musing about spam and recession

Noticed a cartoon in today’s Wall Street Journal suggesting that with the credit crunch and the stock market slide, we weren’t going to be inundated with credit card applications in the post.

And it made me wonder. Is spam recession proof? Will it fragment? Will I continue to get Nigerian begging letters and pharmaceutical offers but no more loans and cards? Or shall I get even more credit repair offers?

I wonder.

Follow the money

Deep Throat: Follow the money.
Bob Woodward: What do you mean? Where?
Deep Throat: Oh, I can’t tell you that.
Bob Woodward: But you could tell me that.
Deep Throat: No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that’s all. Just… follow the money.

All The President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein, 1974

Identity theft. Mmhmm. A term that hasn’t been around that long. Just what gets “stolen”? Maybe Mitchell and Webb can help us understand that: just watch this clip. [Thanks to Kevin Marks for giving me the tweet-up.]

Of True Believers and Convenient Ends

The passage below is from Gulliver’s Travels, Dean Jonathan Swift, Chapter 4. Amazingly out of copyright. [Shorely shum mishtake? Ed.]

One Morning, about a Fortnight after I had obtained my Liberty, Reldresal, Principal Secretary (as they style him) of private Affairs, came to my House, attended only by one Servant. He ordered his Coach to wait at a distance, and desired I would give him an Hour’s Audience; which I readily consented to, on account of his Quality, and Personal Merits, as well as the many good Offices he had done me during my Sollicitations at Court. I offered to lie down, that he might the more conveniently reach my Ear; but he chose rather to let me hold him in my hand during our Conversation. He began with Compliments on my Liberty; said he might pretend to some Merit in it: but, however, added, that if it had not been for the present Situation of things at Court, perhaps I might not have obtained it so soon. For, said he, as flourishing a Condition as we may appear to be in to Foreigners, we labor under two mighty Evils; a violent Faction at home, and the Danger of an Invasion by a most potent Enemy from abroad. As to the first, you are to understand, that for above seventy Moons past there have been two struggling Parties in this Empire, under the Names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan, from the high and low Heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves. It is alleged indeed, that the high Heels are most agreeable to our ancient Constitution: But however this be, his Majesty has determined to make use of only low Heels in the Administration of the Government, and all Offices in the Gift of the Crown, as you cannot but observe; and particularly, that his Majesty’s Imperial Heels are lower at least by a Drurr than any of his Court; (Drurr is a Measure about the fourteenth Part of an Inch). The Animositys between these two Parties run so high, that they will neither eat nor drink, nor talk with each other. We compute the Tramecksan, or High-Heels, to exceed us in number; but the Power is wholly on our Side. We apprehend his Imperial Highness, the Heir to the Crown, to have some Tendency towards the High-Heels; at least we can plainly discover one of his Heels higher than the other, which gives him a Hobble in his Gait. Now, in the midst of these intestine Disquiets, we are threatened with an Invasion from the Island of Blefuscu, which is the other great Empire of the Universe, almost as large and powerful as this of his Majesty. For as to what we have heard you affirm, that there are other Kingdoms and States in the World inhabited by human Creatures as large as yourself, our Philosophers are in much doubt, and would rather conjecture that you dropt from the Moon, or one of the Stars; because it is certain, that a hundred Mortals of your Bulk would, in a short time, destroy all the Fruits and Cattle of his Majesty’s Dominions. Besides, our Histories of six thousand Moons make no mention of any other Regions, than the two great Empires of Lilliput and Blefuscu. Which two mighty Powers have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate War for six and thirty Moons past. It began upon the following Occasion. It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive way of breaking Eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty’s Grand-father, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penaltys, to break the smaller End of their Eggs. The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us there have been six Rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown. These civil Commotions were constantly fomented by the Monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the Exiles always fled for Refuge to that Empire. It is computed, that eleven thousand Persons have, at several times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End. Many hundred large Volumes have been published upon this Controversy: But the books of the Big-Endians have been long forbidden, and the whole Party rendered incapable by Law of holding Employments. During the Course of these Troubles, the Emperors of Blefuscu did frequently expostulate by their Ambassadors, accusing us of making a Schism in Religion, by offending against a fundamental Doctrine of our great Prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth Chapter of the Brundrecal (which is their Alcoran.) This, however, is thought to be a meer Strain upon the Text: For the Words are these: That all true Believers shall break their Eggs at the convenient End: and which is the convenient End, seems, in my humble Opinion, to be left to every Man’s Conscience, or at least in the power of the Chief Magistrate to determine. Now the Big-Endian Exiles have found so much Credit in the Emperor of Blefuscu‘s Court, and so much private Assistance and Encouragement from their Party here at home, that a bloody War has been carried on between the two Empires for six and thirty Moons with various Success; during which time we have lost forty Capital Ships, and a much greater number of smaller Vessels, together with thirty thousand of our best Seamen and Soldiers; and the Damage received by the Enemy is reckon’d to be somewhat greater than Ours. However, they have now equipped a numerous Fleet, and are just preparing to make a Descent upon us; and his Imperial Majesty, placing great Confidence in your Valour and Strength, has commanded me to lay this Account of his affairs before you.

I desired the Secretary to present my humble Duty to the Emperor, and to let him know, that I thought it would not become Me, who was a Foreigner, to interfere with Parties; but I was ready, with the hazard of my Life, to defend his Person and State against all Invaders.

