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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