The Real Amazon Store

December 4th, 2014

John Herrmann's piece on how Amazon are gradually moving into making more and more – very carefully selected – categories of stuff is really good. But also deeply scary if you're a rival retailer with profit margins being bolstered by your sales of some of your less glamorous product lines:

Taken together, these products adhere to no particular aesthetic or theme – a house filled only with Amazon-brand products would look and feel like prefab model home. Again, since this is Amazon, the explanation is probably data. Not data about what people want, exactly, but data that suits Amazon's goals: these must be relatively popular and relatively expensive product categories where brand loyalty isn't too strong, and where Amazon can find cheap manufacturing partners. It's a logistics partner looking at its suppliers and saying, dozens of times, "how hard could that be?"

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Hiding from Big Data

April 28th, 2014

How One Woman Hid Her Pregnancy From Big Data:

"My story is about big data, but from the bottom up," she said. "From a very personal perspective of what it takes to avoid being collected, being tracked and being placed into databases."

[Via Extenuating Circumstances]

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Introducing O.W.L.S.

December 2nd, 2013

Introducing O.W.L.S.:

Putting O.W.L.S. into commercial use will take a number of years as it takes ages to train owls to do anything and we only just thought of it this morning.

I can but echo the first comment on that post: Well played, Waterstones. Well played…

[Via Sidelights]

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Did he say 'Uninterrupted Spasm State' or 'Uninterrupted Spam State'?

September 26th, 2013

Nicholas Carr's latest entry in his Realtime Chronicles predicts where technology will lead us once we're enmeshed in the Internet of Things:

People are forever buttonholing me on the street and saying, "Nick, what comes after realtime?" It's a good question, and I happen to know the answer: Ambient Reality. Ambient Reality is the ultimate disruption, as it alters the actual fabric of the universe. We begin living in the prenow. Things happen before they happen. "Between the desire / And the spasm," wrote T. S. Eliot, "Falls the Shadow." In Ambient Reality, the Shadow goes away. Spasm precedes desire. In fact, it's all spasm. We enter what I call Uninterrupted Spasm State, or USS.


In Ambient Reality, there is no such thing as "a shopper." Indeed, the concept of "shopping" becomes anachronistic. Goods are delivered before the urge to buy them manifests itself in the conscious mind. Demand is ambient, as are pricing comparisons. They become streams in the cloud. […]

Of course, this assumes that you have enough income to be worth providing goods and services to even before you even realise you might want them or even need them. Those with less impressive credit scores will find themselves on call 24/7, bidding every day in the hopes of landing an opportunity to spend a morning delivering the sandwiches and umbrellas to their betters.

[Zero Hours link via MetaFilter]

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In the Cloud (or not)

February 13th, 2013

Dan Hon has learned the hard way that purchases made through the iTunes Store are subject to the whims of the rights owners, with Apple acting much as Amazon did after losing the rights to publish a particular edition of 1984 three years ago:

Why you can't trust iTunes in the Cloud

At some point, it looks like Apple lost the rights to distribute Anchorman. Unfortunately, this happens all the time because the movie industry is shitty and doesn't care at all about what you, the person who wants to watch movies, does. What the movie industry cares about is maximising its profit, and that means release windows. This is why Netflix gets things for a while and then they disappear and then they (maybe) come back. And yes, I realise that sale windows are different from VOD/streaming windows. But the general idea is this:

Studio sale windows trump iTunes in the Cloud.

The business of Apple removing the sale of the item from your Purchase History if they no longer hold the rights to offer it for sale/download is a bit unfortunate. I don't doubt that it grants itself permission to do so somewhere in the dozens of pages of terms & conditions that you're required to claim you've read and understood when setting up an iTunes account on a device, but it's still not good: Apple shouldn't be making retrospective alterations to records of purchases like that.

Basically, a purchase isn't a purchase when it's made online, and we shouldn't ever forget it.

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It's all about ventilation

January 3rd, 2012

When Paul Rosenblatt answers the phone, he says "Bananas!", or, All you ever wanted to know about the science of making bananas ripen at the right time in the right place, on an industrial scale. Fascinating stuff.

[Via Pruned]

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Receipt v2.0

June 2nd, 2011

BERG have been rethinking the receipt.