Blefuscu and Lilliput. Two states that waged war on each other, just because they chose to eat their boiled eggs differently.  One started at the Big End, the other at the Little End.

Some of you commented on my “polarisation” piece yesterday, and I thought I’d take that particular aspect of the discussion forward. After all, it’s a bit like Blefuscu and Lilliput.

I think there are three aspects to this:

One, we’re seeing a battle between those who are technically literate and those who aren’t as yet, the dinosaurs versus the newbies.

I have witnessed and experienced many polarised debates in IT over the last 30 years, particularly since opensource became a viable option, and, ever since OSX, even including a couple of Microsoft versus Apple sessions. Yet those debates pass into insignificance when you look at the way people get passionate about the social media tools they use. And I think there’s a reason for it. It’s what Kathy Sierra called the KoolAid Point, if I remember correctly. We’re seeing something new: those who were historically not techno-literate are now finding it easy to use these tools, tools that have themselves been the exclusive domain of the techno-literate. And the newbies will not give in without a fight, they’ve moved past the point of “your system doesn’t work” to that of “my system doesn’t work”. So they’re passionate. Which is a good thing.

Two, we’re seeing a battle between those who “manage stuff” and those who “do stuff”, the management professionals versus the software professionals.

This polarisation first came into my view when I saw the opensource-versus-vendor debates open up; I was expecting the arguments to run on technical and commercial grounds, and wasn’t prepared for the venom I faced when I espoused opensource many years ago. It took me a while to realise just how many people “manage” technical matters, reducing what they do to a variant of contract and purchase order management. They are so keen to become “the business” that they forget their primary role, to advise on, construct and deliver technical solutions to business problems. Rather than outsource operations, or even segments of development, they outsource thinking. Vendors exploit this (who could blame them) and this in turn leads to polarised arguments. This is a bad thing, and needs to be sorted out. Cue VRM.

Three, we’re seeing a battle between the “deliver-fast” versus the ‘deliver-right”. 

I think it was Rupert Murdoch who said: Big won’t beat small any more. Fast will beat slow. This is probably the most contentious of the polarisations. Most people have grown up with the idea that cost, time and quality are variables you need to trade off against each other, and as a result refuse to accept the concept of faster, better, cheaper even as a possibility. Agile techniques, fast iteration and fail-fast principles get them very upset indeed. [I have been flamed more often for this particular set of beliefs than any other beliefs, strangely enough.] Much of what is the Web; much of what is Web 2.0; much of what is Social Media; all these are predicated on internet time, on functional integrity with incremental functionality, on perennial betas, on feedback loops and fix-as-we-go.

All these three polarisations are themselves cutting across the San Andreas fault running through technology (or maybe it should be the Berlin Wall). Whatever it is, the tectonic plates have shifted. The Wall has come down. There is no more a Holy of Holies where the IT industry can hide.

We’re not the first profession to face this, and we won’t be the last. Priests, doctors and lawyers have all faced this before us, and accountants are facing it now. We can all no longer use inconvenient languages and esoteric jargon to separate us and protect our professions; we can all no longer walk around saying “this is complex, you won’t understand it”; and we can all no longer act arrogant about what we do, to the detriment of our customers.

All these three polarisations are about one thing and one thing only: the customer is in control.

You better believe it.

The Becuase Effect (sic)

The latest issue of the New Scientist poses an interesting question in its Feedback column:

Is that rigth?

LIKE so many Feedback readers, Graham Barrow has an enquiring mind and a zest for research. So when he found himself wondering how common his most frequent misspellings were, he went straight to a famous web search engine to find out. As a consultant specialising in training, he regularly miskeys that word and types “traiing” instead. He is not alone. The FWSE tells him there are 52,700 pages on the web containing the word.

That pales into insignificance compared with the next word he tried – “rigth” – which appears 733,000 times (and which has often appeared in draft versions of this column). But even “rigth” is a minnow compared with the last word he checked. “Becuase”, he points out, sounds like it ought to be a treatment for hay fever. If it was, it would be a very popular one, since it appears no fewer than 4,950,000 times in the FWSE’s listing.

Barrow leaves us with a challenge. Is “becuase” the most common typo in the English language? Or can readers find a more popular one?

Common misspellings on the internet. Now there’s a thought. [I couldn’t help headline the story The Becuase Effect!].

If I disregard “teh” for “the”, on the basis that many of the early hits were actually for something other than “the” misspelled, the best I could come up with was:


which yielded 6.18m hits, easily displacing “becuase”. Can you beat that? If so please go ahead and contact Feedback directly at New Scientist. Or comment here and I will do it for you.

An apology

I posed a cricket trivia question at the end of a recent post. My multitasking skills weren’t up to it.

The question should have read:

Which five cricketers have done the treble of 3000 runs, 100 wickets and 100 catches at Test level?

Apologies to those of you who’ve been trying to come up with impossible answers.

Incidentally, the one part of the question I remembered easily was the answer, which I had memorised… and then I had to reconstruct the question from that answer.

Talking about reconstructing questions from answers, there used to be a competition in the late 1960s or early 1970s, I think it was on the radio. I was still in Calcutta, so all this came to me secondhand or even further removed.

This is all I can remember. They gave you a list of everyday answers to trivia questions. You had to come up with the most original question befitting any one such answer.

The runner up was:

The answer was Dr Livingstone I Presume. The question was “What is your full name, Dr Presume?”

The winner:

The answer was Crick. The question was “What is the sound made by a Japanese camera?”

Does anyone know where I can find out more about this competition?

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