Monthly Archives: October 2010

Barriers to knowledge

We all know and love Wikipedia. It’s grown from something of an experiment to an impressive collection of human knowledge. And it has matured. We know that the wrongly hailed ‘wisdom of the crowds’ is more like a ‘mooing of the herds’, thus Wikipedia had to implement a strict quality assurance framework, which on the front end works fine.

Where the philosophy of free sharing of knowledge has had to compromise is the back end. Editing code and dozens of guideline pages with hundreds of reference links create a nearly unsurmountable barrier to the simplest of tasks like uploading a picture. It’s a mine field – a small step sideways and you’re lost!

Naturally, and this is thanks to astroturfers and other nutters that turn anything mildly good on the Web into a dark place, Wikipedia entries now require approval, which can take a long time. What is more it requires solid references best of scholarly nature (i.e. academic articles or books). I’m working at a university, so this is familiar to me, but to other users this may seem alien territory. Many potential authors of entries might not even fathom the meaning of such references as they are explained in the guidelines, and are threatened by deletion.

Policies to control the quality of Wikipedia are fine, but I strongly believe that usability of guidelines is crucial to an open knowledge creation space. A wizard-style interface or a step-by-step guide without sidetracks surely isn’t impossible these days.

Best educational iPhone app

This is the most promising app for education that I have seen so far in the app store: WikiServer. The interface is crap and not well-suited for a tiny screen, but the idea is great.

WikiServer does what it says on the tin, it installs a wiki server – on your iPhone. Other people on the same WiFi network can easily connect to the same wiki and co-edit pages. This is really cool, and I can imagine lots of different (campus-based) group work activities, that would instantly enhance teaching and learning. Imagine, for example, students in a lab working on some project (at different tables), sharing their findings via such a wiki. You can also connect from a normal PC browser, so it’s also platform independent. How wonderful is that!

Shame that the interface is not geared up for a small mobile screen and big fingers, so the in-line editor is really unusable, and when the keyboard is up, you can see even less of it. These are things that should be fixed, but I guess on an iPad it already works much better.

What is friendship?

If you take the recent survey by TNS, friendship is determined by how many connections you have in social networks.

In Malaysia the average number of friends is 233, closely followed by 231 in Brazil and 217 in Norway. This contrasts to an average of just 29 friends in Japan, and 68 in China. The results could suggest “a culture that embraces fewer but closer friendships,” thinks TNS’s chief development officer Matthew Froggatt.

Forgive me, but this is pure humbug! There are many possible explanations of more or fewer online social connections, one might be fear of oppression or otherwise (few contacts), another maybe the social pressures to link to many people without a particular interest behind it (many contacts). It doesn’t say anything about the nature of friendship in any culture, only how the American marketing semantic used by Facebook blurs our vision on inter-personal connections.

It’s well-known that marketing strategists aim to hook up to as many people as possible to spread their reach. In this way, they not only corrupt the statistics given here, but also divert the purpose of social networks and of ‘friendship’ giving it the same social value as the letterbox on your door: open to postcards from friends, but mostly receiving special offers from companies.

Bluetooth – the forgotten technology

From the beginning, BT promised to be a great solution for quick ad-hoc connectivity between devices. Early on, it became available for mobile phones, mostly in support of hands-free peripherals.

Years on, and it’s not only never reached its full potential, but actually receded in possibilities to a useless battery-greedy item that is best kept switched off.

Maybe the reason for locking it down lies in the dangers of bluesnarfing, but in the new generation of smart phones it has become so restrictive and unusable that it’s not worth bothering.

Connecting two devices has developed into a lottery game. In 9 out of 10 times when trying to connect my iPhone to an iPod Touch, I ran out of patience. A slightly better ratio of approximately 8:10 applies to two Android phones.

On the cross-platform front, after dozens of menus and setting parameters, I managed to discover and pair my HTC Desire to my iPhone, only to get an error message when trying to connect (see image).

Such proprietary implementations of an otherwise near ubiquitous technology are untimely constipations in the connectivity channels we live with. It undermines an otherwise perfectly purposeful utility.

Is your phone another body organ?

I’ve used my iPhone and iPod Touch for some years now, but setting up the HTC Desire which comes with Android 2.2 has made me realise how much our phones have become another organ of our bodies without which I’d be unable to fully function in present day society. Only that this organ is externally controlled!!!

Lack of transparency (and privacy):
To make your phone slightly useful, you have to enter umpteen account details, and download some apps. Android really scares me there, because it is not transparent who will use these details and what for. Does entering your Facebook account give Google access to my stream, contacts, likes, etc? Many services are heavily intertwined. Apps often use a built-in browser that directs you to web pages, where you can share items via e.g. Facebook or Twitter with others. A pop-up appears asking for your login credentials, then the comment box shows. Hang-on, who is now getting my login details? Is the app itself not logging this, in order to remember for next time? Is it the website that I wanted to share? Is Android it reporting to Google HQ?

If this doesn’t bother you, installing new apps certainly puts me off. Even before reading this BBC article, the dialog screen giving apps a more or less blanket approval for using everything and anything on your phone made me suspicious. Apple differentiates (slightly) between the permissions an app needs. If a service does not provide location benefits, why would it need my GPS data? Not so in Android. Look at the screenshots of two rather trustworthy apps below. A lay person does not really know what’s going on. How easy would it be to bait people with a free app and nick all their data in the background? ‘Scuse me, but why would a bar code scanner need access to my address book?


Being part of the market war:
If you haven’t noticed, consumers are playballs in a massive war for market shares that rages on the Internet. Google, Facebook, Apple and co. don’t give a toss about you or me! They know we cannot escape; they know we are in social and technical bondage. They are tying us down even further, giving us no real choice: either sign your apps with your blood or throw away your phone. It is little me who gets crushed by the giants throwing rocks at each other, and I don’t like it.

In the war between Apple’s iPhone and Google and his subsidiary Android troopers, I prefer the centralistic approach of Apple, which though being restrictive, feels safer. At least it’s only one company to mistrust!