It's along the same lines as their ideas about rethinking what you could do with a train ticket, but a little less useful IMHO.

But perhaps that's just because the last thing I want to see printed in large, bold letters on my receipt is the percentage of my Recommended Daily Allowance of calories that will be accounted for by the sticky bun and sugary drink that I've just bought.1

  1. Which, some would say, is exactly why that figure should be on there in large, bold letters.

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The SpyTunes Saga

February 21st, 2011

Andrew McAfee has found a hole in the iTunes Store privacy model: if you try to gift music (or an App, or a Tv programme or film) to an iTunes Store user, iTunes warns you if the user already has that item.

This snooping process is iterative and cumbersome, but I'm pretty sure it could be at least somewhat automated. It's also a little fluky; to learn what I have, [the snooper] has to gift media to me in the same form I bought it. For example, if he sent me only a single episode of "Breaking Bad" season 3 iTunes wouldn't send him a message like the one above. This is because I bought the whole season at once, so [the snooper] has to gift me the whole season to learn about my purchase. Similar rules appear to hold for music.

Even though [the snooper] has to work a bit, I'm not thrilled that he (or anyone else) can so easily learn about my media purchases and tastes. If I want to share my iTunes holdings with my friends or broadcast them to the world Apple gives me tools to do so, but if I want to keep them private I can't.

McAfee says that Amazon handles this sort of problem differently; it simply converts duplicate items to store credit, informing the recipient of the duplicate items but not the gift-giver, and suggests that Apple would do well to adopt this approach. My online gift-giving is usually selected from users' wishlists so I've never encountered this problem in the wild, but if I were giving a gift I think I'd prefer to be given the chance to choose a different item rather than have my gift silently converted to an impersonal store credit: if I'd wanted to give an iTunes Store credit I'd have chosen that option. However, I can see that both approaches have their merits.1

My feeling about this is that whilst it's technically a privacy breach, it's not a terribly scary one. The would-be snooper needs to:

  1. Guess the email address I use with my iTunes Store account.2
  2. Guess what music/apps/ebooks etc I might own and whether I bought them as individual items or as part of an album/season purchase.3
  3. Automate this process so that Apple won't notice that some rabid fan of mine has made X attempts to gift me Y different tracks/apps/ebooks without ever going through with a purchase and throttle or block their access.

Having successfully negotiated those hurdles, the snoop is now in possession of … a listing of a small portion of the contents of my iTunes Library. Given that I display ample evidence of my taste in music on the internet for the whole world to see as a matter of course, you'll understand if I'm not terribly worried by this potential attack vector.

That being said, I do take the point that users who wish to keep their music choices to themselves should have the ability to do just that: Apple should probably get right on it.4

[Via Risks Digest]

  1. Perhaps iTunes Store users should be allowed to specify in their account settings whether gift-givers should be warned of duplicates.
  2. Admittedly not everyone sets up a distinct email address to use just for iTunes, so this could be straightforward in some cases where the snooper already has your email address.
  3. Which raises another question: what if I have a track that I ripped from a CD in MP3 format and the potential snooper tries to gift me the iTunes Store version of that track in AAC/m4a format. Does iTunes recognise that it's the same track despite the format difference?
  4. Interestingly, McAfee points out that in the US it an offence to give out details of an individual's video rental/purchase history and suggests that if the iTunes Store makes it possible to find out what films a user has purchased this might leave the firm open to legal action. That sounds more like the sort of motivation Apple will need to close this hole.

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Beware The Knife

August 4th, 2010

It turns out that if you look closely enough at trading patterns on the world's stock exchanges, interesting patterns emerge:

Mysterious and possibly nefarious trading algorithms are operating every minute of every day in the nation's stock exchanges.

What they do doesn't show up in Google Finance, let alone in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. No one really knows how they operate or why. But over the past few weeks, Nanex, a data services firm has dragged some of the odder algorithm specimens into the light.


In fact, it's hard to figure out exactly what they're up to or gauge their impact. Are they doing something illicit? If so, what? Or do the patterns emerge spontaneously, a kind of mechanical accident? If so, why? No matter what the answers to these questions turn out to be, we're witnessing a market phenomenon that is not easily explained. And it's really bizarre. […]

I reckon it's Skynet, flexing its muscles.

