps expect your music on your local drive, not on the network.

    And after all this, gtkpod reported lots of dangling files after it tried to build the proprietary file hierarchy of the iPod (thanks, Apple, for trying to shut out iTunes alternatives, you inconsiderate prick).

    What is an elegant way to handle an iPod with Linux when your music is not stored on the local drive?

The Mac is beginning to look a lot nicer, with its polished photo software and working calendar/contact management and sync. (Well, is it working? Apparently it does, haven’t heard people complaining so far.)

On the other hand, Ubuntu has served me well. It works with cheaper hardware and there’s no need to buy iLife or invest in regular OS X upgrades. (Even my mother is using Ubuntu, mostly because she wanted to surf the net and nothing else. And I can easily help her from 200km away with remote desktop sharing.)

So I’m conflicted. Stay with Linux? Move to OS X? Or does it suck just like any other OS?

The Smart Q5 MID – now this might be a device for Mer: ARM11 cpu, WiFi, Bluetooth, 1G storage, SD-slot, 800×480 screen, touchscreen and a sub-150$ price tag. (Now that price sounds way too good to be true!) Originally designed to run Ubuntu for ARM, but seems to have everything needed for Mer / Maemo.

20090313001-thumb

By the way, where is the next Nokia tablet hardware?