[Via Snarkmarket]

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A no-win situation. (Or, why fan pages for multinational corporations are a terrible idea.)

March 28th, 2010

Sometimes the sight of multinational corporation embracing social media ain't pretty. In the midst of a discussion about a controversy over the environmental practices of some of Nestle's suppliers, a company spokesperson told posters to the company's Facebook page not to use amended versions of the company's logo as their profile picture on the company's page, on pain of having the offending icons deleted:

Paul Griffin: Not sure you're going to win friends in the social media space with this sort of dogmatic approach. I understand that you're on your back-foot due to various issues not excluding Palm Oil but Social Media is about embracing your market, engaging and having a conversation rather than preaching! Read and rethink!

Nestle: Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it's our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus.

"Consider yourself embraced." Someone give that spokesbot a pay rise.

[Via The Browser]

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You're gonna have to answer to Steve Jobs…

February 10th, 2010

The terms & conditions for using iTunes include a boilerplate clause1 barring persons in embargoed countries, or who are on various US government lists, from downloading and installing iTunes, or using that software for "any purposes prohibited by United States law." Or, to put it another way:

[All] the Al-Qaeda operatives holed up in the Northwest Frontier Provinces of Pakistan, dodging drone attacks while listening to Britney Spears songs downloaded with iTunes are in violation of the terms and conditions, even if they paid for the music!

[Via Bruce Schneier]

  1. Prompted, most likely, by the fact that iTunes uses encryption to protect some of the content it downloads. Since the 1970s, encryption software has been in the same class as munitions – i.e. something that shouldn't be exported to hostile powers.

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Insecure verification

February 1st, 2010

Ross Anderson on how the banks and credit card companies have pulled a fast one by pushing customers to use the 3D Secure system to 'protect' their online purchases:

Online transactions with credit cards or debit cards are increasingly verified using the 3D Secure system, which is branded as "Verified by VISA" and "MasterCard SecureCode". This is now the most widely-used single sign-on scheme ever, with over 200 million cardholders registered. It's getting hard to shop online without being forced to use it. In a paper I'm presenting today at Financial Cryptography, Steven Murdoch and I analyse 3D Secure. From the engineering point of view, it does just about everything wrong, and it's becoming a fat target for phishing. So why did it succeed in the marketplace? […]

Surprisingly enough, it's got very little to do with security and a great deal to do with shifting liability for losses onto customers.

[Via Bruce Schneier]

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December 9th, 2009

Bopaboo plans to let people sell used MP3s:

[Bopaboo…] – still in private beta – now allows you to keep the music files after someone else has purchased them, although you can sell each song only once. First, the service's spider figures out what music you have on your computer, and uploads the songs into an account. From there, you can sell your collection to the Bopaboo community at large, at prices determined by a demand-based algorithm, generally lower than what the same music costs on Amazon or iTunes.

Given that the music industry's preferred strategy is to try to get laws passed that force ISPs to monitor their users' internet traffic for unlicensed content, or at the very least to stigmatise any transmission of media files over the internet that doesn't involve buying from a reputable online store, I'd be astonished to see the major labels greet a scheme like this with any great enthusiasm.

In any case, I'm not sure I'd trust the company to keep the data collected by the service's spider about the contents of my hard disk to itself. I'm not suggesting that Bopaboo are intentionally acting as a data collection service for the music industry, but it's easy to envisage a scenario where Bopaboo – whether as a consequence of doing really well, or of failing to make a go of their original business plan – ended up wholly or partly owned by a conglomerate with media interests1 and all that lovely data about the contents of users' hard disks, tied to details of their user account2 being combed for unlicensed files, false positives and all. Then the lawyers' letters start arriving, offering you the choice between paying compensation and going to court, where you can spend even larger sums on lawyers…

Or am I just being paranoid?3

[Via The Browser]

  1. Think starting out as an independent company and ending up owned by CBS.
  2. Including bank or credit card details that can be linked to a real person.
  3. Can you be too paranoid about the music industry?

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This never happened to Billy Ray Valentine

December 2nd, 2009

If this story of a futures trade gone awry isn't true, it damn well should be:

As the senior trader at ̠xecor, Brad made it very clear that no one Р"not even His Holiness, the Pope" Рshall question his trades. After all, Brad makes complex trading decisions that no one else could possibly comprehend. Sometimes he buys high and sells low. Sometimes he holds in a decline. Sometimes he refuses to sell at any price. Brad works in mysterious ways, and if he said "do it", then it better get done.

Just this once, it might have been better if it hadn't got done.

Fun as it is to poke fun at a Master of the Universe when he comes a cropper, this particular foul-up isn't really down to Brad at all. It's a reminder of the importance of the Robustness Principle, as expressed by the late Jon Postel in RFC 793: "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others."

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Sources of subsidy

November 28th, 2009

Jay Rosen has a few thoughts about funding journalism:

I was asked to speak recently at a conference organized by Yale University with the title "Journalism & The New Media Ecology: Who Will Pay The Messenger?" This irritated me. The question should have been "who will subsidize news production?" because news production has always been subsidized by someone or something. Very rarely have users paid directly the costs of editorial production. […]

Rosen goes on to list a total of 19 sources of subsidy. There's no single source of funding that'll fix the problems of the newspaper business – not that those problems are entirely financial in nature anyway – but there are a lot of ideas out there that need to be tested to destruction, preferably before we resort to item #1 of Rosen's list.1

[Via Memex 1.1]

  1. Government subsidy.

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Treasure Hunt Riots

November 28th, 2009

Paul Slade relates the fascinating story of London's Treasure Hunt Riots:

Thomas Wright, a West London barrister, came home from his Lincoln's Inn chambers one evening in January 1904 to find a mob of treasure hunters wrecking his front garden. One of them had already dug down to the base of the garden railings and was busy trying to dislodge them to see if a £50 medallion had been buried beneath. Glancing up and down Westbourne Terrace, Wright could see that many of his neighbours' gardens had been invaded too. This had been going on for four days. […]

[Via Kevan Davis]

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"Of course, you realize this means war."

November 19th, 2009

Context is for the weak:

Repent Harlequin Said the Ticked Off Band

(Post title borrowed from this comment earlier in that same discussion.)

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June 19th, 2009

Probably the worst Father's Day promotion in the history of retailing:

High street chain WH Smith apologised today after promoting a book on cellar rapist Josef Fritzl as a Father's Day gift.

Shoppers at the Lewisham branch were shocked to see a non-fiction book on the Austrian, who kept his daughter captive for 24 years, in a "Top 50 Books for Dad" display.

[Via Prog Gold]

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Customer service

February 14th, 2009

There's good customer service, and then there's Daniel Fleisch:

Many authors would claim to be committed to their readers, but academic Daniel Fleisch has gone that extra mile and then some. The scientific writer, it has emerged, flew more than 900km on Christmas Day to hand deliver his book to a customer who had posted a negative review on Amazon complaining that he'd been sold a flawed copy. […]

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Opening Times

February 11th, 2009

Opening Times takes your UK postcode or town name and tells you the times local shops are open. In my neck of the woods this amounts to listing the opening hours for local branches of some1 national supermarket chains, but perhaps that's a just a feature of my locale retail landscape.

It would be good if the site covered more stores, though I appreciate that this is a really difficult problem given that it's probably really difficult to gather all that information; when I was looking at various retailers' web sites over Xmas trying to work out when they'd be open over the holiday season I found wide variations between chains, with some giving detailed opening hours for every branch and others not listing any variations on their normal opening hours. I think this is the sort of site that is better done locally, perhaps with information collated and published by a local council or newspaper or chamber of commerce.

I'll be interested to see how the site deals with public holidays; I don't have trouble remembering what time the various nearby supermarkets are open on weekdays and weekends, but I nearly always manage to misremember which ones are open at any given point over a Bank Holiday weekend. If come Easter weekend Opening Times tells me correct opening hours for the local Tesco and Morrisons supermarkets then it'll be somewhat useful.2

[Via Kevan Davis]

  1. Not all – for example, there's a Co-op supermarket in North Shields town centre that it doesn't pick up.
  2. In fairness, the site's creator mentions that he's aware of the issue of variations in opening hours. Whether he can get the requisite information to update the site in plenty of time is a whole different question.

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